NOT TRUE! The Beatles Appearance on Ed Sullivan and NYC Crime

In this special “The Internet Says it’s NOT True” episode, we talk about a dubious claim about The Beatles: That when they made their renowned appearance on the Ed Sullivan show in 1964, crime was virtually non-existent in NYC for one hour. We talk about the appearance and get to the bottom of the claim.

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If you’ve ever watched Stephen Colbert do his monologue every weeknight on The Late Show, or David Letterman for 22 years before that, the very floorboards on which they were standing were witness to one of the greatest moments in television history. Right there on that stage at 1697 Broadway in New York City, the Beatles made their first appearance on the Ed Sullivan Show. 

And this claim is that the broadcast was so popular, so well-viewed, that for that hour – from 8 to 9pm eastern time – there was no crime reported in New York City. But could that really be true?

The whole endeavor started the year before, in 1963, when Jack Babb went to London. He was the talent booker for the Ed Sullivan show and he had been invited by Peter Pritchard, a talent agent who was friends with the Beatles Manager Brian Epstein. The young talent booker wasn’t big on the idea of booking The Beatles at first. They had a couple hit songs and a chart topping album, but they weren’t known to most Americans. But that fall, their popularity throughout the U.K. started skyrocketing. When they appeared on the British show “Val Parnell’s Sunday Night at the London Palladium,” it was broadcast live and 15 million viewers watched. Every major newspaper started talking about The Beatles and it was then the Daily Mirror coined the term “Beatlemania.” They were even invited to perform before the Royal Family. They could sell out clubs in the U.K. but “Beatlemania” hadn’t spread to the states in 1963.

Had it been eight years earlier, Ed Sullivan may have never had a teeny-bopper act like The Beatles on his show. But since then, he had invited Elvis Presley on his show and 60 million people tuned in to watch. He originally didn’t want Elvis on his show. But his competitor, Steve Allen brought him on and surpassed Sullivan’s ratings that week. That was enough to get him to change his mind and pay Elvis $50,000 to appear. So 8 years later, the idea of showcasing a group like The Beatles didn’t sound like such a bad idea. After all, soon after The Beatles appeared on the Palladium show to an audience of 15 million, they completed a tour in Sweden. And Ed Sullivan just happened to be at London Heathrow Airport when the Beatles returned from their Swedish Tour. What he witnessed firsthand was crazy. The airport was flooded with more than a thousand fans waiting outside in the rain to see the Fab Four return home. Ed Sullivan saw the ratings potential.

While Elvis was a huge star already, The Beatles were an unknown to most Americans, so they struck a deal for 3 total appearances on the show for $10,000. The Beatles were interested in using this as a platform to really kickstart their popularity in America. According to one of Ed Sullivan’s program coordinators, Vince Calandra, the Beatles “were all very professional, very respectful.” He said “”They weren’t like other groups that came in, whose attitude was, ‘OK, let’s do the “Sullivan Show” and sell a bunch of records and then on Monday morning we’re all gonna go to the dealership and buy our new cars.’ The Beatles really wanted this thing to work!” The deal was struck in November of 1963 to have them appear. And between then and February, their song “I Want to Hold Your Hand” had been released and hit the Billboard Hot 100 chart. Things were shaping up for their first television appearance in America to be a huge hit.

And Beatles afficianados will be quick to point out that the Ed Sullivan appearance wasn’t actually The Beatles first time on American television. Just one month before the Ed Sullivan appearance, Jack Parr played some footage of The Beatles performing. He took the footage on a trip to London and played it on his American show to make fun of them. He had no idea. So yes – Jack Parr first played them in America, but their first actual in-person appearance was on Ed Sullivan in February. 

Their reception at JFK airport on February was pandemonium. 5,000 screaming young fans greeted them, almost causing a riot. Just six days earlier, “I Want to Hold Your Hand” had landed the number one spot.

Two days later, they appeared on the Ed Sullivan show. They ran through a rehearsal. George Harrison was sick with strep throat and 104-degree fever, so he stayed in the hotel room during rehearsal. Program Coordinator Vince Calandra put on a “Beatles style” wig and stood in for him. George arrived later to do a camera rehearsal and then the final show would go on a 8pm. George was the youngest of the four at 20 years old. Paul was 21. Ringo and John were 23. When Elvis had appeared on the Ed Sullivan program in 1956, the show received 7,000 requests to be one of the lucky people to sit in the 728-seat studio audience. For The Beatles, they received 50,000 ticket requests. In addition to Jack Parr’s daughter, Randy, Richard Nixon’s daughters Julie and Tricia were in the audience that Sunday night. At 8pm, the show began. When you listen to the studio audience, you can hear the excitement in the many teenage fans in attendance. 

After the first commercial break, Ed Sullivan came back with their introduction.

They played “All My Loving,” “Til There Was You,” and “She Loves You” in their first segment. The producers displayed the first names of The Beatles on the broadcast as the camera cut to each member of the band. Under John, they added the words “Sorry Girls, He’s Married.” He had been married to Cynthia for 2 years prior. The reaction from the live studio audience was the same as what The Beatles had become accustomed to: the screaming was so loud, Ringo couldn’t hear the rest of the band. They could only hear his cymbals, and he watched Paul’s foot and John’s bouncing for the beat.

In the second half of the show, the Beatles played “I Saw Her Standing There,” and their number one hit, “I Want to Hold Your Hand.” That was what they had tuned into see. And when I say “they,” I mean 73.7 million viewers at home. Almost 40% of the US population was watching. There were more live viewers of this show than there were people in the U.K.

While teenagers loved it, they were panned by critics who hadn’t yet caught the Beatlemania.

When Newsweek Magazine came out on February 24, 1964, it reviewed the performance.

“Visually, they are a nightmare: tight, dandified, Edwardian/Beatnik suits and great pudding bowls of hair. Musically, they are a near-disaster: guitars and drums slamming out a merciless beat that does away with secondary rhythms, harmony, and melody. Their lyrics (punctuated by nutty shouts of “yeah, yeah, yeah!”) are a catastrophe, a preposterous farrago of Valentine-card romantic sentiments . . . The odds are they will fade away, as most adults confidently predict.”

There are a handful of media reactions to their February 9th appearance on the Ed Sullivan Show that are similar. They were called a fad. The fact that young people screamed for these guys and older people didn’t understand it absolutely drove these critics crazy. But history has judged The Beatles – and their first appearance on Ed Sullivan as anything but a fad. In fact, if you look up a list of most important television music moments in history, this appearance almost always tops the list. 

Dan Aykroyd, the famous comedian ,remembers watching as an 11year-old. “Oh man, I remember that Sunday night; we didn’t know what had hit us – just sitting there watching Ed Sullivan’s show. Up until then there were jugglers and comedians like Jerry Lewis, and then, suddenly, The Beatles!”

But was a viewing audience of 73.7 million enough to actually put a temporary halt to crime in New York City?

It was the most watched television program in history. Ed Sullivan’s show topped the charts, beating out all of the famous television shows of the time. There wasn’t another show with that many viewers until the series finale of M*A*S*H beat the record almost 20 years later. It was a big moment for America. Many people saw the Beatles on Ed Sullivan as a sort of high moment after the low moment that had come just several months before when President Kennedy was assassinated. Many people believed that their popularity in America was due to a public need for something positive and uplifting.

But there’s this legend about New York City crime.  And that’s what this episode is about. Is it possible that there were no crimes committed in New York between 8-9pm on February 9th of 1964? Many places around the Internet make that claim. And it was a popular legend for years. In 1994, The Chicago Sun Times printed the legend as fact, as did many other publications.

Even George Harrison repeats the legend on the Beatles Anthology program. He says, “We were aware that Ed Sullivan was the big one because we got a telegram from Elvis and the Colonel. And I’ve heard that while the show was on there were no reported crimes, or very few. When The Beatles were on Ed Sullivan, even the criminals had a rest for ten minutes.” 

This legend persisted, and persists today. I recently saw a video on TikTok talking about it as fact. But guess what? It’s not. It didn’t happen. First, let’s look at the numbers.

New York City’s population in 1964 was just a hair under 15 million people. That was 7.8% of the total population of the country. If 73.7 million people watched the show that night, that means 5.7 million people were watching in New York City. In other words, there were still about 11 million people out there available to do crimes during that hour. And what are the chances that the criminals were the same ones staying in and watching the Ed Sullivan show?

Okay, so let’s look at crime. I couldn’t find statistics on 1964, but I found 1965 and there were 58,000 violent crimes and 495,000 property crimes that year. 

And remember this was before Giuliani cleaned up New York – the old Giulinani – the Mayor – regular ole’ Giuliani before he presumably fell in a vat of acid and got turned into a super villain.

The point is, it’s unlikely that this is true. And I’m not the only one who thinks so. I turned to – that’s right, good ole’ snopes – the website that hardcore conservatives think you can’t trust. What do you think about that, Alex Jones?

Turns out David Mikkelson at Snopes did an article about this back in 2000. He found the truth behind what started this rumor. Not only is it not true, it started as a snarky comment from a journalist. Washington Post Editor B.F. Henry hated the appearance on the Ed Sullivan Show. His summary of the performance was similar to the one I read before the break. His next statement was meant as an insult. Henry said there was only one good thing about the Beatles appearance: “during the hour they were on Ed Sullivan’s show, there wasn’t a hubcap stolen in America.” Of course he wrote it to mean that Beatles fans were hoodlums. It was meant as sarcasm, but it was printed in The Washington Post, and repeated later in Newsweek. And if that’s not enough to prove to you that the legend is just that – a legend, just a myth, The Washington Post’s own Bill Gold when on to print a followup column several weeks later that disproves the story. I’ll leave you with that followup statement.

“It is with heavy heart that I must inform Newsweek that this report was not true. Lawrence R. Fellenz of 307 E. Groveton St., Alexandria, had his car parked on church property during that hour — and all four of his hubcaps were stolen. The Washington Post regrets the error, and District Liner Fellenz regrets that somewhere in Alexandria there lives a hipster who is too poor to own a TV set.”

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Forgotten history, bizarre tales & facts that seem too strange to be true! Host Michael Kent asks listeners to tell him something strange, bizarre or surprising that they've recently learned and he gets to the bottom of it! Every episode ends by playing a gameshow-style quiz game with a celebrity guest. Part of the WCBE Podcast Experience.


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