Suburbanites recall Beatlemania's arrival 50 years ago
A half century before "viral videos," this was the moment.
Still raw from the assassination of President Kennedy 80 days earlier, 73 million Americans — more than 40 percent of all men, women and children — gathered in front of fuzzy black-and-white TVs on a Sunday night to watch The Beatles on "The Ed Sullivan Show."
"Even today, when I hear a Beatles song, I can get that same feeling as when I was 13 or 15," says Mary Dickson, 62, of Sleepy Hollow, who grew up with The Beatles. "It was exciting. It was different."
"Once The Beatles came out, we were transformed. I think that was the start of a big change," agrees Rita Bullington, 62, Dickson's friend and classmate during their youth at St. Columbkille High School on Chicago's West Side. The Beatles' arrival in the United States on Feb. 7, 1964, changed music, hairstyles, fashion and the impressionable years for a generation.
The buildup to the band's Feb. 9 TV debut began weeks earlier.
"I started seeing little stickers on doors and walls: 'The Beatles are Coming,' and I thought, 'What are the Beatles?'" Dickson remembers.
"I saw the name and asked, 'Who are the Beat-less?'" remembers Bullington. Blushing at that memory, Bullington quickly made up for her pronunciation flub in the years after first hearing The Beatles' music on the Sullivan show.
"The minute I heard it, I fell in love," says Bullington, who lives in the city and works at Quest Diagnostics in Bensenville. She remembers her family mocking the group for their mop-top hair and simple songs, but she was hooked.
"We didn't know their last names," remembers Bullington, whose quest took her to Woolworth's the next day after school. "We walked in the snow and found their albums and memorized their names: John Lennon, Paul McCartney, George Harrison and Ringo Starr. And now, who could ever forget their names?"
As a 14-year-old girl in Hoffman Estates, Donna Dickinson hadn't even heard of The Beatles before the Sullivan show. Having gotten a white angora sweater and black velvet ski pants as a birthday gift from her dad, Dickinson was just beginning to develop the skills that would lead to her career with a professional ice skating show. She was struggling to find room on the crowded ice rink at Chicago's legendary Rainbo Arena that Sunday when, "all of a sudden, everybody is leaving the ice," Dickinson remembers. Initially enjoying the space at center ice to practice spins, Dickinson grew curious and followed the crowd to a room often used for birthday parties.
"It was not just kids. It was adults and everybody," she recalls. "There was a small TV on the shelf. I happened to walk in as Paul McCartney was singing, 'Till There was You.'"
Soon, Dickinson and her best friend, Denise, decorated their rooms in Beatles' posters, bought teen magazines dedicated to the British band and relished their fandom. "We would celebrate every Beatle's birthday in our houses. We'd bake a little chocolate pan cake, give it one candle, sing 'Happy Birthday' to the birthday Beatle, all while listening to our favorite Beatles songs," remembers Dickinson, who still has the birthday pillow the girls made for Ringo and never sent.
But nothing tops the experience of seeing The Beatles perform live in Chicago.
"It was my first concert," Bullington says of The Beatles' last Chicago concert on Aug. 12, 1966, at the International Amphitheater. "I don't remember anything they sang because girls were screaming."
"We were screaming, too," says Dickson, who remembers everyone standing on the seats to catch a glimpse of the band. "I don't know if they even sang. It was just exciting being there and knowing they were close."
When The Beatles played on Aug. 20, 1965, at Comiskey Park, Dickinson, clutching her $4 ticket, arrived with her friend hours before the concert and remembers thinking, "This place is so big, it will probably be only half full." She and her friend were so dedicated to hearing the music that they vowed, "No matter what happens, we aren't going to scream."
When The Beatles took the stage, none of that mattered.
"The screams were so loud, we just started screaming, too," Dickinson says. "A girl a few rows behind us fainted and the paramedics had to bring her out."
Legendary columnist Jack Mabley, who wrote for the Daily Herald from 1988 until his retirement in 2004, introduced The Beatles at their first Chicago concert on Sept. 5, 1964.
"Girls sat transfixed with tears streaming down their cheeks. Others leapt skyward, arms outflung, loosing piercing screams," wrote Mabley, who died in 2006. "Girls buried their heads in one another's shoulders. One would look up at The Beatles and both would scream and shake in apparent agony. They fell to the floor and writhed. It was an incredible scene, an emotional jag almost beyond belief."
Bullington, who made money for the $5.50 ticket by working with Dickson in the office of Big Ben ("two pairs for $5") shoe store, remembers carrying her love of The Beatles out onto the street with other fans in front of the Astor Tower Hotel, where The Beatles stayed.
"They were opening the windows and throwing autographs. At least, I think it was them," Bullington says. A friend grabbed a piece of paper with George Harrison's name and tore off a blank corner for Rita, since George was her favorite. She married her husband, Gene, on Harrison's birthday, and still can rattle off the birthdays of all four Beatles. Her younger granddaughter, Lily, 7, likes dancing to "Here Comes the Sun," written by Harrison.
Dickinson says her grown children, Louis and Casey, both grew up listening to their mother's Beatles albums.
While the 1960s would see the war in Vietnam, the assassinations of Martin Luther King Jr. and Bobby Kennedy, violent riots and the rise of a drug culture that would ruin many lives, those early years with The Beatles were different. "Innocent," fans say. Their music set a mood.
"It makes me happy," says Dickson, who works at The Container Store in Schaumburg. "You didn't grow out of The Beatles. They'll always be a part of who I am."
"They changed my life," Bullington says. "I'm just so glad we grew up at that time."
"Girls still scream at concerts. That will always be. But none of them will reach the level of The Beatles," Dickson says. "There were so many influences then that are still here. Whenever I hear 'I Want to Hold Your Hand' I get that same feeling."
"All happy inside. It's such a feeling …" Bullington says, describing the mood while finishing the lyrics to that song she still knows by heart. Their onetime fantasies of marrying a Beatle faded long ago, and Dickson notes that her husband, Terry, might be the bigger fan these days since he always remembers to listen to the 8 to 10 a.m. Sunday "Breakfast With The Beatles" radio show hosted by Terri Hemmert on WXRT, 93.1-FM.
A photograph of Harrison taken by a friend is Bullington's only souvenir from the concert she saw. Dickson has a tiny leather locket filled with miniature black-and-white photos of The Beatles. She kept some of the paperback books she bought 50 years ago. "I looked on Amazon and it's $1.50," she says of one book she bought for 50 cents. "I guess they are pretty common."
But their memories have grown in value.
"We were ready to do something like that and establish our independence and be who we wanted to be," Dickson says, explaining how fortunate she feels to have grown up with The Beatles.
"We were 12-year-olds, like the girls today with Justin Bieber and One Direction," Bullington says. "We were really lucky because look who we got — The Beatles."
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