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The event of a lifetime: When Beatlemania stormed the Coliseum in Washington
Mike Mitchell, who photographed the Beatles concert in DC when he was 18, poses for a portrait at the Washington Coliseum January 15, 2014 in Washington, DC. The Beatles performed their first live concert in North America at the Washington Coliseum February 11, 1964. AFP PHOTO/Brendan SMIALOWSKI.

By: Robert MacPherson

WASHINGTON (AFP).- The first time the British invaded Washington, in the War of 1812, they torched the White House. When they returned, on February 11, 1964, they stormed the Coliseum.

Two days after their historic US television debut, Liverpudlian rockers the Beatles took a train through a snowstorm from New York to Washington for their first concert in North America.

For the 8,000 fans who were there, on a frigid Tuesday night, in an unheated ice and boxing arena with little resemblance to its Roman namesake, it was the event of a lifetime.

"It was phenomenal," said Patricia Mink, then a 20-year-old native of small-town Pennsylvania working at a Washington life insurance company, who attended the show with three friends.

"I remember sitting there, thinking, 'I don't believe I'm doing this'," Mink told AFP. "I hardly remember hearing the music... It was absolute chaos."

This February 11, also a Tuesday, some 3,000 people will return to the Coliseum for a 50th anniversary tribute concert before the venue, most recently a parking garage, is converted into shops and offices.

BeatleMania Now, which bills itself as "the world's best Beatles tribute band," will go through the original 12-song set list, from "Roll Over Beethoven" to "Long Tall Sally" via "I Saw Her Standing There" and "She Loves You," with some later Beatles material tacked on for good measure.

It was absolute chaos
"We expect a pretty packed house," said Rebecca Miller, executive director of the DC Preservation League, which campaigned successfully to get the Coliseum listed as a historical site.

Sixties rock 'n' roll veteran Tommy Roe, who knew the Beatles when they toured Britain together in 1963, will open the show -- just as he did a half-century earlier.

"I did two songs, 'Sheila' and 'Everybody,' my two hits," recalled Roe in a telephone interview.

"Then the Beatles hit the stage and all heck broke lose. The fans were pelting us with jellybeans. It was quite exciting."

Seventy-three million Americans -- a record at the time -- tuned into "The Ed Sullivan Show" on February 9, 1964 for the Beatles' first live US television appearance, when they played five songs to a studio audience in New York full of screaming youths.

Given that Sullivan paid the Beatles a paltry $10,000 for three appearances, it's widely assumed their manager Brian Epstein booked the Washington gig to help recoup some of his losses.

But the late New York impresario Sid Bernstein has revealed Epstein had asked him to book a "break-in date" to enable the group to polish its acts for two concerts they'd go on to play at New York's prestigious Carnegie Hall on February 12, 1964.

In any event, Washington -- still traumatized, like the rest of the nation, by the assassination of president John F. Kennedy in November 1963 -- had already done its bit to whip up Beatlemania on America's shores.

Intrigued by a CBS News report that dissed the Beatles' "non-music" and "non-haircuts," a high school student from the Maryland suburbs named Marsha Albert wrote into Washington radio station WWDC in December, asking it to spin some of their records.

'I want to hold your hand'
But although the Beatles had racked up five hits in Britain by then, Capitol Records, the US arm of their British label EMI, was highly reluctant to release any singles, as it doubted the Fab Four would suit American tastes.

So WWDC disc jockey Carroll James got a flight attendant to hand-carry a Beatles single from London, then invited Albert into his studio to introduce it on-air: "Ladies and gentlemen, for the first time in America, here are the Beatles singing 'I Want to Hold Your Hand'."

It instantly went what would now be known as "viral."

DJs in other cities quickly picked up on it. Caught off guard, Capitol scrambled to put out the record earlier than planned. By February 1 "I Want to Hold Your Hand" was number one on the Billboard chart.

Up until that point, "American popular music, rock 'n' roll, had become pretty conservative," said John Covach, who teaches rock music history at the University of Rochester in New York.

"So when the Beatles came along, in many ways, they were reintroducing American rock 'n' roll to American kids, most of whom were probably too young to have really been involved in popular music back in 1956 or 1957" when Chuck Berry, Jerry Lee Lewis and Elvis Presley ruled the airwaves and the juke box.

"They didn't recognize it as something familiar from American soil," Covach told AFP. "They thought it was British."

With a couple of Nikons and some Kodak film, Mike Mitchell, then 18, captured some of the most poignant images of that night at the Coliseum, including a backlit silhouette of the Fab Four that sold for $68,500 at a Christie's auction in 2011, helping fund his retirement.

"The stage was right out here in the middle," Mitchell told AFP, walking among the parked cars in the center of the venue.

"It was the size of a boxing ring -- because it was a boxing ring, covered over with plywood."

The best tickets cost $4, or about $30 in today's money, but Naomi Banks got in for free, thanks to the owner of the Coliseum, Harry Lynn, who like her lived by the arena.

Looking back, she reckons she was possibly the only black girl in the joint.

"Oh, my god! Pandemonium! I mean, it was kids everywhere," she recalled, flipping through a scrapbook that includes a copy of the concert's set list, apparently in Lennon's handwriting.

"The acoustics weren't great," Banks told AFP, "but the fact that they were singing and it was the Beatles and these kids were screaming and hollering ... they really put on a good show."

Unlike the Carnegie Hall shows, in Washington the Beatles were recorded in black and white, for a film that appeared the next month in US cinemas and, eventually, on DVD. Snippets endure on YouTube.

"Fifty years later, I feel so honored to think that I was there in the Coliseum, seeing them," said Trish Banker, one of Mink's friends at the show. "It's just amazing."

© 1994-2014 Agence France-Presse

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