Robin Williams once quipped, "If you remember the '60s, you weren't there." An exception seems to be Feb. 9, 1964, which even aging baby boomers recall as if it were, well, yesterday.
That's the night the Beatles appeared live on "The Ed Sullivan Show," for the first of three consecutive appearances with "Old Stone Face."
Pretty much until his dying day, Jack Paar reminded us that the Sullivan gig wasn't the Fab Four's first American television appearance.
That had taken place a month earlier, on his show, during which he showed footage of the boys performing in front of screaming Londoners. After showing the clip, Paar said sarcastically, "It's nice to know that England has finally risen to our cultural level."
But it's one thing to roll the tape and quite another to have a phenom in the building. That's what Sullivan had that night, for a live audience of 700 screaming teenagers, not to mention 73 million Americans, the largest television audience up to that time, viewing the really big show at home.
I was 8 and watching in Slayton, Minn., and I remember two things: my 11-year-old sister's screams nearly matched the decibels of the studio audience, and my dad let out a sigh and said, "I don't know what's happening to this country."
Turned out Dad wasn't alone. (This reaction may be why Anacin chose to run ads that night.)
Watching with her sisters in Owen, Wis., was Liz Pauly, now a member of the Minnesota Chorale. She remembers them as "looking weird when they wagged their heads" and singing lyrics that even as a 5-year-old she knew were lame.
John Plomondon, now a professor of American Studies at Minneapolis Community and Technical College, recalls being the only one in his living room who got it from the start.
"I owned the 45s of "She Loves You" and "I Want to Hold Your Hand," and thought the Beatles were totally exciting and unique," he says. But his beatnik sister, "a 'sophisticate' who liked Bob Dylan," was unimpressed and "scorned them as commercial teenyboppers."
As for his mother, whom he describes as having been "more at home in 1944 than in 1964," she "glanced up at the screen and said, good-naturedly, 'Oh! They're girls!'"
Anyone interested in watching that show can find it on the two-DVD set "The Four Complete Historic Ed Sullivan Shows Featuring The Beatles," distributed by Goodtimes Entertainment.
Watching the Beatles' two sets for the first time in nearly 50 years, I'm puzzled that people were bothered by their look and behavior. Honestly, any adults concerned about the hair length should have at least acknowledged the suits and ties and the full bows the lads made at the end of the sets.
All these years later, these guys are still fun to watch. Their smiles, George's guitar solos, even those wagging heads that bothered young Liz Pauly suggest they were having a blast for an audience that was yearning for better times ahead.
As Philip Norman puts it in his book "John Lennon: The Life": "In the national gloom following President Kennedy's death, America's news organizations cast around for some light relief and lit upon the four funny-haired Liverpudlians."
The one bomb of the evening was the comedy sketch by the husband-wife team of Mitzi McCall and Charlie Brill. They flopped and they knew it, but in the "My Big Break" segment of "This American Life," they explain how it happened.
After watching their dress rehearsal, Ed Sullivan, not known for his sense of humor, decided that their sketch was too sophisticated for that night's crowd and demanded that they do a full rewrite in the hour that remained before show time. Talk about a hard day's night.
At any rate, the night belonged to the act that returned to the stage after McCall and Brill.
As the British Invasion began, Bob Dylan observed, "Everybody else thought [the Beatles] were for the teenyboppers, that they were gonna pass right away. But it was obvious to me that they had staying power. I knew they were pointing to the direction where music had to go."
All one need add is "Yeah, yeah, yeah."
Craig Hergert is an English professor at Minneapolis Community and Technical College.