By Ron Simon
The Beatles rocked our media landscape in February 1964 when more than seventy-three million people tuned into The Ed Sullivan Show on Sunday, February 9, 1964, for their debut American appearance. The question that has been haunted culture watchers ever since is: why did so many people watch this relatively unknown British band one Sunday night fifty years ago?
The dominant reason that you hear over and over again was that the Beatles offered psychic relief from the horrific assassination of President Kennedy eleven weeks earlier. Beatles musicologist Ian MacDonald set the tone for most contemporary commentary by stating that the group’s pervasive hit at the time, “I Want to Hold Your Hand” had a “joyous energy [that] lifted America out of its gloom.” On Sunday, January 26, 2014, the lead story for CBS Sunday Morning emphasized the nation was in a “collective depression.” America has been variously described in early 1964 as deeply wounded, in mourning, in fear, and in total disbelief, subconsciously longing or the fun that the only Fab Four could deliver.
For years baby boomers have anecdotally agreed or refuted this connection between the JFK assassination and Beatlemania. Jack Hamilton recently wrote a lively column for Slate questioning whether Camelot’s demise made possible Liverpool’s ascent. But most of the arguments against this historical link have been personal. If you look at what was on television in January 1964, you will find a very different story. Especially when you discover what show’s ratings the Beatles appearance smashed...
Using clips from the Paley Center collection, I detect few signs of doom and gloom in the TV that the country enjoyed just before the Beatles arrived. In fact, I see an optimism and openness to new forms of entertainment. Let’s look closely at a few pivotal examples.
JFK Did Not Kill Irony
On January 10, 1964 a new form of political satire was launched with the debut of That Was The Week That Was. This show was a sophisticated takedown of the political scene, smart and witty. With cabaret flair TW3, as it was called, made delicious fun of all political ideology. And, of course, there is a Richard Nixon joke in the opening minutes. This series paved the way for many shows to come, including Saturday Night Live and The Daily Show. Two contributors, Buck Henry and Herb Sargent (who helped to create Weekend Update), played crucial roles during the early days of SNL. Take a look at the first few minutes of the premiere.
Vaudeville, Not Dead Yet
Hollywood Palace, debuting January 4th, was a lavish celebration of America’s entertainment tradition. The show featured performers with especially vaudeville roots, including Fred Astaire, Judy Garland, Bing Crosby, Frank Sinatra, Count Basie, and many others. It was more than a nostalgic look back; it made available a great arts legacy to a new generation of viewers; in many ways Hollywood Palace was the first effort to preserve the Great American Songbook. Instead of living in the shock of the present, America was given the opportunity to experience its rich history of performance. Here is the opening where Bing Crosby explains the mission of the Palace.
The Beverly Hillbillies: Ratings King
No show in the history of television ever dominated the ratings for three months like The Beverly Hillbillies did from January-March 1964. The ratings were absolutely insane, proving that most of the nation was looking to laugh. The slapstick comedy of those simple hillbillies confronting the lavish materialism of Los Angeles debuted in September 1962 to very good ratings; it was the number one series in 1962 and 1963. But on January 8, the episode “The Giant Jackrabbit” went through the roof, establishing the ratings record that the Beatles would top a month later. The Beverly Hillbillies rating was so ridiculously high, that it remains in the top forty of most-watched TV shows EVER.
And in fact, the Beatles other two appearances on Sullivan did not rate as high as well as this zany episode where Granny’s sanity is questioned with Sharon Tate making a guest appearance.
The Beatles Are Seen in Prime Time January 3rd
You probably noticed that all the TV events I mentioned happened during early January, when the country seemed to be moving on. On January 3rd talk show host Jack Paar presented the first footage of the Beatles in prime time, comically commenting on their British popularity. Many have described Paar’s remarks as disparaging, but if you actually look at his routine, it is more inquisitive, an adult trying to understand a new phenomenon. He does make sexist fun of teenage girls, but you feel he has an open mind about the Beatles. Perhaps this embrace of new possibilities also characterized the many adults who later tuned into the Sullivan show.
In summary, I see no signs that America was in deep stagnant depression. Many in the country were simultaneously looking back with pleasure (Hollywood Palace), while making fun of the present (That Was the Week That Was). The Beatles presented new possibilities to a nation looking forward; signs of The Great Society were plainly visible. Certainly quite a few critics misinterpreted the Beatles, like Variety calling them derivative of the US Everly Brothers. But this was just the beginning to America’s exposure to the Beatles and their cultural revolution.
Ron Simon is a curator at The Paley Center for Media. Follow him on Twitter @RonSimonPaley
The Beatles Invasion 50-Year Celebration:
See The Fab Four on the Big Screen, Yeah, Yeah, Yeah
Saturday and Sunday, February 8 & 9, 2014
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