Memories from those who were there for the Beatles' debut on 'Ed Sullivan' 50 years ago

The Associated Press

FILE - In this Feb. 9, 1964 file photo, The Beatles, from left, Paul McCartney, George Harrison, Ringo Starr on drums, and John Lennon perform on the CBS "Ed Sullivan Show" in New York. The Beatles made their first appearance on "The Ed Sullivan Show," America's must-see weekly variety show, on Sunday, Feb. 9, 1964. And officially kicked off Beatlemania. (AP Photo, File)

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By The Associated Press

It was 50 years ago today (almost) that this mop-topped band began to play (in America).

The Beatles made their first appearance on "The Ed Sullivan Show," America's must-see weekly variety show, on Sunday, Feb. 9, 1964. And officially kicked off Beatlemania on this side of the pond.

More than 70 million viewers were tuned to the program, airing live from the Manhattan studio now housing the "Late Show With David Letterman."

Here are recollections from some notable viewers and participants — including one Beatle.

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Charlie Brill and Mitzi McCall were an up-and-coming husband-and-wife comedy team that specialized in carefully crafted character sketches. They were thrilled when they landed their first appearance on "Sullivan."

Unfortunately, they were booked on that first Beatles show — slotted just before the Beatles hit the stage for their second set. Needless to say, the studio audience — packed with teenage girls — wasn't interested in watching grown-ups doing comedy.

Charlie Brill: "Mr. Sullivan called us into his dressing room after dress rehearsal. He said, 'You're doing a very sophisticated piece of business and my audience is 14-year-old girls. They won't understand it. So why don't you show me everything you have, and we'll rebuild your whole act.'"

MM: "The biggest laugh we got was when I ad-libbed, 'I was backstage and I stepped on a beetle.'"

CB: "That got a roar."

MM: "And I thought, 'Oh, boy, are we in trouble!'"

CB: "After we finished, we stood in the wings and watched, but I couldn't hear anything. The screaming from the audience was so intense that I didn't even know what the Beatles were doing."

MM: "Now I feel like it was an honor to be on that show with them, but our performance wasn't what we wanted it to be. We never look at the recording of it."

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At age 29, Vince Calandra was a rising young program coordinator on "The Ed Sullivan Show" whose many duties included, on one notable weekend, looking after four musical guests.

Fortunately, he was versatile.

"George was sick. He had a 102-degree temperature," says Calandra. "So he didn't come to the rehearsal that Saturday, and I stood in for him wearing a Beatles wig. When McCartney saw me with a guitar in my hand and a wig, he had a kind of look like, 'I'm glad you have a day job, 'cause you just don't look the part.'"

Standing just offstage for their performance that Sunday night, Calandra describes the sensation as "unnn-believable! Pannnn-demonium! You couldn't hear anything for the screaming."

The show culminated a long day at the theater, where the Beatles had arrived that morning.

"During the day, John seemed nervous, and basically sat around and doodled," Calandra says, "and kept asking for change for the Coke machine. Ringo was reading 'Green Hornet' and watching TV.

"They were all very professional, very respectful," sums up Calandra, who went on to have a long career as a producer. "They weren't like other groups that came in, whose attitude was, 'OK, let's do the "Sullivan Show" and sell a bunch of records and then on Monday morning we're all gonna go to the dealership and buy our new cars.' The Beatles really wanted this thing to work!"

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Leslie Moonves was a teenager growing up on Long Island, N.Y., with no idea that he would one day run the network he was tuned to for "Ed Sullivan."

In fact, just days before the historic broadcast, the CBS chairman and CEO had no idea whom the Beatles were.

"I remember the first time I heard the word 'Beatles,'" he recalls. "It was that Friday. I was in seventh grade and my best friend, who was really into music, said, 'You gotta watch them, they're on "The Ed Sullivan Show" on Sunday night.'

"I said, 'Really? There's a group called the Beatles?' It sounded gross.