Monday, September 1, 2014
Remembering how the Beatles hit T.O. 50 years ago
The Maple Leafs had won three straight Stanley Cups and were working on a fourth. Names such as Keon, Mahovlich, Armstrong, Pulford, Kelly and Horton had created a well-worn parade route through downtown Toronto.
Right behind were the junior tenant, the Toronto Marlboroughs, the ’64 Memorial Cup champions, an unrestricted pipeline of future Leafs talent. It remains the only instance where the Stanley and Memorial Cups were won in the same arena in the same year.
Players on both teams were clean-cut, expected to show decorum off ice and be army-strong on skates.
If you attended a Saturday game, men and boys in the best seats were obligated to don suit and ties, while women dressed for a night at the opera. It was a reflection of staid, Tory Toronto, which almost boarded up on Sundays.
But it was fast becoming a decade of dramatic change. Money-infused youth culture raised its voice to unhinge the norm in politics, religion, sex and of course, music. And when four skinny kids from England invaded the Gardens 50 years ago — Sept. 7, 1964 — a few guitar chords, “yeah-yeah-yeahs” and a shake of their mop tops was all it took to bust eardrums and break hockey’s hold on the city.
“Who can ever forget all that noise from the young girls that night,” laughed NHL executive Jim Gregory, then a manager/coach of the Marlies. That Monday evening, he made sure to stay late in his office up in the East blues and then work his way to floor level to watch Lennon, McCartney, Harrison and Starr.
“The Beatles blew everybody out of the water that night (four acts, including Clarence ‘Frogman’ Henry, and Jackie DeShannon were also on the bill). You had to be impressed with their talent. It was certainly an exciting time around the building with all our championships. And then the Beatles arrived.”
Everyone from Hall of Famer Charlie Conacher to star goaltender Johnny Bower were trying to get tickets to that first show.
“My kids wanted to go, but there were just no seats,” recalled Bower. “The funny thing is that I would be bucking against the Beatles in the charts with my record later on.”
A year later, Bower’s children’s holiday novelty single, Honky The Christmas Goose, was indeed a hot seller in Canada, getting up to No. 29 on the local CHUM radio chart, while the Fab Four hit machine continued.
“I enjoyed the Beatles, but my wife (Nancy) liked them even more,” Bower said. “When we were doing the dishes, we’d both sing along and it made the drying go faster.”
The hype for the first concert started in April when the precious tickets for the two Sept. 7 concerts went on sale, stealing the thunder from the NHL playoffs.
When the Beatles’ charter Lockheed Electra landed at Malton on Sept. 6 from their show in Detroit, one long scream preceded them from the airport to their closley guarded suite at the King Edward Hotel. Mayor Phil Givens was turned away when he came to welcome them, though a 14-year-old girl was able to briefly sneak on their floor, hiding in a linen closet.
In a carefully planned motorcade to the Gardens next day, the Beatles were kept in a police paddywagon for protection, while 1,000 officers worked crowd control.
Defenceman Jim McKenny, something of a rebel himself as he transitioned from the Marlies to Leafs, recalled their frenzied arrival that afternoon. He and a few other juniors were just leaving their menial day jobs at the Gardens.
“You could tell right away they were big shooters because they came in the Carlton St. doors when everyone else had to use the back door on Wood St.,” McKenny laughed. “As a young person, of course, you’d heard about the Beatles, but I think the guys were headed to the old Carraige House to go drinking. At the time, that seemed more important than hanging around to see the Beatles. I was more into the Rolling Stones, anyway.”
McKenny welcomed the changes that the Beatles helped usher in as the 1960s unfolded, but said no thought was given to emulating their long hair. Attracting such attention wasn’t worth the hassle of breaking the team dress code rules or spending what money they had to look cool.
“In ’64, I worked the Gardens mailroom for $10 a week, and wasn’t very good at it,” McKenny said. “When you subtracted $4.20 for a 24 case of beer, you weren’t going to spend the other $5.80 on a fancy hairdo.”
Their first concert that night was supposed to start at 4 p.m. But the delerium was allowed to build another 90 minutes before the lads bounded on stage. They were introduced by local DJs Jay Nelson and Al Boliska, launching into Twist and Shout. Right away, their puny speakers lost the battle with the infamous Gardens sound system and its cavernous roof. But with optimum acoustics, hits such as All My Lovin’ and Can’t Buy Me Love would’ve been almost drowned out by 18,000 teen shreikers.
“Imagine the loudest thunderclap you have ever heard,” wrote the Toronto Telegram’s Frank Tumpane. “Imagine it emanates inside a building and then imagine it’s pitched as high as a siren.”
The rollicking media session in the Gardens exclusive parlour was much like the free-for-all at Kennedy Airport earlier that year when the arriving Beatles first charmed the skeptical North American press. Toronto was the group’s Canadian fan club headquarters so they were very co-operative in posing for pictures with its young reps, as well as Miss Canada, and in fine form to trade quips with the army of reporters jammed into the room.
Beatles’ press officer Derek Taylor opened the proceedings by reading a letter from a fan in Saskatchewan who wanted to collect the group’s excess bath water and market it. There was also an offer to buy each Beatle’s tonsils.
Lennon, who had been asked to endorse the re-naming of Hamilton Mountain after the group, was quizzed on what time he usually got up each morning.
“Two in the afternoon,” he replied with his Scouse cheekiness.
He was less amused by a blunt query on how long he thought the Beatles could last.
“Longer than you,” he fired back at a reporter.
The concerts sold 35,522 tickets (they played again at 10 p.m.) at an average price around $5. The group netted about $93,000 for their efforts, according to the Beatles Bible website.
The group rarely crossed in the sports realm during their arena tours, though they did drop by boxer Sonny Liston’s camp in Miami Beach earlier that year as a publicity stunt. Busy preparing for his heavyweight title fight with Cassius Clay, Liston refused to pose with “those sissies” so the Fabs were taken to Clay’s gym. The future Muhammaed Ali famously mugged with them for the cameras, feeding the hype of their respective careers. But Liston not Ali would later be included among celebrities on the cover of Sgt. Pepper.
While rising Gardens mogul Harold Ballard didn’t have a large profile in the ’64 concert, he almost came to blows with Beatles manager Brian Epstein upon their return to Toronto in August of 1965. Though the Beatles were booked for just one performance, Ballard sold tickets for two and didn’t tell Epstein until almost the last minute.
Epstein raged about the deceit, but Ballard shrugged and dared him to go on stage and tell the second crowd the show was cancelled. He had someone hustle Epstein to the Hot Stove for a cocktail to calm him down and as Ballard hoped, the Beatles didn’t make much fuss about playing again. Ballard, legend has it, further increased profit by turning off the water in the building on the hot day so fans had to pay for larger drinks.
After one more Gardens’ appearance in 1966, the road-weary Beatles quit touring and worked their magic in the studio.
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