On February 9, 1964, Ed Sullivan introduced the Beatles to his American audience, bringing the nascent British Invasion to almost half of America’s televisions in one evening.
Abbey Road on the River producer Gary Jacob didn’t want to wait until May, when his annual five-day festival packs Louisville’s downtown with tribute bands and fans, to celebrate the fiftieth anniversary of one of pop culture’s most historic moments. So he’s re-enacting the entire episode live on February 9 in the Kentucky Center’s Bomhard Theatre, with Chicago’s BritBeat standing in for the Beatles. Entertainer Fred Whitfield will portray Sullivan.
“We felt Ed Sullivan himself, and his vision, and his inspiration as a producer, to be able to spot the Beatles, to bring them here – not for one week but three weeks – that he’s as important a part of the story as they are. He was the star-maker,” says Jacob. “It was an iconic moment, and we wanted to re-create that because nobody else has ever done that before. “
That iconic moment lives on in video clips, and it’s easy to forget that the Beatles’ set was only one of many segments aired on that historic episode. The February 9 show will include all of the acts Sullivan hosted that evening, re-enacted by Louisville performers.
Jacob says he thinks about that moment, coming fast on the heels of President John F. Kennedy’s assassination and televised funeral, as a snapshot of America at that time – poised on the edge of a youth culture revolution that would both change and reflect the course of a decade.
“What a shock it must have been to the American system to see these boys like this, whereas the other acts were what my parents were used to seeing every night on Ed Sullivan,” he says. “And the fact that Ed was smart enough to get teenaged girls in the audience, that’s not who his regular audience was. His regular audience every night was probably middle-aged people. That night he packed the house with teenagers.”
The event is part of February ’64, a three-day mini-festival (Feb. 7-9) based at the Muhammad Ali Center featuring twelve musical acts paying tribute to the Beatles, including Louisville’s The Nick Peay Band. Jacob considers it a warm-up to Abbey Road on the River, scheduled for May 22-26. The Beach Boys will headline the festival, which is the largest Beatles-inspired music festival in the world.