Beatles' inaugural appearance on American TV a once-in-a-lifetime thrill

THE BELLINGHAM HERALDFebruary 9, 2014 

More than 112 million people watched the Seattle Seahawks trounce that other team in the Super Bowl. That's equal to 35 percent of the U.S. population, and made the Seahawks' victory the most-watched TV show in U.S. history.

While those numbers, are impressive, they aren't surprising. The Super Bowl dominates American television the way Seattle dominated Denver. Besides, the game culminated a full NFL slate of regular season games, followed by a relentless, two-week media buildup to the championship blowout.

Now, imagine a TV event that attracts an even larger slice of the country, but isn't the climax to months and months of preliminary rounds and, by its nature, appeals to a narrow demographic of young people.

That event was the Beatles' first live appearance on American television.

It was 50 years ago today ... on Feb. 9, 1964 ... when the Beatles walked onto the stage of "The Ed Sullivan Show" and sang, in order, "All My Loving," "Till There Was You," "She Loves You," "I Saw Her Standing There" and "I Want to Hold Your Hand."

The Sunday evening show attracted 73 million viewers, equal to 38 percent of the U.S. population then. The same way that people sadly remember where they were 10 weeks earlier when President Kennedy was shot in Dallas, many people happily remember where they were (most likely at home or a friend's house) when Sullivan announced, "Ladies and gentlemen, The Beatles! Let's bring them on."

Both events drew huge TV audiences, but the similarities pretty much end there.

Seattle, Bellingham and other parts of the Northwest will always hold this year's championship team close to its collective heart, but the Seahawks' victory means far less to the rest of the country, and the important question now is already "can they win next year?"

The Beatles' legacy runs deeper and wider. They energized and changed their times as well as the music industry. People dressed, acted and thought differently because of the Beatles, while performers learned new things from them about studio production, music videos, stadium concerts, concept albums, and creativity.

People old enough to remember watching the Beatles on Ed Sullivan know it was a unique, magical moment, if only because today's technology has virtually eliminated the element of uncorked enthusiasm that greeted the Beatles.

True, the Beatles had a number one hit in the U.S. ("I Want to Hold Your Hand") before they appeared on Ed Sullivan, but there were only three nationwide TV networks at the time, so the frenetic excitement that went by the name "Beatlemania" remained at fever pitch leading up to their appearance. A sense of mystery about the Beatles remained, one that could only be satisfied by seeing them live or on TV.

These days, popular acts still draw large crowds, but it's hard to imagine a breakthrough group sneaking up on the world. Twitter, YouTube and other digital media make it much easier for people to spread the word from the get-go.

Fans today can participate in that splintered early attention, but when it comes to a shared discovery on a broad scale, technology won't let it be.

Reach Dean Kahn at 360-715-229 or dean.kahn@bellinghamherald.com .

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