50 years later: Reviving a fab Beatles’ night

  Lavanya Ramanathan (c) 2014, The Washington Post.  

WASHINGTON — Before the Beatles had touched down for their first American visit in February 1964, the first shrieks of Beatlemania were sweeping our shores.

When the four lads from Liverpool landed at John F. Kennedy International Airport to perform on “The Ed Sullivan Show,” throngs of teenage fans, egged on by radio DJs, were waiting for them. Their rollicking number “I Want to Hold Your Hand” had just clinched the No. 1 position on the charts.

After the television appearance, John, Paul, George and Ringo were household names. But the band was also about to make history in an unlikely place: a spartan brick sports venue in Washington. On Feb. 11, the Fab Four made their U.S. concert debut at Washington Coliseum, a domed arena built for hockey, not pop stars.

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The stage was a boxing ring. Surrounded by fans on all sides at the sold-out, Tuesday-night show, they paused 20 minutes in and turned their stage setup around so half of the audience wouldn’t have to look at their backs the entire show. It was nothing if not memorable.

Fifty years after the historic concert, the coliseum, now known by its original name, Uline Arena, somehow still stands — a windowless relic in Beatles history.

Tuesday, the arena’s owner, Douglas Development, and the DC Preservation League will take advantage of the venue’s legacy to celebrate the Fab Four and the Uline with a reenactment of the 1964 concert.

“This building has tremendous history, starting from when it was built,” says Rebecca Miller, executive director of the preservation league. “This is not the kind of building we have in Washington.”

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For not much more than what concertgoers paid in 1964 to see the Beatles, cars now park where the Fab Four (and the Rolling Stones, Patsy Cline and Bob Dylan) once played, where Malcolm X spoke and where Joe Frazier wrestled before he became a champion boxer. But fans still pop by to look inside, some signing their names or leaving notes about the Beatles on the facade.

For those not lucky enough to be among the 8,000 people who snagged tickets for less than $5 each, “Yesterday & Today,” as Tuesday’s concert has been dubbed, is an exciting prospect. A tribute band, Beatlemania Now, will perform the same set list the Beatles did during that 35-minute concert. They’ll even start at 8:31 p.m., just as the Beatles did. (After they’ve run through the 12-song set list, they’ll play a selection of more Beatles favorites.) The concert, a fundraiser for the preservation league, also will feature an exhibition of photographs by Mike Mitchell, who attended the concert here and captured the scene in striking black-and-white images.

To put it together, Miller and organizers scoured the Web, turning up conflicting tales about that snow-covered night in 1964. The Chiffons didn’t play because of the weather, but memories differ about who opened the show. Tommy Roe was there, and the Righteous Brothers are said to have appeared. There is some dispute over whether the Beatles even began playing at 8:31 p.m., Miller says.

These days, the boxing ring is gone. So are most (but curiously, not all) of the original seats that lined the arena. The capacity of the Uline is now just 3,500, and it won’t be possible to re-create the in-the-round seating.

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A film made of the Washington concert — now widely available online — helped answer many of the questions. The band, for example, was barely audible over the incessant screams of stricken teenage girls.

Mitchell, who now lives here, filled in other blanks.

“My perspective is one of someone who’s listened to that music all my life,” Mitchell, 68, says. “It’s almost as if the recordings of it are like neural patterns. I was very concerned about the integrity of the rendering by the band” in the reenactment.

Concertgoers should bundle up. The condition of the old coliseum, completed in the early 1940s, is hard to fathom in a town that has renovated or knocked down lesser eyesores. The paint inside is peeling. You can make out sky through holes in the distinctive curved roof.

Neglect, Miller says, left the building like this after 40 years of disuse.

Fights, the hockey games, the music — it all disappeared from the coliseum in the early 1970s, when the sparkling Capital Centre opened in Landover, Md. It had the capacity for more than 17,000 people, nearly three times that of the old arena, which by then was 30 years old.

Soon after Tuesday’s concert, a $77 million renovation will begin, and the Uline will be rendered almost unrecognizable. Only the distinctive curved-roof exterior will remain as the historic staging area is filled with offices and retail space in what will again be called the Coliseum.

How close will this experience be to the one that so many cherish, that fans remember in such detail? Can a tribute band ever fill in for the real thing? “I’m really looking forward to seeing that question answered by this experience,” Mitchell says. “I have no idea what it’s going to be like.”

Details: Uline Arena is at 1146 Third St. NE in D.C., about one block from the NoMa-Gallaudet Station on Metro’s Red Line. Tickets, available at www.beatlesyesterdayandtoday.com, are $45 for standing-room and $100 for seats.

You can see the exhibition of 19 of Mike Mitchell’s photos from the 1964 concert on display in Uline’s former lobby. The exhibition also will be open Saturday and Sunday from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. A $5 admission will be charged on those days.