There are not many moments in life where you find yourself witnessing and participating in a significant historical event. You know it even then because there has never been anything like it before. You are gobsmacked with what you see, hear and feel. And, to top it off, all this happens accidentally by a fortunate set of circumstances.
It was on August 15, 1965 that the Beatles were scheduled to play Shea Stadium in Flushing Meadows, New York. My sisters Chris and Barbara and their friend Gail were rabid Beatle fans and they made sure they had their tickets as well as their white go-go boots ready. These were the days when large concerts were rare. This one would be their second tour of the U.S. but the first-ever “stadium concert” and the largest concert crowd (55,600) at any concert at that time.
Strangers in a Strange Land
Shea was completed only a year before and as the latest project promoted by Robert Moses, the famed New York City planner, to develop the Queens area. It was located in Flushing Meadows next to the grounds of the World’s Fair of 1964-65 in Corona Park.
Most of us had visited the World’s Fair the year before and marveled at exhibitions. It was a fascinating look at the future and and offered a taste of other countries. I still remember the Lowenbräu beer pavilion where we could drink beer freely, just like being in Bavaria, even though we were underaged and about as naive as we could be about the rest of the world. It seemed like we were moving into the future and becoming part of a bigger world.
Accepting the Mission
In the original plan, my dad was supposed to drive my sisters to and from Shea since they were young teens not old enough to drive. Well, it turned out my buddy Mike Hayser and I were hanging around my house that hazy 80-degree Sunday with nothing particular to do so we volunteered to take them instead. Why my father allowed us to drive I’ll never know but probably the long ride and the need to wait for them were factors. And, it was, after all, the 1960’s and there was a certain freedom and permission that’s hard to reconcile with today’s helicopter parenting.
We didn’t even think about how crazy this could be with thousands of screaming fans. But we sensed that there would be lots of girls and a great adventure awaiting. Little did we know we would be driving directly into history.
At 17 years old I considered my six months of experience enough to tackle the big-game driving in New York City’s traffic and its strange mysterious boroughs. Shea was then a big new and bold stadium. It was built to last for the New York Mets franchise, which started only a few years before. Both the stadium and the team represented new hope for us bitter and abandoned ex-Brooklyn Dodger fans.
The Way to Shea
This was my longest and most challenging drive with my hand-painted blue 56’ Chevy. Living in Roselle, the best way to get to Shea was to take the Goethals Bridge from Elizabeth to Staten Island and drive across the new and mammoth Verrazano-Narrows Bridge (which was another Robert Moses project.). The bridge had just opened in January 1964 and was an instant success allowing traffic to Brooklyn, Queens and Long Island via the Belt and Grand Central Parkways. To us on the Jersey side, these were legendary roads where we were warned daily of horrendous traffic conditions on the radio and assumed only brave and crazy drivers dare go. So, why not try?
The only way to get somewhere far away in those days was to rely on old-fashioned, artfully folded paper maps. Every car had dozens of maps in the glove compartment which were free to grab at any gas station. We relied on maps, intuition and signs (if they were still there) to find where we were going. So, we grabbed a map of New York and headed out like modern explorers to find Shea Stadium and experience the wild urban frontier.
Going with the Flow
As we approached Shea the traffic became heavy and led to a stop. A tremendous crowd was moving toward the stadium so we decided to find a parking spot along the road and walk to the stadium, even though our mission was to deliver my sisters and kill some time exploring the area – later to pick them up somehow. My sisters found the gates where ticket holders entered moving rapidly. Mike and I realized at this point that the action was inside the stadium and our best move would be to try and get in.
We studied the situation and realized that this was a sellout and there no tickets (Box seats cost $5.65 apiece!) to be bought and the security staff seemed only half-interested in checking tickets. So, we approached a guard to tell the story of our good deed of taking my sisters to the concert; only to be left outside waiting. Let’s just say on that day everyone was in a good mood. They turned away as we freely walked into the most important concert of our lives, without a ticket.
The Beatles had only broken into the U.S. market a couple years ago but by now they were known worldwide having created over a half-dozen albums and two films. This was the beginning of their North America tour having just released their album and film “Help!” less than two weeks ago and had appeared on the Ed Sullivan show the night before.
Pop concerts were not that common and were not believed to be big revenue generators. All that changed at Shea. The concert at Shea Stadium set a world record for attendance and gross revenue. The Beatles got $160,000 of the $304,000 box office sales and proved that there was money and other benefits in staging large concerts.
Lead off acts included Brenda Holloway, King Curtis, Sounds Incorporated, Killer Joe Piro and The Discothèque Dancers, The Young Rascals and Cannibal & the Headhunters. Hosts included Murray the K and Cousin Brucie Morrow. Television host Ed Sullivan introduced the band when they took the stage: “Now, ladies and gentlemen, honored by their country, decorated by their Queen, and loved here in America, here are The Beatles!”
The concert was ahead of the audio technology at the time and could not properly project the music in the massive stadium. Powerful stage amplifiers couldn’t play louder than the screaming crowd. Even the stadium’s P.A. system, normally used by baseball announcers, was also employed to help project the band’s sound. But, the roar of the crowd could be heard throughout their appearance.
Once the Beatles started playing, it didn’t matter where your tickets were or if you had one. Everyone spilled into the lower levels and stood for the entire concert in awe of the band and the crowd of frenzied fans. They continued to play 12 songs lasting about an hour. We had traveled two hours, witnessed the largest crowd we had ever seen, managed to crash the gate and listen to some great music. But, nothing compared to the electric reaction of this huge crowd. Girls were out of control and screaming everywhere. I remember getting goosebumps by just witnessing the joy and excitement that was beyond our imagination. It was obvious that Beatles were having as great a time as their audience.
After the concert fans stormed the field and we made our way out. I’m still not sure how we found my sisters in that crowd of over 55,000. I don’t remember a thing about the ride home but I’m sure we basked in the good vibes of the event knowing that we were there for a very special event with memories that will last a lifetime.
The Concert at Shea in the Beatles’ Words…
“I think we just went a bit hysterical that night; we couldn’t believe where we were and what was going on, we couldn’t hear a bloody thing and we thought ‘This isn’t very good, but it’s going down great.’ The hysteria started to kick in. That was a great one.”Paul McCartney, Back To The World tour book
“Once you know you’ve filled a place that size, it’s magic; just walls of people. Half the fun was being involved in this gigantic event ourselves.”Paul McCartney, The Beatles Bible
“What I remember most about the concert was that we were so far away from the audience. . . And screaming had become the thing to do. . . Everybody screamed. If you look at the footage, you can see how we reacted to the place. It was very big and very strange.”Ringo Starr, The Beatles Anthology
“At Shea Stadium, I saw the top of the mountain.”John Lennon, recalling the show in 1970 in a TV interview
It’s interesting to note that at the time of the concert the Watts Los Angeles riots were taking place with the black community angry about the police brutality and civil rights. Meanwhile, President Johnson signed the Voting Act of 1965 that very afternoon establishing new laws that were meant to provide free and fair elections forever.
The mighty Shea was demolished forty seven years later replaced by Citi Field, but the same roads and bridges remain. The Beatles were only in their 20s and at the height of their careers in 1965 but played their last concert together in 1970, just five years later. That last concert and the Beatles legend is still being explored with the release of the new Peter Jackson/Disney+ retrospective on the Beatles last project together, the making of “Get Back.”
History, it seems, is never written in stone and just takes time to understand and appreciate.
The Beatles at Shea Stadium Video
The following video was purchased years ago online and represents a rough cut of the original special recording which appeared on British and American TV as a special. It is approximately 52 minutes long.