Entertainment

The Beatles’ 50th anniversary celebrations spring from DNA left in South Florida

hcohen@miamiherald.com

Lynn Henderson had the most valuable possession in Miami that sunny mid-February Thursday afternoon 50 years ago: a construction paper press badge she made in journalism class at Miami Springs Junior High.

The school’s newspaper, The Eagles’ Nest, had an in with the deejays at WQAM-560, the hippest station in South Florida, the one DJ Rick Shaw aired the Beatles’ American breakthrough single, I Want to Hold Your Hand, before anyone else locally. Henderson, 13, was her newspaper’s star reporter and WQAM’s school correspondent.

“Our heads were starting to balloon. We thought, shoot, why not interview the Beatles? — not realizing the chaos that would ensue at the airport,” Henderson, now Lynn Hunt, said.

Hunt scored an interview with the Beatles that afternoon on the tarmac outside the National Airlines Terminal as 5,000 screaming fans greeted the Beatles at Miami International Airport.

Hunt was among the first that day to usher in Beatlemania to South Florida, less than a week after the Fab Four’s live U.S. TV debut before a record 73 million viewers Feb. 9 on The Ed Sullivan Show. John Lennon, Paul McCartney, George Harrison and Ringo Starr were poised to repeat the hysteria at Miami Beach’s Deauville Hotel on Feb. 16 for a second and final live Sullivan Beatles taping. That night’s broadcast would draw 70 million viewers and confirm the American public’s infatuation with the Beatles.

New York met the Beatles first for that initial Sullivan appearance. Washington, D.C., scored the first Beatles concert on U.S. soil a couple of days later. But perhaps no U.S. city can claim as big a hold on the Beatles’ members as Miami had in February 1964. You could say they were here Eight Days a Week.

“They spent more time in South Florida than any other city; they were here eight days,” said Joe Johnson, host of the syndicated radio program Beatle Brunch, which airs at 10 a.m. Sundays on Magic 102.7 FM. “They only spent a couple days in New York. Even on tour, they played San Francisco and only spent a day or two in the city. In Miami they really interacted with our local celebs. Cassius Clay. They loved the local flavor.

“I think for Florida to claim the Beatles as part of their own is really important,” said Johnson, 55.

MIA and Beatlemania

Hunt, 63, who became a professional writer and creative director for an ad agency after graduating from the University of Florida, remembers 1964.

“My beloved journalism teacher arranged with our principal to get us out of school early and we had our permission slips and we made our construction paper press badges and one of my classmate’s moms dropped us off at the airport. We showed the PR woman at the airport our stuff, and she let us go through to the end of one of the concourses.”

Hunt laughs at the memory. “There is a guard and he let us go out, which didn’t please the other teenagers that were there.”

Suddenly, the boys depart the plane, descending a silver stairway toward a limo. Hunt’s heart did a Ringo drum roll like the one that opens She Loves You. “I’m thinking, ‘This is my chance.’ I started running toward the limo,” she said from her home in North Carolina.

“I was smaller and faster, and I got there as they were pulling their legs into the car. I knocked on one side. The police were running after me. John Lennon waved them away because I had my construction paper press badge on, and my notebook and pencil.”

Five questions, five answers from John, Paul and Ringo. George, the quiet one, remained silent.

“It was very fast and over quickly. John blew me a kiss and the window slid shut and they took off,” Hunt said. “We were in a daze. I don’t remember how we got home. We called [journalism teacher] Mr. Sligar from a payphone, and he was bursting with pride.”

She laughs when she recalls how that day changed her life.

“I married a Brit and we would meet some of his friends and the first thing he’d say was, ‘Lynn interviewed the Beatles.’ I could have found the cure for cancer, but everyone would remember that day at the airport.”

Deauville and Beatlemania

Two days later, Bob Saxon, 16, and two of his friends from Fort Lauderdale High School, piled into one of their mothers’ 1958 Chevrolet convertible and headed to the Deauville Hotel to meet the Beatles.

“We knew there was no way to get into the Deauville by standing in line because only about 300 could get in and there were thousands of kids in line, ” Saxon, now 66, said.

So the kids ditched the car north of the Deauville and walked down a service road along the side of the hotel. There, they spotted a vacant catering truck backed up to the kitchen entrance. The trio scurried into the unlocked vehicle, filed out of its back doors and found themselves deposited in the hotel kitchen. The three were collared by one of the sergeants guarding the stairwells and elevators.

“But some guy named Johnson, wearing a bathrobe and a beach towel over his shoulder and smoking a big cigar, came in from the pool area or beach and said, ‘You boys trying to see the Beatles?’ ” The stranger told the sergeant the trio was with him.

“He must have been a prominent guy,” Saxon, now president of a yachting company in Fort Lauderdale, said. “He walked us past all the guests and through the lobby, over to the auditorium, opened the auditorium door, and said, ‘You are on your own from here.’”

The boys grabbed front row seats on the side near the camera guys. Beforehand, Sullivan gave the audience directions as to when to cheer and when to simmer down. They kept screaming, to Sullivan’s irritation. “You’re not listening to me,” the host admonished the frenzied teens.

“George Harrison was opening the curtain and sticking his head out and showing his face and all the girls were flipping out,” Saxon explained.

Biscayne and Beatlemania

The next day, Sheri Shepherd (now Sheri Estroff), 17 and with family connections — Dad Sonny Shepherd was a vice president with the Wometco movie chain — partied with the Beatles at the Indian Creek home of Sam Cohen, the owner of the Deauville. The Cohens had wanted to invite a couple high school senior girls to the house party so that the Beatles, who were in their early 20s, would have people close to their own ages.

Shepherd and pal Susan Coolik, both Miami Edison seniors, ran home from school to get their swimsuits and casual clothes. Soon, they found themselves on chaise lounges at the Cohen mansion’s backyard pool with the Beatles: John and his then-wife Cynthia (“They were so nice; he was the oldest of the boys so I could relate more with him”), Paul (“a little shy”), George (“so quiet he didn’t open his mouth”) and Ringo ( “Oh, my God! You couldn’t shut him up. He talk, talk, talked. I remember Ringo being such a flirt.”)

The Beatles tried to waterski from the back of a 23-foot Formula race boat in Biscayne Bay. “They had no sun at all so they were very, very white, not looking like Florida boys,” said Shepherd, now 67.

Cultural shift

The timing of the Beatles’ arrival in the tinderbox America of the 1960s couldn’t have been better. The Kennedy assassination had happened only months earlier and a mourning nation was looking to heal.

“It was escapism from the horror we had just gone through,” said Chuck Bergeron, 52, professor of jazz and rock history at the University of Miami Frost School of Music. “Sometimes this goes over the heads of my current students, who are 18 and 21 and don’t understand the fear of going to high school with some kid who got a draft card in the mail. The level of fear and paranoia in this country at that time — the Civil Rights Act hadn’t been signed and there’s rioting — and this music was an outlet for that for an entire generation.”

The music also tapped into every generation’s desire to call something their own.

“No kids want to dance to the music of their parents,” Bergeron said. “Here comes these guys, born in 1940, ’41, not Depression-era babies. It’s music and fashion and a look and it came along at a time when we needed something different. Lennon and McCartney are as important as songwriters as George and Ira Gershwin were in the early parts of that century. They broke a lot of rules melodically and harmonically and didn’t follow the norm, and that’s important for an art form.

“I don’t think we’ll ever achieve anything like this again,” he added. “Back then there were so few sources of news and information. Today, a horrible tragedy will happen and the next day we’re focused on Justin Bieber’s arrest.”

Beatle music

Legendary WQAM DJ Shaw, now retired and living in Cooper City, still has the 45 rpm record of I Want to Hold Your Hand that he played that winter morning, more than 50 years ago, the one that turned South Florida on to a new, vibrant sound from England.

I Want to Hold Your Hand was an amazing thing. I put it on, played it first in South Florida, and nobody had heard of the Beatles. About 30 seconds into the record the phones exploded,” Shaw, 75, said. “Something was going on here, something really unusual and different. Those things become road marks and the soundtrack of your life. ”

Johnson, who airs a look back at the Beatles’ arrival in America on this Sunday’s Beatle Brunch, agrees.

“We should always think how lucky we are to be here in South Florida where there is all this Beatles DNA still around,” Johnson said.

As for Hunt, the crafty junior high journalist:, the Beatles’ Miami visit boosted her report card that year.

“I was Outstanding Journalist of the Year,” she said. “I got an A.”

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