A look back at the Beatles in Philly

Posted: February 11, 2014

In 1964, social media in Philadelphia consisted of "Hey, how you doin'?" Most families lived in a house with one telephone, mplaybe two, making it easier for parents to eavesdrop on their kids' conversations or, more likely, to bellow, "Get off the phone! I'm expecting a call."

There was no World Wide Web, no Facebook, no YouTube, no Skype, no communications technology more powerful than prime-time network television to get America's attention. And the most powerful hour of TV was wielded by Ed Sullivan.

Never heard of him? Go Google.

The lanky, awkward-gesturing Sullivan looked like Frank Gorshin doing an impression of Richard Nixon. Sullivan was the impresario and host of a TV variety show that everybody watched. And I mean everybody.

Mom, dad, kids, teenagers, Crazy Uncle Chooch, Sister Anne Miriam, everybody watched The Ed Sullivan Show on Sunday nights. There is nothing to compare the scope of that show's reach today. On Feb. 9, 1964, Sullivan introduced America to an English pop band with funny haircuts and an even funnier name, the Beatles.

Who could imagine then that such a middle-of-the-road TV entertainment moment would be celebrated 50 years later as a turning point, a sea change, a beacon in a lighthouse from the future shining on what was about to happen to pop music and youth culture during the next decade?

Hyski knew. At least he had a hunch.

Hyski is short for Hyski O'Roonie McVoutie O'Zoot, which was the self-anointed scat rap riff name made famous by legendary Philadelphia rock-and-roll DJ Hy Lit, who died seven years ago at the age of 73. "You know Hy, he don't lie," he'd conspire through the microphone with his listeners on Wibbage (WIBG-AM). "Except now and then, between 6 and 10."

Just as there is no one like Ed Sullivan on TV today, there has been no one like Hyman Aaron Lit on Philadelphia radio since his ultimate smooth-talking hipster emergence in the late 1950s.

"Hy Lit's 6 to 10 p.m. shift on WIBG once earned an astounding 71 percent of the radio audience," Richard Corliss wrote in Time magazine. "Those are, I dunno, dictator numbers - about 10 times what the highest-rated show in any market can pull today."

The Beatles' appearance on Ed Sullivan drew 73 million viewers, a record 45 percent of all TV viewers in America. Before the Fab Four had flown back home across the pond, Hy Lit had booked them for what turned out to be the first of only two concerts given by the Beatles in Philadelphia, on Sept. 2, 1964. (The second was at JFK Stadium in August 1966.) The '64 date was a Wednesday.

Hy Lit paid $25,000 to the William Morris Agency, which represented the Beatles, for the midweek concert at the Convention Hall (the old Civic Center near Franklin Field). Ticket prices zoomed from $2.50 when the concert was announced in May to $5.50 in September. Imagine.

Despite a sellout crowd of 12,087, Lit lost money on the Beatles - about $5,000 - because so many high-ranking city officials expected free tickets for their children, including, ahem, Frank Rizzo, then a police captain. (How do I know all this? In his final years, I spent at least one day a week interviewing Hy for a biography I gave the working title Tuesdays With Hyski.)

When Paul McCartney met the concert promoter for the first time, he asked, "What's a Hy Lit?"

By the beginning of September 1964, Philadelphia was a city divided by joy and fear. All summer long, the Phillies had led the National League and looked to be cruising toward the team's first World Series appearance since 1950.

But in late August, a routine police stop on Columbia Avenue provoked three days of lawlessness and racial violence in North Philadelphia that resulted in no deaths but left 341 injured, 774 arrested, and 225 properties damaged or destroyed.

Security precautions for the Beatles' arrival were expansive and ingenious. They were coming from a concert in Atlantic City. Thousands of fans lined the route to Philadelphia along the Black Horse Pike. Thousands more staked out key locations near Center City hotels and the Convention Hall.

Hy said what happened next was Rizzo's idea. Half a dozen decoy limousines were dispatched from the Beatles' Atlantic City hotel, and the guests of honor were spirited out of town unnoticed in the back of a Hackney's Seafood Restaurant truck equipped with four cots and an easy chair.

"All they asked for was a place to sleep," Hy said.

The plan worked to perfection. The decoy limos attracted the fans, and the mackerel-crowded fish truck full of snoozing mop tops arrived unmolested.

"Wake up, sleepy heads," Hy announced when he opened the back doors. "It's showtime."

And didn't the Beatles put on a show. Opened with "Twist and Shout," followed by "All My Loving," "Roll Over Beethoven," "Can't Buy Me Love," "I Want to Hold Your Hand," "A Hard Day's Night," and "Long Tall Sally." Twelve songs in all.

Couldn't hear a word of any of them because of all the girls screaming (including my then-13-year-old future wife, who says the noise hurt her ears). By noise I mean whining, supersonic-jet loud. There's video available of the '64 concert online. The audio sounds like the deck of an aircraft carrier during an invasion launch.

Philadelphia was the 10th of a monthlong tour of 23 American cities. On Sept. 21, the Beatles left for England, the same day Chico Ruiz of the Cincinnati Reds stole home and the Phillies lost the first of 10 straight games that cost us the pennant and broke our hearts forever.

Personally, I hold the Beatles responsible. But maybe that's me.

Clark DeLeon's column appears regularly in Currents. deleonc88@aol.com

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