On this 55th anniversary of the Fab Four’s arrival in New York and their first U.S. concert in Washington, D.C. , I’m reprinting this essay, which so many readers enjoyed when it appeared a few years ago. I dedicate this piece to my late mother and our chauffeur to DC, Marcella Spigelmire, and to my fellow Baltimorean Beatlemaniacs: Francine, Christ, Gay and Debbie, and all our friends and classmates from those years who screamed, sang, and celebrated John, Paul, George and Ringo.
Beatles Night at the D.C. Coliseum
Mary Jane and I were ecstatic when Suzanne, our new friend from the past summer, said she’d get us tickets to the Beatles first American concert in Washington, D.C. Suzanne was a year old than us, the only daughter of a career officer Marine. On the white sand at Bethany Beach, she befriended us, initiating contact first with a smile and a wave of her well-manicured hand, then asking what it was we were so intently reading. Suzanne was camped out with several adults with deep Southern accents and two handsome boys, one our age and the other, a college man. Mary Jane and I were enjoying a Jane Austen/Charlotte Bronte summer, steadily making our way through the summer reading list Sister Seraphia had handed us on the last day of school. Suzanne carried much lighter reading to the beach—Seventeen, Glamour, and Vogue. She used Bain de Soileil bronzing gel instead of drugstore suntan lotion like ours. She was cooler than us, too—it was obvious that she had bleached her hair, because we could see just a hint of dark roots. We were instantly drawn to her, and closed our paperback copies of Pride and Prejudice as soon as Suzanne offered to share her fashion magazines. We pored over Vogue and Glamour. Suzanne and I smoked cigarettes behind the cottage, and the three of us persuaded all of the parents to drive us to Ocean City so we could stand under the Esskay clock at Ninth Street and the boardwalk. Once there, we tried to meet older boys, though with no success. By the time Suzanne headed back to Fairfax, Virginia with her parents, Mary Jane and I had secured her promise to stay in touch.
We both wrote to Suzanne, and in turn, received short, sweet notes on vellum note cards embossed with her initials. We made plans to meet in Washington one Sunday afternoon at a museum. We invited her to spend the weekend in Baltimore. But as Suzanne became busy with dances, dates, military balls, debutante parties and proms, Mary Jane and I fell back into our routine of studying during the week, an occasional movie or CYO dance on the weekends, and hanging out with a few friends from our all –girls high school. We knew Suzanne’s life was far more exciting than ours. Her letters told of dates with older boys, a special weekend of parties at Virginia Tech, and drinking too much beer in Georgetown bars, thanks to a phony ID she’d gotten her hands on. Mary Jane and I envied Suzanne— but from a safe distance. We were not ready for such social experimentation.
In December, Suzanne called us with astonishing news. She had four extra tickets to the Beatles concert. It would be the Fab Four’s first concert tour in the U.S., and it was nearly sold out. Mary Jane’s mother put her foot down right away. No daughter of hers was going to a concert at the old D.C. Coliseum, with 6000 screaming teenagers, and who knew if a fight might break out, or a Beatlemania stampede. And that terrible neighborhood in Northeast DC was no place for her daughter to venture into.
That’s how the four-member Mercy High Baltimore Beatle Club was born—though later we would acquire a fifth member, Debbie, who joined us at later Beatles concerts in Baltimore). I handed back a couple weeks’ allowance to my mother, who wrote a check for twelve dollars payable to Suzanne. Five days later a fat little envelope arrived, addressed to me in Suzanne’s girlish scrawl, with hearts for the dots over the letter i’s and the notation BF!—for Beatles Forever— above the return address. Chris, Gay and Francine—who went by the nickname of Houch, pronounced “Hooch,” bestowed on her by a college guy she had a crush on— quickly signed on. Money exchanged hands, and my mother agreed to drive us to and from the concert in DC and for extra measure, said the girls could spend the night at our house. I wonder what my silver haired, fifty-one year old schoolteacher mom was thinking when she agreed to all this, and whether she knew just what she was in for.
Tuesday was our early dismissal day. I bolted when the bell rang at 2:20, gathered my books from my locker, and caught the first bus home. I raced through homework, skipping algebra because I knew Chris would help me work out the problems before homeroom the next day. I shed my white blouse and dark brown wool uniform skirt, and took a long shower, carefully washing my hair. I checked my face in the bathroom mirror, looking for new blemishes. I spent a long time getting my hair just right, because I was in the process of growing it out from an elaborate backcombed style with shadow bangs. My ultimate goal was a perfect flip, like Seventeen magazine model Susan Van Wyck, everyone’s favorite. My short-term goal was to keep my hair from frizzing into a brunette halo.
It looked like we were in for a cold February drizzle. My mother made room in our station wagon, clearing out the books and papers she brought home each night from her job as an elementary school vice-principal. Chris, Houch and Gay arrived, dropped off by their fathers. Each of them carried a small overnight bag and schoolbooks for the next day. We sat in the living room, chattering away, nervous and excited, while a cold drizzle began outside. Then it started to snow—wet, sloppy, slushy snow. And then, we lost it.
“Oh, no!” we all began to wail. “Oh, oh, no!” We looked at my mother, who was gathering up her work papers and handbag, and heading for the living room closet.
“You didn’t think a little snow would keep us from driving to Washington, did you?” she said. She had called the national weather service line to find out how bad a storm was expected. “A little slush, a little cold rain,” she said. “Nothing I haven’t driven in before.” She had pulled on her ankle high stadium boots, the ones she wore to the Baltimore Colts’ home games.
We sighed and began to giggle again, wondering what time the Beatles would take the stage, what they would sing first, whether we would be close enough to see them and toss the peanuts and jelly beans we had stashed in our pocketbooks. Mom slipped into her wool coat and pulled on her good leather gloves
“Let’s go, girls, we’re off—the Beatles await.”
Our books lay in four stacks in the corner of the living room, the fat binders, Latin, history, and religion books and experimental math texts with the bright yellow covers. I stopped to look at myself the full –length mirror inside the closet door. I rubbed under one eye where my mascara had smeared. As we rushed to our station wagon, I smelled a heady mix of scents—Shalimar, Chanel No. 5, Wind Song. Mom refused to turn on the radio, the better to focus on the driving. I sat next to her and turned almost all the way around to talk with my friends. We practiced speaking in Liverpudlian accents, then in our normal way about what we always talked about—homework, the nuns who taught us—especially our favorites, Sister Frederick and Sister Augusta– boyfriends if we had them (Gay and Chris did, Houch and I were still looking), the junior prom in three months’ time, summer jobs we’d had, summer jobs we wanted.
As large wet snowflakes fell, the windshield wipers kept a steady, fast beat, My mother said nothing until she took a D.C. exit off the parkway, and then, flashlight and map in hand, I gave her directions, turn by turn. Soon we pulled up in front of the Coliseum. We were an hour early, but throngs of teenagers, mostly girls, crowded the sidewalk. Uniformed D.C. cops stood near the door.
“Meet me here as soon as the concert is over,” Mother said. “I‘ll be right here, in this very spot. Don’t go anywhere else when you come out. If you don’t see me, wait—I‘ll circle the block.”
At the time it never occurred to me to ask her where she would wait while we were screaming and jumping up and down in our seats with thousands of girls just like us. We walked into the old arena. I glanced back at the spot where my mother had dropped us off. The blue and white Chevy wagon was gone, and a yellow taxicab stood in its place. Slushy water seeped into my good black suede flats. I pulled Gay by the hand into the lobby of the coliseum, and Houch and Chris followed.
Inside, we wandered up and down long aisles parting endless rows of seats, until we found an usher. The stage was a center ring, more suited for a boxing match than a concert. Ringo’s drum kit faced squarely away from us, and we were already worried that we would have to watch only the backs of our beloved Fab Four. Microphones stood at uneven intervals, and black speakers were positioned at each corner of the stage. We squeezed down a long row, climbing over small knots of girls and occasionally, a guy. When we reached our seats, we plopped down and looked around. I spotted Suzanne, our ticket benefactress, four seats down, along with three of her girlfriends. They wore nearly identical plaid kilts and sorority sweaters. Suzanne and I stood up and talked over her friends. “Thought you wouldn’t make it!” she shouted. “We would’ve walked from Baltimore if we’d had to!” I yelled back. I noticed that her summer bleach blonde hair was now a sedate chestnut brown, in a perfect flip, just like Susan Van Wyck in Seventeen Magazine.
What happened next is now a blurred memory, infused with music, sound, and palpable adolescent energy as each musical act took the stage. The performers had to shift regularly during their sets so that each quarter of the audience could take a turn gazing on the faces of the performers. The night smelled of the old boxing arena, hairspray and perfume of thousands of teenaged girls, and aftershave cologne of their intrepid boyfriends along for the ride. Whether I wore my Mary Quant miniskirt and Peter Pan blouse with the little black tie, or the big fuzzy gray and pink mohair sweater my mother had knit for me, I can’t remember. On that frigid night, did we wear hats and gloves? Did we spend hours doing our eyeliner from a Maybelline dry mascara cake wet with tap water, and applied with a tiny brush, or did we just smooth on lipstick and go out the door to meet the Beatles?
We endured a seemingly endless parade of opening rock and roll acts. Tonight, we only wanted the Beatles. So we waited, increasingly impatient. We scanned the aisles to see if the cops were drawing closer to the stage where we knew from reading Time and Life that they were there to keep girls from rushing the stage, clambering up and trying to tear the clothes off the Fab Four. The lineup of warm-up acts began— Jay and the Americans. The Chiffons. The Righteous Brothers. After about forty-five minutes, Chris announced she had to go to the bathroom. “Not now!” I wailed. “Yes, go now, right away!” Houch advised. Off Chris ran. When she returned, breathless, she said she’d been in the stall when she heard loud screaming and applause, and she was sure she’d missed her very first chance to see her beloved George Harrison in person. But it was only another opening act.
At 8:31 PM our boys took the stage, and we were soon in Liverpool heaven. I remember that these young men seemed so much older than we were (though George Harrison was only twenty, Ringo and John were twenty-three, and Paul, twenty-one) singing above the cries, the shrieks and the screams. I remember the problems with the amps. I remember jumping up and down and holding my face and screaming “I love you, Paul!” I was one with my girlfriends and we were one with a crowd of eight thousand just like us. The police who guarded the stage might as well have been aliens from some other, quieter, more restrained planet, their faces impassive, their espontoons dangling from their belts.
We screamed and screamed until we were hoarse. And at the end, after the Beatles did a rocking rendition of Little Richard’s “Long Tall Sally,” complete with Paul’s falsetto “Wooooo!” they dashed off the stage to thunderous applause and more screams. The lights went down, and the coliseum began to empty. With a few other stragglers, we four approached the stage and leaned over to scoop up a few jelly beans and peanuts that a custodian was sweeping to the edge of the stage. We stuffed this detritus into our pockets and strolled to the front entrance.
The snow had stopped.
“How will your mother ever find us?” Gay asked.
“Look.” I pointed straight ahead to our Chevy. My mother was smiling at us from the driver’s seat. A cop was standing nearby and he gave her a little wave. Had she turned on the charm so he would let her live-park there and wait for us? How long had she been waiting? Where did she go while we were inside having the time of our young lives? None of these questions ever crossed my mind until years later. We navigated the slippery sidewalk to the curb and climbed into the car. We were too excited to doze on the ride back to Baltimore, though it was well past our bedtime. When we reached my house, scrubbed off the mascara and lipstick, brushed our teeth, and got into our nightgowns, we remained alert and awake. We stayed up for hours, whispering in my bedroom, sleeping bags and air mattresses crammed in close. Would we ever get to meet our Beatles, one to one, in person? Would John ever get an annulment from Cynthia—and marry one of us? We divvied them up: Gay had John, Houch had Ringo, Chris –of course—had George, and I had Paul, the Beatle with the big expressive eyes and the amazing voice, sweet at times, wild and soulful at others.
The next morning we were subdued. My mother made coffee and told us wd better have some if we wanted to stay awake in class. We downed orange juice and slowly gathered our books up, but our hearts were back in that 1941 boxing arena. I looked down at my book in my math class and daydreamed, something I never did in school. I rested my head on my crossed forearms in study hall and dozed. I told everyone –including my Latin teacher, Sr. Jeremy, where we had been the night before. I heard the Beatles singing in my head, and recalled the backdrop of screaming and hysterical cries –“Pauulllll! Georrrgggge!” in the coliseum.
By a day or two later, our night with the Beatles began to fade. My friends and went back to our plans for Friday or Saturday night. CYO at St. Matthew’s or St. Ursula’s? Hang out at Chris’ house and stay up late watching the Steve Allen Show? Gay had a date with her college boyfriend, the one with the red sports car. I wondered if that senior from Loyola would ask me to one of those cool dances in the school library. We invited our classmate Debbie into our little Beatles club, and now we were five.
We remained fans. After all, we had sworn, “Beatles Forever!” We never stood screaming outside the Delmonico Hotel in New York when the Beatles stayed there, but we did attend two of their 1965 concerts at the old Baltimore Civic Center. Decades after she’d been married, raised two daughters, and divorced, Chris visited England and made sure to include Liverpool in her itinerary. She sent us postcards. Separated by geography and our busy lives, we commemorated anniversaries of that first concert. We consoled each other with letters and long distance phone calls after John was murdered in the lobby of the Dakota in 1980, and when our beloved George died in 2001.
Today, we five high school friends live far from each other–California, Maryland, Arizona, Delaware, Massachusetts. We gather in New York from time to time for a reunion: a Broadway show, dinners out, shopping. We walk by the Dakota and to Strawberry Fields in Central Park, and stand by the mosaic, observng others there to pay their respects to John Lennon. We quietly sing along to a Beatles tune reverently strummed by a guitarist who is probably younger than our own children.
My trunk from college days is wedged in a far corner of the attic. Inside, with the old-fashioned prom dance cards we never bothered to fill out, Army dog tags from my GI boyfriend of the summer before college, and ticket stubs from rock concerts and Broadway shows, remains a small, beat-up plastic bag of ossified peanuts and two yellow jelly beans from Ringo’s 1964 drum set—my thin slice of Beatle history.