I-Team: Beatles put Las Vegas on show biz map

LAS VEGAS -- Fifty years ago this week, Las Vegas was engulfed by Beatlemania. The hottest act in the world at the time, the Beatles, had personally chosen Las Vegas to be on the band's first North American tour.

It was a curious choice, given the small size of the city at the time, but the band's two local performances caused a sensation back then, one that is still being felt today.

The average city on that 1964 tour had 1.4 million residents. There were only 120,000 people in all of Clark County. Beatle historians say the band members picked Las Vegas because they wanted to see it. The powers that be, at the time, were not exactly thrilled. The Strip could care less about a band that was popular with teenagers. So the biggest act on the planet didn't exactly get red carpet treatment.

Half a century ago, Beatlemania smashed onto American shores like a shrieking tsunami. The hit movie A Hard Day's Night was playing at the Huntridge theater during the week that the Fab Four chose Las Vegas as the second stop on the band's first triumphant American tour.

Hoping to avoid crazed fans, they arrived at the airport in the middle of the night, hoping they might be able to kick back and see the sights while in Las Vegas. They sidestepped a crowd at the airport, but when they arrived at the Sahara Hotel & Casino it was bedlam. Thousands of hysterical teens had surrounded the place, blocked the way, pawed and jostled, and almost rioted when the band tried to enter.

"It's insanity. It makes you wonder how they put up with it," said Dennis Mitchell, who produced Breakfast with the Beatles.

Mitchell wasn't there, but as a kid, he too was smitten by the Beatles and turned it into a career. His long running radio show and podcast Breakfast with the Beatles is heard all over the world.

Mitchell has become an authority on the band and the weird little stop in Las Vegas, by far, was the smallest venue on the tour. Mitchell says the Beatles made the call, for one reason.

"In a word, cool. The Beatles wanted to be cool," Mitchell said. "And once you are stateside, where is there a bigger cool factor than Las Vegas? So it was really a matter of them wanting to be here."

Las Vegas in 1964 was cool as epitomized by the Rat Pack, but the Strip establishment was clueless.

"They had no idea this snowball was still growing and about to roll into the valley in a big way," Mitchell said.

According to a new two-volume book, emissaries approached every hotel on the Strip, south to north, and every one turned them down. Why sign an act that attracts teenagers? The last door they knocked on was the Sahara which agreed to pay them $25,000 for two performances in the hotel's 700-seat Congo room theater. It was akin to staging the Super Bowl at a high school stadium.

At first, there was little interest in show tickets along the Strip, but as the buzz mounted, the shows were moved to the much larger convention center rotunda, where thousands of kids started lining up to buy tickets. The cheap seats sold for $2.20. The expensive ones for $5.50.

"If it was Sinatra or Dean Martin, I would have known about it but I didn't pay any attention to the Beatles," said Ralph Lamb, the former Clark County sheriff.

Lamb's musical tastes leaned more toward Hank Williams than John Lennon, so he'd never heard of the Beatles until the buzz started building. He told the band's managers that the boys would have to come down and get a sheriff's card like anyone else who worked at a Las Vegas casino, including entertainers.

 "I got hold of their manager there, I don't remember his name, and I said when those guys are messing around in the afternoon, you can bring them down all at once, ask for Gale Hardy and she will fingerprint them, give them a work card. It's good identification for them. They said, 'Are you crazy?'"

Lamb stuck to his guns and made them do it. Local teens were already enraged by how the band was being treated. Newspaperman Don Digilio, a journalistic provocateur, had written tongue in cheek columns poking fun at the Beatles. The paper was bombarded with angry calls and letters and Digilio's home was picketed.

Back at the Sahara, the four band mates were sequestered in the penthouse that years would later be marketed as the Beatles suite. They couldn't visit the casino, so the casino came to them in a move that would never be allowed today.

Rumors surfaced years later that underage girls were discovered inside the suite and that hush money was paid, but no proof surfaced. As the show neared, so many things could have gone wrong.

"You had police issues, police all over the hotels, alleged indiscretions, work permit issues, bomb scares and the reporter that was sent wasn't really kind to them, so now they didn't get a warm welcome in Las Vegas. They still came away saying great things about our city and it was one of the great memories of the 64 tour for them," Mitchell said.



 


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