February 9 was the exact date when, 50 years ago, The Beatles appeared on The Ed Sullivan Show. Their arrival at Kennedy Airport aboard Pan Am Flight 101 to screaming crowds, their ride to the hotel and then to the studio for the earth-shattering performance they gave, all that has been documented in events and re-creations and interviews and old footage all over this country in the last few days.
Here’s my memory of this. I was a graduate student at Harvard University, studying to become an architect. Cambridge was an intellectual center of the world then, as it is today, filled with coffeehouses, mathematicians, revolutionaries, professors and philosophers. Six months earlier, The Beatles became the talk of Cambridge. Their new album on the Parlophone label had come out in London, and they had shot to the top. In one of the many record stores back then in Cambridge, I bought two copies of it, kept one, and set one aside, the other for my sister who was, at that time, a senior in East Hampton High School. This was two months before our Christmas break.
One month before Christmas 1963, Kennedy was killed in Dallas and the world went crazy. I had been fortunate to have seen him just two weeks before he died. He was attending the annual Harvard-Columbia football game, and when I took my seat in the stadium that cold day, I could see people constantly turning their heads to look about 20 rows up from where I was sitting. There he was, up from Washington, surrounded by Secret Service men, rooting for the Crimson.
That Parlophone record was in my suitcase when I hopped on a single-engine plane at the New London Airport for the 20-minute trip across Long Island Sound to the Montauk Airport.
It was a bitter, bitter cold day when I climbed onboard. I intended to surprise my sister and our parents by coming home a day early for Christmas break. I’d get out at the Montauk Airport and, using the payphone there, call the house. We lived, at that time, my sister and I and our parents, on South Fairview Avenue, just around the other side of Lake Montauk. They’d be happy to hear from me, home early.
The way to get home at that time for me was to take the two-hour train ride from Boston to New London, CT, then get a taxi out to the airport for this plane flight that cost, incredible as it might sound today, $19.95. It was always the same plane and always the same guy, Russ Corser, who was New London Air. He had this single-engine Piper Cub.
I hopped off at Montauk into this bitter wind, he took my suitcase out of the plane and set it into the snow, then he got back into the cockpit, turned the plane around and took off.
This is how Montauk was back then. The airport was this little shack. (It still is.) The shack was padlocked. The payphone was frozen. There was not a soul in sight, nothing but boarded-up houses for at least as far as I could see. I immediately realized I was in danger of freezing to death. In the end, I left the luggage by the payphone, ran across the ice-covered lake to the Montauk Coast Guard Station on Star Island, and from there, wrapped in blankets and drinking hot chocolate by a fire, was able to call my parents and tell them “surprise.”
That night, among other things, I gave the copy of the Parlophone album to my sister and told her this was a wonderful singing group that was going to be on the top of the charts soon. She looked at it, turned it over to read the back, thanked me, and, as I later found out, put it in her closet without playing it.
I do believe this requires a bit of an explanation. If Cambridge was a world of academia, politics and trends, Montauk was, well, like Kansas.
In the summer, it stirred with tourists staying at the motels. Out of season, there was really nothing. There were maybe 10 stores open in town, one of which was my dad’s drug store. We had no library in Montauk—a bookmobile came once a month and parked in the lot in front of the post office. There was no FM radio then, and we were beyond the reach of New York City stations. There were no local stations. TV was black-and-white (as it was almost everywhere) and consisted of three channels—3, 8 and 12, which were broadcast from Hartford, Providence and Bridgeport, respectively.
If the truth be told, back then, out-of-season, Montauk was, just as was East Hampton, a hotbed of clammers, farmers, car mechanics, merchants and just one bank, the good old Bridgehampton National. Downtown East Hampton had a 5 and 10, a luncheonette, a gas station on Newtown Lane across from where the Bank of America is today, and all the stores were closed on Sunday for church. And there wasn’t so much as a celebrity or a paparazzi or supermodel anywhere. Needless to say, news filtered out to Montauk and East Hampton slowly. In fact, the biggest thing that fall was about East Hampton High School. The football team had a winning season.
And that brings us back to February 9, 1964, where I was two months away from deciding to leave grad school to pursue writing rather than architecture, and my sister would be graduating. She was probably looking forward to her senior prom.
And so, they came. And they played. Myself and my two roommates on Magazine Street in Central Square in Cambridge watched The Ed Sullivan Show in our living room. My sister, with her girlfriend Peggy Dickinson, watched The Ed Sullivan Show either at her house or ours—the two houses were within upstairs-bedroom-hailing distance from each other, and the girls did that a lot.
And now my sister was on the phone, breathlessly telling me of this new sensation called “The Beatles” and the incredible totally new music that they had brought to our shores.
“Dan, you have GOT to hear them,” she shouted to me.
“I know about them. Do you remember that record album I gave you at Christmas?”
“Yeah? What about it?”
“That album?” (Pause). “That’s The Beatles???”
“EEEAAAAHHHHHH!!!!” she screamed.
When she got done, I added something. “And that album, that’s not Capitol Records, their new label. That’s Parlophone. The British label. It’s going to be worth a lot of money someday.”
“That’s Parlophone??? Parlophone???”
And that’s my memory of The Beatles coming to America and turning the music world upside down.