When remembering momentous events in our lives, especially ones that affect us en masse, the first question that usually pops up is, “Do you remember where you were?” A large part of the American population likely remembered where they were 50 years ago Feb. 9—in front of the TV set.
The Beatles & Ed Sullivan in New York City on Feb. 9, 1964 from the AP collection.
Television had already become a mirror of our national psyche, especially in the aftermath of the Kennedy assassination several months prior. That event allowed the nation to share its collective grief, and was a watershed moment for the new medium.
Television also allowed millions of Americans to witness one of the most important events in pop culture on Feb. 9, 1964 when the Beatles debuted on “The Ed Sullivan Show.” Up until then, rock and roll had been “tolerated” by the adults who controlled most of the popular television programming of the day, but hardly celebrated. Elvis faced scorn from television producers who insisted that the cameras shoot him from the waist up. The grown-ups in charge still determined what was appropriate in pop music for the nation’s youth, until the Beatles.
As a four year-old, I was too young to stay up to watch, but I remember my older siblings’ anticipation for the show. I asked Bob Kovacs, editor for Government Video and an avid Beatles fan, to share his impressions of that night:
“I was 11 when the Beatles appeared on ‘The Ed Sullivan Show.’ My two older brothers (ages 13 and 15) were probably more prepared than I was and possibly knew what was coming. I recall a little discussion of the Beatles prior to the show, as the song ‘I Want to Hold Your Hand’ was starting to make an impact on the charts, but the group was otherwise a mystery.
“I watched the show and had two main recollections. The first was that, with their signature haircuts, the four Beatles all looked alike to me. The other was the reaction of the screaming girls in the audience. That level of female adulation was unknown to me, but made a powerful impression on my just-days- away-from-puberty sensibilities.”
At least Bob got the chance to watch it. In reality, the show probably resulted in more TV sets being turned off than in any other televised event up to that time. According to Nielsen, the show was watched by an estimated 73.7 million viewers in just 23.2 million homes, translating into approximately 38 percent of the entire American population and easily smashing all TV viewing records up to that point. In the Beatles collective memoir “Anthology,” George Harrison wrote: “I’ve heard that while the show was on, there were no reported crimes, or very few. When the Beatles were on Ed Sullivan, even the criminals had to rest for 10 minutes.”
In a little-remembered television technology footnote, the Beatles made history three years later when they debuted “All You Need Is Love” in what was definitely their largest audience ever on “Our World,” the first live, international satellite television production, which logged more than 150 million viewers worldwide.
But for those who remember where they were on that February night in 1964, the ’60s had officially begun.