sixty years on

I was nine when the Beatles first played on the Ed Sullivan Show — standing a few feet from the television in our basement rec room, not really knowing what to expect.

If you watch a video of that show, you’ll see a healthy dose of Sullivan’s standard fare.  Songs from the cast of Oliver!, then playing on Broadway; Frank Gorshin contorting his face, body, and voice to do impressions of a host of Hollywood luminaries; Welsh singer Tessie O’Shea performing three numbers, including her signature “Two Ton Tessie from Tennessee;” plus a skit, a magician, and some gymnasts (including one doing something that seemed impossible to me).  The mix was typical of the variety shows of the day and just a small step from vaudeville.

All of that was just like other Sunday nights before, but February 9, 1964 was to mark a cultural change that has reverberated ever since.  There were fifty thousand requests for tickets that night (the theater seated seven hundred) and the streets outside were clogged with people hoping to get a glimpse of John, Paul, George, and Ringo.  After a couple of commercials (which are cultural time capsules themselves), the Beatles opened the show, then returned in the second half, doing five songs in all (“All My Loving,” “Till There Was You,” “She Loves You, “I Saw Her Standing There,” and “I Want to Hold Your Hand.”)  They would also appear on Sullivan’s show the following two Sundays.  Beatlemania was officially in gear.

The audience was full of girls and young women who surely have been telling of their good fortune for sixty years.  They squirmed and screamed, especially when the lads would shake their hair about.  Soon they would be buying Beatles wigs and fan magazines and all sorts of other products.

And records, of course.  It seemed everyone had to have the LP Meet the Beatles! (with that iconic photo on the cover); it flew off the shelves and was even for sale (for a dollar!) from a display on the Gold Bond Stamp premium counter at Kenny’s SuperValu, the first and only album I remember being offered there.

It is said that on the Monday after the Sullivan show the restrooms of secondary schools were full of boys who had combed their hair back before but were now pulling it down onto their foreheads.  (The guys with flattops and crew cuts had little to work with.)

Much has been made of the fact that the country needed something to believe in after the assassination of John F. Kennedy less than three months before.  Whatever caused the spark, the Beatles kept fanning the flames, going on to produce a body of work that is the most influential ever in popular music.  George Harrison was only twenty when they came to the U.S. and their last recording session would be just over six years later, before any of them turned thirty.

A few weeks after their arrival, another exciting but much different happening affected my young life.  I was again watching TV in the rec room, this time seeing my hometown Luverne Cardinals win the Minnesota state basketball championship.

On the same night, March 21, John Wooden and UCLA secured their first NCAA title.  At the time there were only 25 teams playing in the tournament.  One of the regionals had been held a week earlier at Williams Arena on the University of Minnesota campus, where Michigan earned a chance to go to the Final Four.  But March Madness was a phrase yet to be invented and the title game drew a mere 8,706 fans.  Sid Hartman reported that “NCAA officials and Kentucky coach Adolph Rupp were disappointed with the attendance.”

They didn’t realize that the big dance at that time did not feature college players — the one-class high school tournament would pack Williams Arena the following week.  18,800 attended the title game, a total of 86,612 for the whole event.

How big a deal was it?  The entire front page of the sports section of the Sunday Minneapolis Tribune was devoted to the championship game, with more stories on two other pages.  In contrast, you could read about UCLA’s victory on page four.

The team drove the two hundred miles back to Luverne on the two-lane roads of the day, winding through small towns where people would cheer them on as they headed home.  A bumper-to-bumper caravan followed them the last few miles into town.  The next day’s story in the Tribune began:  “The champs came home Sunday to a cacophony of horns, bells and fire sirens.”  Along with a large photo of the welcome-home ceremony in the gymnasium (I’m in there somewhere), it anchored the front page, above the fold.  Plus there were more stories in the sports section.

For decades to come, when people found out I was from Luverne, they would recite the names of those players to me.

The team would return to the state tournament three times during that era, including having an undefeated season spoiled in the 1965 semifinal.  The last appearance in a one-class tournament was in 1970 (just as the Beatles were breaking up).

It was a glorious time for basketball on the prairie.  In 1960, the Hoosiers moment had come when tiny Edgerton — eighteen miles from Luverne, with less than two thousand people — won the state championship.  Other towns in the region would do so over the next fifteen years.

That time is long gone.  The number of classes in the tournament kept expanding; there’s no opportunity for a small school to knock off a city powerhouse, which had happened with regularity before.  The players don’t walk through the Curtis Hotel in their sport coats any more and the corridors of Williams Arena aren’t jammed with people excited to be part of the biggest event on the Minnesota sports calendar.

The gyms in southwest Minnesota that were routinely packed for games — sometimes they had to turn people away — now get a smattering of fans.  And somehow Luverne is known for hockey, which I had never seen played (even in a backyard) when I was growing up.

Sixty years on I still think of those few weeks, when life seemed full of new possibilities.  The cheering crowds are gone but the music remains.  Pardon me while I put on an album to take me back.

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