On Aug. 14, 1966, The Beatles – Paul McCartney, John Lennon, George Harrison and Ringo Starr – rocked Cleveland Municipal Stadium.
All you could hear were fans screaming. The fans — who broke through a fence and police barrier to rush on stage — may have been the real stars of the show. It was a near-exact repeat of what occurred two years prior during The Fab Four’s first Cleveland performance at Public Hall in 1964.
“I remember speaking about The Beatles with Cleveland radio and TV legend Jerry G for my book,” says Dave Schwensen, author of “The Beatles In Cleveland: Memories, Facts & Photos About The Notorious 1964 & 1966 Concerts.” “Jerry said in the other cities the kids wanted to see The Beatles. They want to hear The Beatles. Whenever they came to Cleveland, [the fans] always want to touch them.”
Perhaps no U.S. city embodied the spirit of Beatlemania more than Cleveland, creating a level of fandom, chaos and frenzy that left an imprint on those who were there 55 years ago.
“Beatlemania,” the term used to describe the astonishing excitement surrounding the young rock band from Liverpool, England, was confined to Europe prior to 1964. Singles like “Please Please Me,” “She Loves You” and “I Want to Hold Your Hand” kickstarted an unprecedented string of hits in the U.K. Multiple European tours followed, producing a frenzy among both fans and the media.
It was only a matter of time until The Beatles made their way to North America. Capitol Records would issue “I Want to Hold Your Hand” in the States on Dec. 26, 1963. It became The Beatles’ first No. 1 hit in the U.S and sold a million copies. The following February, The Beatles would arrive at New York’s John F. Kennedy Airport for their first trip to America. More than 3,000 fans were there waiting for them.
“There were millions of kids at the airport, which nobody had expected,” McCartney would later say during a press conference. “We heard about it in mid-air. There were journalists on the plane, and the pilot had rang ahead and said, ‘Tell the boys there’s a big crowd waiting for them.’ We thought, ‘Wow! God, we have really made it.’”
Two days later, The Beatles would make their live, U.S. television debut on “The Ed Sullivan Show.” The performance was watched by more than 70 million viewers in more than 20 million American households, the largest audience ever for an American television program up until that point. The British Invasion had begun.
“It was the words, the poetry, the messages they were instilling at the time,” recalls Cleveland Heights native Ken Cushner, who attended The Beatles’ Cleveland Stadium show in 1966.
“They were doing it with upbeat rock and roll. You’ve heard it said that Dylan wrote the words and Elvis did the motion. The Beatles kind of put it all together onto a stage.”
The timing was important as well. The Beatles’ arrival in America came less than three months after the assassination of President John F. Kennedy in November 1963.
“This was still a nation in mourning,” remembers Schwensen. “That Christmas was dark and sad. And you had everything going on with the Vietnam War, riots and the Civil Rights Movement. The Beatles were something people could get excited about.”
The Beatles’ 1964 North American tour would kick off on Aug. 19, 1964, at San Francisco’s Cow Palace. The trek would feature 32 concerts in 25 cities over 31 days. Just about every show was met with fanatical crowds so aggressive The Beatles had to use decoy vehicles to get from their hotels to concert venues. Yet, that 1964 Beatlemania rush may very well have peaked in Cleveland on Sept. 15. The night before the band’s concert at Public Hall, The Beatles were staying at the Sheraton Cleveland Hotel (now the Renaissance Hotel). Police were positioned around the building to keep fans at bay. However, all it took was the band members waving from their hotel room window for fans to break through the police barrier.
The stories of fans trying to make it to the band are the stuff of legend. A young man hid in a package that was being delivered to the hotel. A girl pretended to faint outside so she could be treated medically inside.
For the concert at Public Hall the following day, police would use riot buses as decoy vehicles to get The Beatles to the concert. Inside the venue, more than 100 police stood in front of the stage.
It wasn’t enough. During a performance of “All My Loving,” the crowd once again pushed past police and onto the stage.
“The Beatles had more security than JFK when they came to Cleveland,” says Schwensen. “But at the show, the security in front of the stage couldn’t figure out what the big deal was. So, they turned around to watch the band and that’s when you saw all these kids rush to the stage.” The Beatles retreated backstage with John Lennon telling radio station KYW (now WTAM), “This has never happened to us before. We have never had a show stopped.” The Beatles would finish their 12-song set. But the damage, at least from a PR standpoint, was done.
Two months after The Beatles’ Public Hall concert, The Rolling Stones played at the venue. During the show, a fan fell from the balcony. Following the incident, then Cleveland mayor Ralph S. Locher banned rock concerts at publicly owned venues in the city.
The infamous concert ban would last just two years. The Beatles announced plans to tour a series of open-air stadiums in 1966. Cleveland, seeking to maintain its status as an epicenter of rock and roll, had no choice but to acquiesce.
Representatives for Cleveland’s Top-40 radio stations met with representatives from City Hall to convince them they had to bring The Fab Four back to town.
“They basically said, ‘If you want to be considered a major city in the United States, a progressive big city like New York and L.A., then you gotta bring The Beatles,’” says Schwensen. “That was the selling point.”
The concert was set for Cleveland Municipal Stadium on Aug. 14, 1966, with tickets ranging from $3 to $5.50. The Cleveland stadium concert offered the potential for an audience that could exceed well over 60,000 people. However, in March 1966, John Lennon was quoted in London’s Evening Standard as saying The Beatles were “more popular than Jesus.” The quote led to death threats throughout the 1966 tour and protests from religious groups in the Bible Belt who called for the public burning of Beatles records. Even the Ku Klux Klan got in on the anti-Beatles movement, nailing a Beatles record to a large cross in Memphis and setting it on fire.
No such protests took place in Cleveland. But ticket sales for the August concert came to a halt, says Schwensen.
“Promoter [and WIXY owner] Norman Wain, he said they were planning on selling 60,000 tickets for that show and then Lennon’s remarks came out,” Schwensen says. “He said ticket sales just stopped. Even though they announced, I think they announced about 26,000 people were in attendance. He told me it was less than 20,000.” The Cleveland show missed out on becoming something that could rival if not top The Beatles’ legendary concert at Shea Stadium in New York in 1965. Still, in 1966, Northeast Ohio hadn’t seen anything like a Beatles stadium concert, turning downtown Cleveland into a fan fest for The Fab Four.
“My mom dropped us off right in front of the Sheraton-Cleveland Hotel where the band was staying again,” remembers Dawn Saddler, who was 14 at the concert. “The band was peering out the window and there was a huge crowd in front of the hotel.
“We ran back by the garbage entrance, knowing they had to leave for the show soon. There weren’t many people back there and watched them leave in their limousine.” The limousine would make its way to the field at Cleveland Municipal Stadium, dropping the band members off at a trailer behind the stage on second base. Supporting acts for the concert included The Remains, Bobby Hebb, The Cyrcle and The Ronettes. But fans were lucky if they could hear any of them or even The Beatles. “The sound wasn’t great,” remembers Cleveland musician David Budin, who was 17 at the time. “Rock bands didn’t really do stadium concerts before The Beatles. But it wouldn’t have mattered anyway because of all the girls, and some guys, screaming. It didn’t sound like screaming. It just sounded like a drum roll on your eardrums.”
Budin was seated in the stadium’s upper deck, looking through his binoculars at The Beatles when the hysteria witnessed at Public Hall in 1964 repeated itself.
“I put the binoculars over on John [Lennon] and I saw him looking back at Paul [McCartney] and then I see hands at the bottom of my binoculars and then arms and then heads,” Budin recalls. “Kids were just running with their hands in the air. They ran over the storm fence and ran all the way to the stage.” Some 2,500 people invaded the stadium’s field. Overmatched, the police had no choice but to let fans through. The Beatles retreated to their trailer.
“Around the fourth song, which was “Day Tripper,” you could see a crowd growing at the outfield fence,” remembers Kent native Bob Burdin, who was 9 years old. “The crowd kept getting bigger and bigger and we kind of moved down, and pretty soon they just broke through the fences and started running on the field. My older brother grabbed my arm and said, ‘Let’s go!’”
The Beatles would eventually return only to have fans storm the stage again. DJs from WIXY urged the crowd to remain in their seats. The Beatles returned and completed an 11-song set. “Over the years there has been a lot of activity around second base at Cleveland Stadium,” The Plain Dealer’s Jane Scott wrote about the concert in 1966. “But even with all the hundreds of sporting events that have taken place on that section of lakefront real estate, never has there been activity like there was last night.”
In his book “John, Paul, George, Ringo and Me: The Real Beatles Story,” The Beatles’ press officer Tony Marrow would call the 1966 Cleveland Municipal Stadium concert “one of the wildest shows” of the tour. Once the band finished performing, a smaller group of fans rushed the stage and trailer again, attempting to take equipment and instruments as souvenirs.
“The Beatles were like Elvis. They didn’t do encores,” Schwensen says. “So, the fans knew that was it and they all started pouring out on the field again. There was a big battle to get The Beatles out of that stadium.”
The stadium concert would be the last time The Beatles performed in Cleveland. In fact, it would be one of the final performances of the band’s career.
Before the 1966 U.S. run, The Beatles had already decided to retire from touring. The band would turn its focus to studio recording, exhausted from the monotonous routine of being on the road.
“They were exhausted,” says Schwensen. “The pinnacle was that August 15th, 1965, Shea Stadium concert. John Lennon said, ‘I saw the top of the mountain at that concert and after that, it was pretty much all downhill with us doing the same thing over and over and over.”
The Beatles would call it quits at the end of the 1960s. Yet, 55 years after the band’s final full-fledged tour, the memories remain special for those who were lucky enough to be there. “I don’t really come across many of my friends or acquaintances that were there in 1964 or 1966,”Burdin says. “To the point where sometimes when I post something about it the concert, it seems like people don’t even believe me. Like why would I make something like that up? You can’t.”