Donnie Johnston used his Brownie Starflash camera to shoot this view of Downtown Pittsburgh.
Civic Arena, site of the concert, was built atop a once-bustling community, the city's Lower Hill District. (Pittsburgh Press photo)
Donnie Johnston's priceless possession. (Courtesy of Donnie Johnston)
Dawn that day arrived crisp and cool, with temperatures in the 40s. At the Liberty Avenue Greyhound terminal, a handful of teenage girls blinked to wakefulness in a parked bus. They’d spent the night in the vehicle after police shooed them away from the walkways of the Civic Arena, where the girls had planned to spend the night with newspapers serving as protection from the cold. They wanted to be first in line when the arena doors opened Monday evening.
Life stirred in the terminal. A bus pulled in, disgorged its passengers. Off came a tall, skinny red-headed kid named Donnie Johnston. Donnie was exhausted after 11 hours on a bus that seemed to stop at every small town between Culpeper, Va., and Pittsburgh. The smell of diesel fumes lingered in his nostrils.
Donnie lugged a 25-pound, suitcase-sized audio recorder borrowed from the tiny Culpeper radio station where he worked as a part-time disc jockey. He also carried a cheap Brownie Starflash camera.
In his pocket were two tickets. One allowed him into the Beatles concert that evening -- it cost $5.90, a whopping amount for a kid whose family lived on $76 a month. The other cost nothing, but to Donnie, a 17-year-old high school junior, it was priceless.
“Beatles Press Conference,” the ticket read in bold blue lettering. “Civic Arena, September 14, 1964. Admit one.”
Donnie’s life until this moment had been largely confined to Culpeper County in rural northeastern Virginia, where he and his two younger brothers lived with the boys’ grandmother in a house on 2 acres of land. She had inherited the brothers after the boy’s parents had divorced. The newly formed family raised chickens and hogs and lived in a home with no indoor plumbing.
A few hours each Saturday night, Donnie spun rock ’n’ roll records for an AM radio station whose signal was beamed to Culpeper County’s mostly rural residents. The Top 40 was dominated then by what Donnie considered “lovey-dovey girly ballads” crooned by the likes of Bobby Vinton, Frankie Avalon and Bobby Rydell.
The music was safe -- “white and polite,” was the term Donnie used. And it was boring. Few recognized it at the time, but Donnie and millions of other American teenagers were ready to embrace something fresh, with a few rough edges.
They got it in late December 1963, with the release of the Beatles’ “I Want to Hold Your Hand.” In little more than a month, the song reached the pinnacle of America’s pop charts.
By mid-March, the Beatles held all three top spots, with “She Loves You” and “Please Please Me” joining the still-dominant “I Want to Hold Your Hand.” A month later, the Beatles had 14 songs in the Hot 100.
Donnie played every Beatles record he could get his hands on. He knew the band represented something new and exciting. The music world was changing and he wanted to be a part of it. So when he heard that the band would tour North America in late summer of 1964, he determined to find a way to interview the Beatles.
The list of cities they’d play included Baltimore and Philadelphia, both closer to Culpeper, but Donnie elected to try Pittsburgh. He’d always been a Pirates fan. In fact, he’d sometimes sit under a big maple tree in the front yard of his uncle’s house and listen to Bob Prince and Jim Woods call Pirates games on a KDKA radio signal traveling more than 250 miles.
His radio gig was enough of a credential to secure a press pass. He mailed in $5.60 for a ticket to the Pittsburgh show. Then, he spent half of his savings -- $20 -- for a round-trip bus ticket.
On Sunday evening, Sept. 13, he stopped by the radio station, picked up an audio recorder and walked to the Culpeper bus station. He’d be absent from school the next day, but maybe the school administrators would give him a break. After all, wasn’t this an educational experience?
Beverly Velto's high school yearbook photo. (Steve Mellon/Post-Gazette)
At Madonna High School in Weirton, W.Va., three good Catholic girls began their week as always -- sitting in class. On this Monday, though, focusing on lessons proved difficult. For Sharon Davis, Beverly Velto and Joan Stan, it seemed the day would never end.
When at last the school bell sounded, the three hurried home and changed out of their school uniforms (pleated skirts, white blouses and wool blazers) and into more hip, comfortable and Beatle-appropriate clothing.
For Sharon, it was a green corduroy drop-waisted dress with a chelsea collar and a paisley tie. And, of course, a “John cap” -- the Greek fisherman’s hat popularized by John Lennon in the Beatles’ recently released movie, “A Hard Day’s Night.” Beverly changed into a pleated skirt, a fuzzy angora sweater that was pulled over a button-down blouse, and knee socks. Joan wore a Mod dress -- a Mary Quant number -- with a big collar and a bow.
Each girl clutched a ticket. This would be a special night, the girls were certain. The concert would be great, of course, but there was this other thing that was equally thrilling: The girls had devised a plan to get the Beatles’ attention. Oh, it was a brilliant plan, hatched in optimistic teenage minds. And if it worked … well, the girls thought, maybe they’d get to meet the four Liverpool lads.
A few days earlier, the girls heard a radio interview in which George Harrison seemed unaware that his band was scheduled to play in Pittsburgh. In fact, he seemed somewhat confused about the location of the city.
So the girls pooled their money and ordered an eight-inch cake from a local bakery. It was to be a white cake with the words, “George, this is Pittsburgh” written in icing on the top. Sharon was the most clever writer of the group, so she composed a letter, using a version of the whimsical language John Lennon employed in some of his poems, like “I sat belonely down a tree.”
The girls could imagine the boys gathered in their dressing room, delighting in the cake and laughing at the clever letter. Perhaps during the concert, Paul would pause between songs, walk up to the microphone and announce, “We’d like to invite some special people to the stage. Sharon, Beverly, Joan, come on down!”
Sharon wrote her address on the letter, just in case the Beatles wanted to get in touch with them some time after the concert.
And how would the girls deliver the cake to the Beatles? This was a detail to be worked out later. Magic was possible. To the three teens, the Beatles were proof.
The band, after all, had made the girls happy after all the sadness that had descended upon them one horrific day 10 months earlier, when a nun at Madonna High School interrupted classes with an announcement on the intercom: “The president has been shot.”
The entire student body marched out of the school and down the block to St. Joseph the Worker Church. There, 400 kids prayed the rosary for President John F. Kennedy under a huge vaulted ceiling. Then, “boom!” Coach Joe Krivak, an ex-marine, pushed open the massive church doors and announced with a voice that filled the sacred place, “The president is dead.”
Students were stunned. Some simply stood there, not knowing what to do, tears streaming down their cheeks. It was all so confusing. Beverly went home to find her mother crying in the living room. So much crying.
Then came these four musicians from Liverpool, with those fantastic haircuts and sleek suits. On a Sunday evening in February of ’64, Beverly and Sharon and Joan and millions of other teenage girls gathered in their living rooms and watched the band on “TheEd Sullivan Show.” The Beatles were so daring and new, and for a while you could forget about first lady Jackie Kennedy dressed in black and little John Jr.’s salute and hoofbeats on a Washington, D.C., street and the question, What we were supposed to do next?
In May, the girls learned that the Beatles would come to Pittsburgh. Sharon received a ticket as a present on her 16th birthday. Beverly and Joan got tickets, too -- both girls working and saving their pennies until they had the necessary $5.90.
And so after changing their clothes on the day of the concert, the girls climbed into a white Pontiac station wagon driven by Sharon’s father, who had agreed to act as chauffeur. Next to him sat Beverly’s father, who’d decided to make the trip, too. They headed to the bakery to pick up the cake before making the trip to Pittsburgh.
Donnie Johnston photographed his newfound friends in front of the Civic Arena. (Photo by Donnie Johnston)
Donnie Johnston at work in the mid 1960s.
Donnie Johnston spent most of the morning exploring Pittsburgh. He’d stashed his heavy recorder in a bus station locker, then walked outside to meet the city. Donnie was accustomed to clear, fresh country air. He would forever remember Pittsburgh as a smoggy place.
First, he walked west, toward the Point, where the tall stainless steel office buildings of Gateway Center offered evidence that the city was in the midst of great change. On one of those buildings he saw the lettering “KDKA.”
This was an opportunity. Announcers Bob Prince and Jim Woods, he knew, were out west with the Pirates. But Donnie was familiar with another name -- Paul Long, a KDKA newsman who on occasion filled in to announce Pirates games.
At the KDKA reception desk, Donnie explained who he was, why he was in town, and asked if he could see Long. Moments later, a bald man entered the room and greeted Donnie with what many Pittsburghers called the “voice of God.” Long was on his way to becoming a legendary anchorman in the city.
The two chatted briefly. Donnie would remember it as a friendly conversation. Then Long gave the newcomer directions to the Civic Arena, and Donnie was on his way.
By now, sidewalks were increasingly populated by teenage girls. Vendors hawked Beatles buttons, pennants, pictures, even wigs.
Donnie met several girls from West Virginia, and for a while they all hung around together, wandering parts of the city, visiting a record store and taking pictures outside the Civic Arena. In one, each girl wears a skirt or dress and a “John cap” and holds a magazine photo of the Beatles. The sun had risen, warming the cool air and forcing the girls to squint. This was turning out to be a great day for the kid from Culpeper County.
Donnie quickly discovered that his job as a radio reporter who would later come face-to-face with the Beatles gave him a sort of celebrity status. Girls began asking him favors. Some had gifts to offer their favorite Beatles. Could Donnie take them with him? One girl asked him to touch Paul McCartney, then find her afterward and touch her with the same hand. At the time, it was a perfectly understandable and reasonable request. The vast Civic Arena parking lot was filling with vehicles -- many of them great finned beasts with chrome bumpers and whitewall tires. Soon it was time for Donnie to say goodbye to the girls he’d met, then retrieve his recorder and enter the arena.
He had no idea what he’d find there. He’d never attended a press conference.
Sharon, Beverly and Joan ran into Jo-L’s Pastry in Weirton while the two fathers waited in the station wagon. The men, both wearing suits -- they always wore suits when going to town -- planned to see a movie while their daughters were at the concert.
The girls paid for the cake, presented to them in a white box tied with string, then returned to the back seat of the Pontiac. There, they opened the box and took a peek. What they saw made them giddy with excitement: Atop the cake were stick figure drawings of the Beatles -- Ringo at the drums, John and George on guitars and Paul with his bass. The bakery even remembered that Paul was left-handed.
It was perfect -- so cute. The Beatles would love it.
Pat DiCesare yearned to be in Pittsburgh on this day, helping manage affairs at the Civic Arena.
Instead, he was a thousand miles away, at an Army base called Fort Sill in Lawton, Okla., learning to aim a howitzer so it could launch a shell with enough precision to kill people 5 miles distant. DiCesare calculated wind velocity, humidity, temperature and a variety of other factors to calculate the shell’s trajectory.
It was an odd job for a man in his mid 20s who, less than a year earlier, had been working in Pittsburgh as a record promoter. DiCesare’s job then entailed listening to new recordings, determining what was hip, then getting radio stations and record stores interested in the music.
One day in late 1963, a friend asked him, “Have you heard of this band, the Beatles?” No, DiCesare replied. So the friend played two songs, “Love Me Do” and “She Loves You.” DiCesare would forever remember the date -- Nov. 21 -- and the impact of what he’d heard. He was electrified.
Nobody else was, at least not in the U.S.
In the United Kingdom, the Beatles were already a hit -- they began ruling pop charts in early 1963. Soon, an odd phenomenon called Beatlemania emerged. Teens in England went crazy over the band.
Across the pond, though, the band just wasn’t catching on. A few Beatles recordings -- “Please Please Me,” “From Me To You,” “She Loves You” -- were released in the United States in early and mid-1963, but they flopped. Those crazy British fans were interesting, though. So in November, American news organizations like Time magazine, CBS News and NBC News began writing and airing stories about Beatlemania.
Then, on Dec. 17, a disc jockey named Carroll James at Washington, D.C.’s WWDC played a rare copy of “I Want to Hold Your Hand.” Listers loved it. They phoned in repeatedly to request the song.
By the first week in January, Beatles music was broadcast in New York City, and suddenly the jolt that electrified DiCesare in Pittsburgh flashed across the country.
In February, Ed Sullivan waved his arm on national television and tried to speak but the screams drowned him out, and still the boys were confident and cool and charming. America surrendered to it all -- the music, the look, the hair, the attitude. The band returned to England having conquered pop culture in the U.S. with dizzying speed.
It was just the beginning. Everyone knew the Beatles would come back to the U.S. for a more extensive tour. When it became official, DiCesare and his mentor, concert promoter Tim Tormey, determined to put Pittsburgh on the schedule. Doing so wouldn’t be easy, but after a series of phone calls and negotiations, promoters ponied up $5,000 and secured a date. Tormey, DiCesare and three brothers (Howard, Sam and Jason Shapiro) who owned National Record Mart worked together to sell tickets and arrange the logistics of the visit.
By the time the Beatles landed back on American soil in mid August, so much had changed. The country’s facade of Eisenhower innocence -- which had taken a direct hit when Lee Harvey Oswald raised a rifle scope to his eye in Dallas on Nov, 22, 1963, and shot Kennedy -- was now actively crumbling. The world was daily becoming more dangerous, more unsettled.
Americans who had long sought comfort in divisions -- along lines of age, sex and especially race -- watched with increasing anxiety, fear and anger as walls of separation were pulled apart. The result was often violent and brutal.
“FBI Dragging Dix River for Missing Rights Men,” blared The Pittsburgh Press on June 28, 1964. In pictures published in newspapers throughout the country, the three young men -- James Earl Chaney, Andrew Goodman, and Michael "Mickey" Schwerner -- looked hopeful and optimistic. Stories of their disappearance in a rural Mississippi county and the ensuing search persisted throughout the summer and became, in CBS News anchor Walter Cronkite’s words, “the focus of the entire nation.”
The summer's biggest stories about slain civil rights workers and the conflict in Vietnam were frequently on the Post-Gazette's front page.
The summer should have been a time of optimism and hopefulness for those seeking racial equality -- on July 2, President Lyndon Johnson signed into law the Civil Rights Act, which banned discrimination in employment and in public places.
But when the bodies of Chaney, Goodman and Schwerner were found in an earthen dam in the rising heat of Aug. 4, white America was just beginning to understand what black America already knew -- achieving civil rights, especially in the South, would be a difficult and dangerous undertaking.
Another event with haunting implications squeezed its way into the news that summer. On Aug. 2, a U.S. destroyer fired nearly 300 shells at three North Vietnamese torpedo boats in a place called the Gulf of Tonkin.
The United States was gearing up for a nasty fight.
It was a difficult time for DiCesare, who’d been drafted into the Army National Guard. In May of ’64 he reported for boot camp and by September he was at Fort Sill, using a slide rule to aim a deadly cannon. DiCesare didn’t want to kill anyone, and yet the business of being a soldier dominated his thoughts. For the man who played such a crucial role in making the Beatles’ visit to Pittsburgh a reality, the day of the concert would hold only bitter memories
The Beatles and their managers quickly understood they were criss-crossing a country on edge.
Before a show in Las Vegas, concert managers received an anonymous bomb threat. The Beatles played the gig anyway.
Then came death threats. One in particular disturbed Ringo. After learning he’d been targeted as an English Jew (“The one major fault,” he pointed out in The Beatles Anthology, “is I’m not Jewish”), he angled his cymbals to shield him from the audience.
During a concert at Red Rocks Amphitheatre outside Denver, producer George Martin and manager Brian Epstein climbed a gantry overlooking the stage and were struck by the band’s position in the amphitheater setting. The two men agreed the boys were easy targets for potential snipers. Flying tomatoes and jelly beans seemed the least of their problems.
Police link arms in an attempt to hold back fans near the Bedford Avenue entrance to the Civic Arena. (Dale Gleason/The Pittsburgh Press)
One young fan jumped down a wall and made a dash for the entrance, but was caught by police. (Dale Gleason/The Pittsburgh Press)
To keep the craziness under control in Pittsburgh, police insisted concert producers hire 100 officers at a cost of $50 each. Hosting the Beatles was an expensive venture. DiCesare would later recall that the cost of securing a concert date with the Fab Four was originally an unheard of $35,000 -- 10 times that of most headline acts. Tormey was able to negotiate the amount to $25,000, or 60 percent of the gross sales, whichever was higher.
Many fans were disappointed to learn that the Beatles wouldn’t be spending the night in Pittsburgh. The city’s hotels refused to accommodate the band.
“We just couldn’t provide the protection,” one hotel operator told The Pittsburgh Press. “The kids would tear this place apart.”
Hundreds of fans lined the Parkway West, waving, screaming and holding up signs as the Beatles sped past. In San Francisco, fans had dangled from overpasses and jammed roads from the airport, reducing traffic to a crawl. Pittsburgh’s crowd was relatively polite and restrained.
Overhead buzzed a KQV helicopter. DJ Steve Rizen had taken to the air to track the Beatles’ progress.
Thousands of fans anxiously waited at the Civic Arena.
Dorothy Babcock, 16, and her friend Helen Farkosh stood near one of the venue’s drive-in entrances. The two girls arrived hours early, hoping to catch a glimpse of the Beatles as they pulled in. Now, as word spread that the Beatles were on their way, Dorothy and Helen suddenly had company. More and more fans crowded around them.
Then it happened. The motorcade came into view.
As it approached the crowd gathered near the entrance, the line of vehicles slowed and a window lowered in the Beatles’ black limousine. Paul popped his head out, smiled and waved. He passed within a few feet of Dorothy and Helen.
As the motorcade moved on, the two girls were stunned. All they could do was scream, “We saw Paul! We saw Paul!”
It was now after 5 p.m. The crowd surged forward. Police linked arms to hold back girls desperate to get close to their heroes.
A girl in a striped dress leaped 10 feet from a wall above the Bedford Avenue entrance, where hundreds of fans had gathered to watch the arrival. Upon landing, the girl miraculously held onto her her purse, then darted down a ramp leading to an entry door. The crowd cheered her on as smiling police chased the girl down. It all seemed like good fun.
But then the police line broke, and dozens of fans swarmed down the ramp. Police could do little but watch. There was no danger. The Beatles had already arrived and the entrance was shut tight.
Beatles fans rush past police and down an entrance ramp at the Civic Arena. (Pittsburgh Press photo)
Inside, the rumble of motorcycle engines echoed off the concrete surfaces of the arena’s underground entrance. Limousine doors opened and out stepped the Beatles. Standing nearby to greet them were two men: Tormey, the concert promoter, and a teenager named Robert Shapiro.
Shapiro was the son of Howard Shapiro, the National Record Mart co-owner helping to promote the show. Robert Shapiro had spent the summer working for Tormey as a road manager for a couple of rock ’n’ roll shows touring the Midwest; now he was giving his mentor, Tormey, a hand on what would be one of the biggest concerts of both men’s lives.
Normally, Tormey was a no-nonsense guy who remained focused on business, but now he seemed a bit nervous and excited. Everyone shook hands and the Beatles began asking questions about the Civic Arena. They were very curious about this domed building with the retractable roof.
Tormey and the Beatles then got down to business. John, Paul, George and Ringo were led to the locker room used by the Pittsburgh Hornets hockey team, which had been lavishly decorated with couches, chairs, lamps, televisions and other items.
Soon it would be time for the lads to meet Pittsburgh’s media.
As the white Pontiac rolled along the narrow, two-lane road called U.S. Route 22, the three girls from West Virginia sat in the back seat and, as Joan would later remember, “sang their hearts out.” Beatles songs, of course. And each talked about her favorite Beatle. Beverly like Ringo; Sharon liked Paul. Joan favored John.
They hit the Parkway West long after the Beatles’ motorcade had passed, then motored through the Fort Pitt Tunnel. Traffic near the arena was a mess. The Pontiac slowed to a crawl. Pittsburgh’s sidewalks were now a teeming mass of knee-length skirts, knee socks, hair bands and sweaters skewered with massive round buttons proclaiming, “I Love the Beatles.”
Let us out here! Let us out here!, pleaded the girls from Weirton. The Pontiac stopped. Before Sharon, Bev and Joan departed, however, the fathers turned and cautioned them, “Don’t act silly.”
Then the men went off to watch a movie, “Night of the Iguana,” starring Richard Burton and Ava Gardner.
Cradling their cake, the three girls joined the thousands gathered at the Civic Arena. The doors had not yet opened and the crowd was thick around the building’s entrances.
In daylight that was just beginning to fade, the three stood there waiting and holding their cake. And then, perhaps because they were excited or bored or just feeling a bit adventurous, the girls decided to defy the father’s warning against silliness.
They began talking loudly to each other in British accents.
Fans gathered outside the Civic Arena hours before the show. (Photos by Donnie Johnston)
Speaking “British” was something the three teens who’d never ventured far from Weirton had done quite often. Just a few weeks earlier, Sharon and Beverly had launched into the accents while attending the premiere of the Beatles’ new movie, “A Hard Day’s Night,” in nearby Steubenville, Ohio. Suddenly, they were surrounded by kids asking questions. It was a hoot!
So why not try it again?
As in Steubenville, the girls were suddenly surrounded.
Fans shouted questions. “Are there cows in England?” was Sharon’s favorite. The crowd grew. Questions came from every corner. The girls parried the queries in their faux accents.
Not everyone was fooled. The girls could feel it -- a rumble of disbelief. Finally, someone shouted, “I don’t believe they’re English.”
A hush fell over the crowd. “We’re done for,” Sharon thought. “They’ll burn us at the stake.”
Then, from somewhere in the crowd, came the voice of a savior. “Yes, they are! I saw them at “A Hard Day’s Night” in Steubenville, and they’re English.”
Testimony that the girls had appeared at a movie premiere weeks earlier in a small Ohio town was taken as proof of their English roots, and so the crowd calmed and the girls, still clutching the cake, slipped away from what Sharon would later call “The Circle of Truth.”