Debbie Gendler was among the Beatles' first American fans when she arrived at CBS Studio 50 as a teen on Feb. 9, 1964. The night changed her — and music — forever.
Referring to someone as a “Beatles fan” in 2024 is a largely useless descriptor. It’s arguably more telling to label someone “not a Beatles fan." For more than half a century, most of us can agree that the Fab Four rank along life’s unimpeachably good things.
This consensus was reached (in the U.S., at least) just after 8 PM on Feb. 9, 1964, when the Beatles made their historic appearance on The Ed Sullivan Show. More than 73 million people watched on their TV sets across the country, but only 728 individuals were lucky enough to witness the moment live and in person at CBS’ Studio 50. One of these was 13-year-old Debbie Gendler.
On the 60th anniversary of the Sullivan broadcast, Gendler — now a four-time Emmy nominated television executive — is sharing her story in a new book, I Saw Them Standing There: Adventures of an Original Fan During Beatlemania and Beyond.
It may be impossible to determine a Patient Zero for the American strain of Beatlemania, but you could make a compelling case for Gendler. The author and superfan spoke with PEOPLE’s resident Beatlemaniac about witnessing the moment America fell in love with the Beatles — live and in color.
You first fell for the Beatles in the spring of 1963. How did you initially discover them?
My parents' best friends' daughter [used to] come over to our house after school and we’d watch American Bandstand. Her parents went on vacation to London and brought me back a record. I opened up the package and it was the first Beatles album, Please Please Me. I saw the picture of these four guys and I thought, “These are the cutest guys I’ve ever seen!” When I heard the music — “Please Please Me,” and “Love Me Do” — It was like magic to me.
What is it about the Beatles that resonates with you so deeply? Was it their music or was it them?
It was the look of them and the sound of them that absolutely touched my heart. I was attracted to their sound, I was attracted to their looks, and I was attracted to, I think, a bit their Britishness. There was a vulnerability there. I fell madly in love. It’s a love that now, 60 years later, is still there in its purest form.
At what point did you realize that the band was catching on?
The change came in mid-December of 1963, when records like “I Wanna Hold Your Hand” and “She Loves You” got frequent radio rotation and you kept hearing them and hearing them and hearing them. By January, it seemed like everyone was talking about them but not everyone had their record.
But by the day after The Ed Sullivan Show [performance], I suddenly went from being considered sorta geeky to suddenly popular. People were coming and asking me all about them. One teacher even asked me if I could bring in their album to play for the class.
You were one of the founding members of the Beatles’ American fan club. How did that happen?
I couldn't find friends who loved the Beatles like I did, so I was desperate. The receipt for the album I got from London was printed with a message: “If you love the Beatles, join their fan club.” So in the spring of 1963, I wrote a letter to the fan club [asking] to join. I didn’t hear anything for months and months. Then, around Halloween, I got a telegram from the office of Walter Hofer, the American attorney of [Beatles manager] Brian Epstein. They were looking for teenage fans because the Beatles' [American] visit was being planned.
I walked into Walter Hofer’s office, and there was Brian Epstein. He started to ask me questions about managing the fan club. And I said, “I’m only 13, I have to go to college. I can’t run a fan club! But I can participate.” That’s how I got involved in the club. I founded the Northern New Jersey chapter for the Beatles USA Limited. They sent me out to do local things for press and TV. I was sort like a go-to fan. I also helped address envelopes or do outreach with other fan club chapter presidents. Walter Hofer's office [sent] my ticket to the Ed Sullivan show, as a thank you for that first meeting.
You get your invitation to be one of the chosen few to be in the audience when the Beatles make their American TV performance debut: What did you wear?
For girls, what we wore to the Beatles’ concerts was very important. I wore a skirt, a blouse and a sweater because in those days girls had to wear skirts or dresses. And when we left the house, my mom gave me a necklace to wear. I wanted it so I would look older in case a Beatle saw me. I did not want to look 13!
The following year, in 1965, I had the [last minute] opportunity to go to a taping for another Beatles appearance on The Ed Sullivan Show. But I said I couldn’t go because I had to go home and select my clothes to wear to the Beatles’ concert at Shea Stadium [the day after]! Who in their right mind would think that!? Only a 15-year-old.
What was the scene like when you arrived at CBS Studio 50 on the big day?
My mom drove me the 26 miles to New York from our little town in New Jersey. As we rounded the bend to Broadway, a couple blocks from the theater, there were hordes of kids charging through — really charging, running — heading to the theater. And I'm thinking, “Will there be room for me?”
There were people pushing me, but I got past the barricade and into the studio vestibule. The first thing they did was pull the ticket away from me. I said, “Could I please have my ticket back?” And they said no. [Everyone has long thought] no tickets that exist from that night. Walter Cronkite brought his two daughters that night and there are reports that they never took his ticket. So there may be one!
The mezzanine where I was placed was better than the orchestra because I was up above looking down. I was so happy just to be there. There were girls behind me, bouncing up and down already. I just sat there trying to be somewhat composed. And I was…for about 15 seconds. Then I lost all composure. I could barely breathe.
And then Ed [Sullivan] introduced the Beatles. It was overwhelming. That’s the only word I can say. When you look at the tape, you can see the Beatles sort of looking up at us in the mezzanine. They did “All My Loving,” “Till There Was You” and “She Loves You” and then [their first set] was over.
I remember trying to look at each [Beatle] individually to make a permanent memory of that moment. But then it was over. And Ed came out to tell us, “Quiet, quiet. We’ll be bringing the Beatles back on [later].” It was torturous for the rest of the show until the Beatles came back. It was like, why have anyone else on this show?
As I gathered up my things and left the theater, I said to myself, “This is not the end for me. This is just the beginning.” I decided on two things. Firstly, I knew I really wanted to meet the Beatles. And secondly, when I left that theater that night, I thought not only was this a great event, but I was really taken by the production.
Did I know that now, 60 years later, I'd still be thinking of that night? No. But did I feel it was important for my life? I sort of did. I thought, “Yeah, I know what I really would like to do.”
After I graduated college, I worked for [CBS TV] for almost 15 years, and one of the first things I did was go into the publicity files looking for The Ed Sullivan Show. And now I work for Sofa Entertainment, who bought The Ed Sullivan Show from the Sullivan family in 1990.
There I was at age 13, sitting in a random seat at The Ed Sullivan Show. And now, a full 60 years later, I'm 73, working to repurpose their show clips and share them with people.
One of the points I try to make in my book is that formative experiences are really important. People should never downplay their children's interests because you just don't know where those interests will lead them.
There are so many people who feel that the night the Beatles performed on Ed Sullivan was so formative to who they are. Whenever I start to tell my story, I almost never get to the end because the other person will start to share their experience. It meant so much to so many.
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