Tuesday, February 11, 2014

Washington Social Diary

The Washington Coliseum, 50 years after the Beatles performed their first U.S. concert. The stage was where the camera is, in the middle of the arena.
by Carol Joynt

By the time you read this another icy, snowy arctic blast will be about to hit the east coast. Snow is forecast for Washington Wednesday and Thursday, just as French President Francois Hollande wraps up his state visit — as we know, sans ex-girlfriend Valerie Trierweiler or reported new girlfriend, actress Julie Gayet (who can keep up?). Were he here with a lover I'd say do this: slip away from the official maelstrom to some tropical warmth and beauty. No, not St. Barth's, but the United States Botanic Garden, which occupies almost a whole block at the base of Capitol Hill. As Stefan on SNL might say, it's all these things: warm, humid, green, quiet, watery, private, mysterious, and historic. It opened in the early 19th century, a legacy of George Washington, Thomas Jefferson and James Madison. 

The other chilly day, while walking from Capitol Hill to another part of town, we slipped in for some needed warmth. It has very nice benches. Perfect for two.

I’m taking a leap here and assuming some of you remember the first time you heard “I Want To Hold Your Hand.” Maybe you were barely a teenager. Even if older, you knew something was happening.

Today, February 11, is a significant date in rock and roll and in Beatles history in particular. It is the 50th anniversary of their first arena concert in the U.S. It happened at the Washington Coliseum. The building is a ruin now, used as a parking lot, due for demolition and renovation. The sounds of that memorable night — iconic tunes and screaming teenagers — are a haunting echo. I wasn’t there for the concert but the day is vivid in memory.
On the night of February 11, 1964, Beatles fans sat in these seats, most likely screaming at the tops of their lungs.
The owner of the Washington Coliseum, developer Douglas Jemal, owner of Douglas Development, plans to renovate the ruin into a mixed use property. He says the new space will pay some homage to the historic night the Beatles played there.
Four of us, my sister and two friends, all just barely tweens, pooled our allowances to journey from the suburbs into the city to chase John, Paul, George and Ringo from Union Station, where they arrived by train due to a snowstorm, across the city to their hotel, the Shoreham. The make-up of our group worked because no two of us had crushes on the same Beatle. I was the “Paul girl.” He was all mine.

I was a Beatlemaniac. It’s the only time I’ve experienced a “mania,” but it was the real deal. They were my universe. My bedroom was a shrine, the walls plastered with their photos. Their debut U.S. album, “Meet The Beatles,” was permanently parked on the record player by my bed. I had chopped off my long hair into a Beatles cut, and, in a dramatic flourish, started speaking in Liverpudlian, though that lasted only days, until classmates handed me a petition that begged me to stop with the maddening accent.

On that February morning in 1964, Union Station was a loud and chaotic mob scene. Across the mass of other teenage girls we saw the tops of the Beatles heads. We screamed and ran from one end of the railroad station to the other as they wedged their way through the horde. When they disappeared into limousines we dashed to the taxi stand and, frantically, used our last precious dollars to buy a ride to the Shoreham, arriving only minutes before the Beatles motorcade.
John Lennon, riding the train from NYC to Union Station in Washington DC.
The others walked into the hotel but at that moment I spotted the limos about to turn into a side driveway. I ran in that direction.

My feet did not fail me. I dodged through a police line and was on the driveway in the middle of the motorcade, camel’s hair coat flying, snow boots pumping the asphalt as I tried to avoid being plowed under by a Cadillac. I spotted floppy hair through a back window and kept my eyes on the prize. The cars turned a corner and pulled up to an abrupt stop at the hotel’s back door. I ran to the car doors. They opened and, just like that, right in front of me and all around me were George, Paul, John and Ringo.

Adrenaline kept me from fainting.

On display at the Shoreham Hotel, the Beatles song list for their Washington Coliseum concert.
I shoved a pen and a piece of paper at Ringo and then George, pleading for autographs. They had deft skills as pop super stars, meaning they moved fast to the next destination. George stopped, though, to sign the piece of paper. He smiled, too. I was swept into the hotel in their entourage. Next thing I was standing in front of an open elevator. The Beatles were crammed inside, looking back at me. Ringo gave a sweet little wave of “bye bye,” as the doors closed across them.

I turned. Behind me was a rope line, holding back dozens of girls, including my sister and friends, all of them screaming, especially my crew, who shouted my name. I bolted back out the door and up the driveway, but got only a few paces before two policemen picked me up by me elbows, one on either side of me.

“You’re in big trouble.”

“Why? What did I do?”

“You broke through a police line. We’re going to take you in to the station and call your parents.”

“You can’t do anything to me. I’m a kid.”

Did my logic win them over? Who knows, but at the front of the hotel they released their grips on my arms and said, “go! Don’t let us see you again.”

My girlfriends slumped in chairs in the lobby; convinced our quest to meet the Beatles was done. I had another idea. “Let’s go up the stairs.” We found a door to the back stairs and climbed the several flights to the top. At the last landing we resorted to stealth maneuvers, meaning silence. The anxiety was trumped by determination. I poked my head out the door. The coast was clear.
Some people got into the Beatles Shoreham hotel room. Here's a photo from February 11, 1964, released by the Shoreham hotel.
On hands and knees, slightly encumbered by my winter clothes, the coat and boots plaid wood pants, I inched along the plush carpeting of the hallway, staying close to the wall, feline in my quiet moves. I turned a corner and could see what I was sure was their door. But I didn’t get too far before coming nose to shin with the legs of a man. My eyes traveled up the gray trousers, the navy blazer, the polka dotted ascot, to a round face with pink cheeks.

“Can I help you?” he asked in a British accent. I stammered something about my friends back on the landing and how much we wanted to meet the Beatles. Please. “I’m Brian Epstein, the Beatles manager,” he said, “can you take me to your friends?”

They were there sitting on cement stairs, the George girl now crying hysterically, the other two in a silent panic. “I’m sorry, girls, it’s just not possible to see the boys right now,” he said. “They are napping.” He was pleasant but it was a firm “no.” He urged us to head back to the lobby.
The Beatles, performing in the Washington Coliseum the night of Feb. 11 1964.
Which we did, heads hung low, not saying a word, tears turning to quiet whimpers. We were tired, hungry and emotionally drained and had exactly one nickel between us, which was used to call for a parental ride home.

We sat silently and waited, only a few steps from the elevator doors, which opened and closed with the coming and going of many people. I noticed two young women, though, who were dressed quite smartly and carried notepads. Right after they bounced out of the elevator, on impulse, I walked up and politely asked what they were so happy about. “Oh, we were just with the Beatles,” they said with delight.
February 1964. The Beatles, in Washington DC, after a snowstorm.
“How could that be?” I asked. “They are supposed to be napping.”

“Oh, they aren’t napping. We were interviewing them. We’re reporters.”

That’s my Beatles story.

Whatever else February 11 means to Washington and the world, for me at least it’s the day I decided to become a reporter.
Photographs by Carol Joynt.

Follow Carol on twitter @caroljoynt