It was twenty years ago today….

Actually, it was fifty years ago.  On Sunday, Feb. 9, 1964, over 73 million Americans gathered around television sets to see what all the excitement was about. Radio’s had been playing the music and saying “The Beatles Are Coming!” The evening news on CBS and ABC even showed films of The Beatles’ wild arrival in America at New York’s Kennedy Airport.  Two days later, The Beatles made their first live appearance on American television, taking place on the country’s most popular variety program, “The Ed Sullivan Show”.

The official version of how Ed Sullivan learned about The Beatles begins on Oct. 31, 1963. On that day, Sullivan and his wife were at London’s Airport. It was an unusually busy day at the airport with the prime minister due to fly out and contestants for the Miss World contest arriving in London. Despite a heavy rainstorm that day more than 1,500 kids lined the airport rooftop. Sullivan asked what all the commotion was about.  He was told that it was for The Beatles, who were returning from a tour of Sweden. He replied, “Who the hell are The Beatles?” Although Sullivan would later say that he immediately inquired into booking The Beatles on his show, the true story is a bit more involved.

By September 1963, The Beatles were gaining popularity in the British press. Their big break in England was a well-publicized television appearance on “Val Parnell’s Sunday Night at the London Palladium”, the British equivalent of “The Ed Sullivan Show”. The bedlam caused by the group both inside and outside the theater caught the attention of British news editors. The Daily Mirror described the hysteria as “Beatlemania!”  The Beatle’s Palladium appearance was followed by the airport reception witnessed by Sullivan.

The next day Beatles manager Brian Epstein was headed to New York with on of his other acts, Billy J. Kramer. The primary purpose of the visit was to promote Kramer but he also wanted to find out why The Beatles hadn’t “happened” in America yet.  As he was about to leave, Brian Epstein was contacted by Ed Sullivan’s European talent coordinator Peter Prichard.  Prichard wanted to get The Beatles on “The Ed Sullivan Show” and offered to negotiate a deal.  Brian, however, said that he would rather handle the negotiations himself, Prichard told Brian, he would set up a meeting with Sullivan.

As the plane headed for New York, Prichard called Sullivan to give him a report on the Royal Variety Show and the tremendous response The Beatles had received.  He recommended that Sullivan book The Beatles for his show. Sullivan, remembering the large crowd at London Airport, was interested, but needed an angle to promote the group. Prichard told Sullivan that The Beatles were the first “long haired boys” to be invited to appear before the Queen of England. That convinced Sullivan to consider the group for his show.

Brian Epstein’s appointment book indicates he met with Ed Sullivan at his suite at the Delmonico Hotel on Monday, Nov. 11. There, the two tentatively agreed that The Beatles would appear on the Feb. 9 show live from New York.  They also agreed to an appearance the following week on a special remote show broadcast live from the Deauville Hotel in Miami Beach.

Although Sullivan usually paid up to $10,000 for a single performance, he offered Brian $3,500 for each show. He also agreed to pay the group’s transportation and lodging. Realizing the importance of having his boys on the show, Brian agreed to the deal provided The Beatles received top billing. By the time the first show aired three months later, Sullivan eagerly promoted The Beatles as the headline act.  However, Mitzi Gaynor received top billing for the second Miami Beach Show.

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