30 years ago tomorrow, Beatlemania hit U.S. shores

February 06, 1994|By New York Times News Service

NEW YORK -- On a cold February afternoon in 1964, Linda Plotnikoff, a lovesick 12-year-old from Sheepshead Bay, got her first glimpse of the mop-topped men of her dreams. She had been standing for hours outside the Plaza Hotel, clutching a record album and eagerly waiting for the opportunity to be transformed into a shaking, sobbing mess.

And then, suddenly, in a window high in the hotel, the curtains parted. The Beatles were looking down at the crowd! Pandemonium in the streets! Dozens of police officers had to restrain the hundreds of John-Paul-George-and-Ringo-crazed teen-age girls who tried to rush the doors of the hotel to get to their idols.

"They came to the window," recalled Linda Plotnikoff, now Linda Reig, 42, of Cooper City, Fla. "We were screaming and screaming. Just screaming and singing: 'We love the Beatles!' I was dying for anything, screaming, singing, just dying for anything from them. I just wanted to, like, touch them and say hello to Paul."

Thirty years ago tomorrow, a quartet of cocky young men with thick Liverpudlian accents and long, but neatly cropped hair descended on New York City, closing streets, confounding parents, perplexing pundits and, like Frankie and Elvis before them, turning schoolgirls into jelly.

It was the Beatles' first visit to America, and neither they nor America emerged from it the same. Their two-week trip was a whirlwind of hype and hysteria, a tribute to the appeal of the Mersey beat and the wonders of modern press agentry.

The Beatles, it seems, made their mark on all who came into contact with them. From the teen-agers who longed to touch them, to the bartenders who served them drinks, to the comics on "The Ed Sullivan Show" whose burden it was to follow them, everyone has stories about that tumultuous week in New York.

"Every door, every alley, all over the kitchen, there was security," said George Papadakis, a bartender then and now at the Plaza, who so vividly remembers his encounter with the Beatles he can rattle off the drinks he served: Scotch and ginger ale for John, Scotch and Coke for Ringo. "I'd never heard of Scotch and Coke before."

The visit had such a lasting effect on American pop culture that the tape of the Beatles' first appearance on "The Ed Sullivan Show" on Feb. 9, 1964, is one of the most frequently requested in the 60,000-program collection of the Museum of Television and Radio in Manhattan.

"It was tremendously significant," said Ron Simon, the museum's curator for television. "The whole idea of the cross-cultural phenomenon, the whole idea of Beatlemania, it all came together here."

The frenzy started the moment the Beatles arrived on Feb. 7 at Kennedy International Airport on a Pan Am flight from London and did not let up until they departed for Washington on the 11th.

Bruce Morrow, who as Cousin Brucie was then a disc jockey on WABC and now has a show on WCBS-FM, recalls watching a group of young girls at one stop fling themselves at a cigarette butt that Paul McCartney had flicked into the gutter. "Two kids came up with the cigarette, smiling and bleeding," he said.

Joseph Szorentini, a doorman at the hotel for 46 years who was on duty the week the Beatles came to town, said, "I think it was the wildest thing that ever happened at the Plaza."

Standing at his post on Central Park South last week, he pointed to a subway entrance across the street from the hotel: to avoid the teen-agers who were maintaining a virtual round-the-clock vigil on the Fifth Avenue side of the hotel, he explained, the Beatles were escorted out of the Plaza through an underground tunnel that led to the subway entrance and a waiting limousine.

Sid Bernstein, the promoter who booked the Beatles into Carnegie Hall during that first tour, said the concert-hall booker was taken aback when she heard the group's music.

"She said to me after the concert, 'Bernstein, when you said they were four young men, I thought they were a string ensemble.' "

Some of the newspaper coverage of the visit reflected an older generation's bemused dismissiveness. The New York Times' television critic, Jack Gould, for example, compared the Beatles' hairstyles to "the square hairdo used every morning on television by Captain Kangaroo."

Ray Block, the musical director for "The Ed Sullivan Show," was equally unimpressed. "The only thing that's different is the hair, as far as I can see," he told a reporter. "I give them a year."

Ed Sullivan, the newspaper columnist who was host of the nation's most popular television variety show, was said by some to have been unable to grasp the nature of the group's extraordinary popularity. But he was one of the first to recognize their potential for television.

Walter Cronkite, then anchorman of the "CBS Evening News," said that some months before the visit he received a call from Mr. Sullivan, a CBS colleague, after the news show broadcast a )) piece about the group.

"The minute I was off the air, Ed was on the phone: 'How do I get a hold of those people? What do you know about them?' " Mr. Cronkite said. "I told him everything I knew, which was very little. I said, 'Get in touch with our London bureau.' The next thing I knew, they were booked for America."

An estimated 73 million viewers tuned into Mr. Sullivan's show that Sunday night.

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