On the afternoon of Feb. 7, 1964, John Lennon, Paul McCartney, George Harrison and Ringo Starr stepped off a Boeing 707 from Heathrow Airport at the recently named JFK International Airport to thousands of screaming fans, mostly teenage girls, and hundreds of journalists, kicking off a Beatles frenzy that would sweep the country and still influences popular music to this day.
Two days later on Feb. 9, 73 million people tuned into The Ed Sullivan Show to witness the band’s first appearance on American television—a record for U.S. television viewership at the time.
On Friday, dozens of fans joined Port Authority officials, state legislators and other Fab Four-related entourage at the airport’s newly restored TWA Flight Center in a colorful, moving tribute commemorating the 50th anniversary of the band’s invasion of America and birth of Beatlemania.
Fans squealed and shouted in glee, dancing and holding handmade signs with messages ranging from “I Love You Paul” to “Beatles 4 Ever.” The Cavern Club Beatles, a tribute band with a residency at the famous Liverpool venue where the Beatles first gained popularity and were spotted by manager Brian Epstein—dressed in the same black and white suit and ties the original Fab Four wore upon their arrival half a century earlier—posed alongside a life-sized mural of the mop-tops. The terminal erupted into several lengthy bursts of laughter, screams and song as nearly everyone in attendance sang along to “Hello, Goodbye” pumped through the building’s sound system and a slew of Beatles hits performed live by tribute band Liverpool, from “Please Please Me” to “I Saw Her Standing There.”
One of those fans, Pat Tyson—formerly of Bayport; currently residing in California—said she watched the bowl-cut musicians’ famous appearance on The Ed Sullivan Show from her television at home as a little girl.
“I remember a lot of screaming,” she smiled, clenching a sign with miniature faces of her heroes declaring “I’m A Beatles Fan” and a shopping bag that read “It’s All About George.”
It took Jim Gavigan of Whitestone, Queens, who was singing along nearby, both arms to display his sign—a massive blown-up poster of the Beatles’ second album, Meet the Beatles. The 63-year-old said he first got into the group after winning a Beatles sweatshirt from a radio station when he was 13 and eventually saw their Aug. 15, 1965 performance at Shea Stadium.
“It was amazing,” he told the Press, explaining that the band delivered a welcome sense of joy to a nation still mourning the Nov. 22, 1963 assassination of President John F. Kennedy. “We just went through a series of sadness, and it was just this feeling of happiness.”
The celebration culminated in Port Authority Executive Director Pat Foye unveiling a marker commemorating the band’s arrival at the airport that will be permanently installed at the center.
“Isn’t this great?” he asked the charged crowd before remarking “Give it up for the Beatles!” to loud applause and cheers.
“To be a music fan is to be a Beatles fan,” proclaimed Port Authority Deputy Executive Director Deb Gramiccioni, who told the audience she remembered watching the Beatles perform on The Ed Sullivan Show on Feb. 9, 1964 as a little girl, too. “This is a fitting place for a tribute to the Beatles and their music.”
The Port Authority officials reminded the crowd of the significance of JFK as a gateway to America which has welcomed tens of millions of travelers from across the globe—50 million just in 2013, said Foye, who gave a “big shout out” to the Port Authority police who had their hands full 50 years ago coping with the fans but did a great job getting the boys through the airport so they could get to their hotel in Manhattan. He added that the airport had been renamed after the president 90 days before the group landed and that the Beatles had given their first press conference in the Pan Am building, which was since torn down. Foye also stressed the painstaking restoration of the TWA Flight Center terminal, saying it will have a new use and tenant that will be announced soon.
“Wherever you call home, whenever you walk by you will be reminded of something special,” smiled Gramiccioni.
“Wow,” sighed a beaming Lord Mayor Councillor Gary Millar, the current mayor of Liverpool, who wore a large medallion around his neck—the key to the English port city—and giddily didn’t stop smiling the duration of the event. “Welcome to a bit of Liverpool—the best city in the United Kingdom.”
“I think you need to come,” he laughed. “I think you need to forget about London.”
His favorite Beatles song? “Norwegian Wood,” he told the Press.
Jillian Kellogg, a former attendant on the Beatles’ famous Pan Am Flight 101 and former Montauk resident, said there was no singular moment of the historic trip to America that sticks out more in her mind than another, but that rather, “the whole flight was memorable.”
It was the first flight as a stewardess for the then-24-year-old.
“Nobody was rowdy,” Kellogg recalled, adding that she didn’t even know she was flying with the band in first-class until she joined the crew bus that morning. “I didn’t know who they were!” she remarked. “I was new!”
“I served them,” she said. “They were nice passengers.”
Her favorite Beatle? “Paul,” she grinned.
Also in attendance was Billy J. Kramer, a singer whose 1963 number-one hit “Bad To Me” was written specifically for him by John Lennon; he was also managed by legendary Beatles manager Brian Epstein.
“[This] brings back a lot of memories,” he told the Press, recalling earlier sessions with Lennon and the band. “I recorded seven of their songs.”
Kramer was just one of many artists performing Sunday, Feb. 9 as part of a three-day long “The Fest For Beatles Fans,” presented by New York rock station Q104.3 and now in its 40th year, on the 50th anniversary of the Beatles’ historic appearance on The Ed Sullivan Show. Other esteemed acts set to perform as part of the celebration include Donovan, Peter Ascher, Chad & Jeremy, The Smithereens, Birds of Paradox, The Nutopians and Mark Rivera, Ringo Starr’s current musical director.
That first Ed Sullivan Show appearance included performances of “All My Loving,” “Till There Was You,” She Loves You,” “I Saw Her Standing There” and “I Want to Hold Your Hand.” It was complete pandemonium throughout the show, with the music sometimes drowned out by the near-deafening screams of teenage girls.
The marquee of the Ed Sullivan Theater at W. 53rd and Broadway has been set up to duplicate that of the night of that historic gig in tribute to its anniversary.
Q104.3 DJ Ken Dashow, host of the popular radio show “Breakfast With The Beatles,” was also on hand at the Beatles TWA Flight Center marker unveiling. Asked if he thought John Lennon would have expressed his trademark cynicism about the anniversary ceremony, Dashow remarked: “He would have pretended to be cynical but he would have loved it!”
“Their music will always be cool,” he said, noting that 50 percent of his listenership were teenagers and younger. “Their message ‘All You Need Is Love’ will always be cool.”
“They changed the game,” continued Dashow, adding that the band’s music appeal has reached across at least three generations.
John Lennon’s sister Julia Baird, also present at the JFK celebration—who was named after their mother and is the current director at The Cavern Club—agreed, telling the Press her brother would “be honored.”