On February 9, 1964, Debbie Gendler was joined by several hundred lucky people who had the opportunity to witness one of the most iconic television debuts in history – The Beatles first appearance on The Ed Sullivan Show! 73 million people watched as The Beatles were introduced to America. Music and our culture would never be the same. Ed Sullivan became the undisputed leader in introducing the foremost UK talents and the wave of groups that followed came to be known as the “British Invasion.” Now 58 years later, Debbie is here to relive that special evening with us and we’ve asked her 10 questions to learn insider details of how it all unfolded.
1. Can you tell us how you got a ticket to the show?
Debbie: In April 1963 I received a Beatle album as a gift from the UK. None of my friends appreciated The Beatles at the time with their “long” hair and “scruffy” look. Inside there was a card to join their Fan Club so I wrote a letter to the Club in England. Never heard back until later in the year when I was asked to come to a meeting in New York City to organize American teens for The Beatles arrival in New York. Seeing as I was only 13 years old that didn’t work out at the time, but I was sent a ticket for the group’s appearance on the Sullivan Show for February 9th.
2. What was going on outside the theater?
Debbie: Thousands of kids with signs and Meet The Beatles albums lined Broadway and the side streets making it difficult to reach the studio. Barricades and police on horses tried to control the pushing crowds all waiting for The Beatles. It was a cold night, but that didn’t keep anyone away. My Mom who drove me from New Jersey to New York City pleaded with a police officer to let me through – I didn’t dare show the actual ticket for fear it would be ripped out of my hand. I was really worried because people were arriving in droves and I thought there might not be enough seats available in the studio. Then my Mom pushed me past some clusters of people and I dashed in and a page grabbed my ticket – no ticket stub to cherish!
3. Inside the theater what was going on?
Debbie: I was immediately told to go upstairs to my seat. I was upset because there were kids downstairs closer to the stage, but I decided I should be happy just to be there. The girls seated behind me were already screaming and in minutes I was too. The stage was frantic and the audience was hoping to catch a glimpse of The Beatles. I didn’t see Ed until he told us to quiet down. And finally…Ed introduced The Beatles!
4. From that night, what are the memories that stuck with you the most, the ones you always look back on?
Debbie: My lasting memories include being so physically close to The Beatles on stage that I could barely breathe the same air as my idols. I just loved being surrounded by all the other screaming girls. Ed tried to quiet us down, but we were too far gone. What to wear to the show was also problematic because maybe a Beatle might see me! And the other lingering memory is of my Mom waiting outside for hours and walking along 53rd Street with frozen tears of joy rolling down my face after the show.
5. What about the other acts on the show that night?
Debbie: I really don’t remember the other acts…I was too focused on The Beatles. I did learn that Davy Jones way before the Monkees was performing, but I don’t remember Davy either! None of us cared who else was on the show! The husband-and-wife comedy duo wasn’t funny at all and in my mind took up time that The Beatles could have filled.
6. You did eventually become a Beatles Fan Club organizer, how does a young girl balance that with school, family, and a personal life?
Debbie: I really didn’t have a personal life at that age, I stopped going to sleepaway camp because I needed to be working for the Club, there was much to do for the lead-up to the summer of 1964 – Beatles on tour, premiere of “A Hard Day’s Night,” it was busy! School wasn’t an issue.
7. Why do you think The Ed Sullivan Show was such a success for so many decades?
Debbie: We could relate to Ed. He was a regular guy that presented entertainment for everyone to enjoy – it was Sunday night – the lead up to a busy week.
8. Do you think we can have another variety show as big as The Ed Sullivan Show today?
Debbie: No…the audience today is too fragmented. Ed was family viewing when people the following day would gather and comment on the show. Today there are too many choices.
9. You were in the audience for more than just The Beatles first appearance- any thoughts on that?
Debbie: After being there on February 9th I wrote in for tickets nearly every week. I saw some greats – Ella Fitzgerald, The Rolling Stones, Duke Ellington, Tom Jones, Neil Diamond, Alan King, The Byrds, Totie Fields, and Cilla Black to name a few. Cilla was very special because I was invited to the show by Brian Epstein, The Beatles manager who also repped Cilla. She never made it big in the U.S much to Brian’s disappointment. In all I went to the show about 12 times. Entering the theater’s vestibule it had its own energy, excitement and anticipation of a really big show!
10. How did seeing The Beatles impact your life and future career?
Debbie: Leaving the theater I never realized that night would define my life. Sitting in the audience at Sullivan and other shows led to my interest in working in TV. That first Sullivan appearance inspired so many people – not just the famous who attribute their musical interest from watching on February 9th, but gave my generation a direction and meaning after the tragedy of seeing our President shot.
58 years later, Gendler still relives those childhood memories she had at 1697 Broadway. It’s days like February 9, 1964, that can be the start of the rest of your life. Her story goes to show that anything can be achieved at any age, and you should never stop reaching for your dreams.