Ed Sullivan Show’s Autographed ‘Beatles Set’ Section to be Auctioned

The auction estimate for this piece of the Beatles Ed Sullivan Show set, autographed by The Beatles, is $800,000-$1 million.

On April 26, 2014, a two-foot-by-four-foot section of backdrop from the Ed Sullivan Show’s studio 50 stage set of Feb. 9 1964 will be auctioned by Heritage Auctions. It is perhaps one of the most famous sets in television history, as it was seen by 73 million Americans on that date in 1964.

The set was used as a backdrop for The Beatles first live television performance in America. In between songs, all four of The Beatles autographed and drew doodles on the set section. The piece, made of plastic and professionally mounted in a shadow-box frame, is expected to bring $800,000 to $1 million at auction.

That the set section even exists is remarkable. Typically, such sets are made for short-term use and then discarded. But an observant carpenter cut out the section encompassing the autographs and gave it to a disabled teenager with whom he was acquainted. Had The Beatles not erupted onto the American music scene a few months earlier, I’’s unlikely that the carpenter would have been inspired to cut out the section of wall. After all, Sullivan had “big stars” on his show every week, and sets for those stars ended up in the trash bin.

In the 1980s, the piece was sold by the former teen to Rodney Cary, owner of the Southdown Lounge in Baton Rouge, La., who displayed the piece on a wall inside his lounge. Sometime later Cary’s wife Laurie took the piece to a Beatles memorabilia show in Los Angeles, where she was offered six figures for it by interested buyers. Surprised at its value, the Carys took the piece back to Louisiana and placed it in a vault for safekeeping. In 2002, it was purchased for $100,000 by collector Andy Geller. It is Mr. Geller who is offering the piece at auction.

That the unknown carpenter would think to save the autographed stage-set piece belies the popular conception that it was Sullivan who introduced The Beatles to America. He did not. The Beatles manager, Brian Epstein, had unsuccessfully tried to gain an American foothold for the band for almost a year before the Sullivan performance.

Although The Beatles were a huge hit in England and Europe, the band couldn’t get any traction with a record in America. Their British recording contract was held by EMI, which produced the band’s early hits on the Parlophone label in England. Although EMI owned 96 percent of Capitol Records (an American company), Capitol’s A&R (artists & repertoire) manager Dave Dexter turned down requests from EMI to release a Beatles record. In fact, he turned down EMI four times. It seems that Dexter didn’t like the band, and didn’t like rock ’n’ roll in general. Other notable acts initially turned down by Dexter included the Dave Clark Five, Herman’s Hermits, Gerry & the Pacemakers, the Hollies, the Animals and the Yardbirds.

The Beatles recordings were licensed instead to an independent record label in Chicago, Vee-Jay records, and Swan records of Philadelphia.

The hubbub surrounding the Beatles in the British press was eventually picked up in America. “Beatlemania” was a curiosity, and the American media was reporting on it as if it were a freak show. In the fall of 1963, America’s number one news program, the Huntley-Brinkley Report, did a news segment on the Beatles that was quite disparaging. CBS’s Walter Cronkite was also dismissive of the Beatles. Talk show host Jack Paar ran a video clip of the Beatles’ command performance for Queen Elizabeth in which he mocked them musically as well as individually. When the Swan records release of “She Loves You” was played on American Bandstand’s Rate a Record segment, it scored a pathetic 73 out of 100. When host Dick Clark held up a photo of the mop-topped Beatles, the audience laughed. 

A crowd arriving for The Beatles first American performance on Feb. 9, 1964, at the Ed Sullivan Theater. There were only 728 tickets available but thousands gathered in the streets, blocking Broadway for eight blocks.

One wonders: if they couldn’t get a record played on the radio and they were being publicly mocked, how did they ever get on the Sullivan show in the first place? The answer to that question is “timing and technology.”

On Dec. 10, 1963, 15-year-old Marsha Albert of Silver Spring, Md., saw Cronkite’s report on CBS and fell in love with the music. Albert soon after phoned her favorite local deejay Carroll James of WWDC and asked him why he wasn’t playing the Beatles. James answered that were no Beatles records available in America. Curious, James contacted a friend who was a stewardess for BOAC (now British Air). She delivered a copy of “I Want to Hold Your Hand” to WWDC, which James played on the air. Listener response was overwhelming.

James sent recordings of the song to an associate in Chicago, who also played the record. Chicago listeners included Vee-Jay’s owner Ewart Abner. Earlier in the year (February) Abner had released “Please Please Me” and “From Me to You,” but lacking the money to adequately promote the record, it flopped. Learning of the renewed interest in the Beatles, Abner re-released the records.

A limited distribution copy of “Introducing the Beatles” on the Vee-Jay label recently sold for $11,000.

Ed Sullivan.

At the same time, Capitol finally “caved” to EMI’s demand that it release a Beatles record. Capitol released “I Want to Hold Your Hand” and “I Saw Her Standing There” on Dec. 26, 1963.

The timing couldn’t have been better. American teens were flush with Christmas money and armed with personal transistor radios. Radio stations across America had the four available Beatles tracks on multiple rotations throughout the day, and listeners just couldn’t get enough of the Beatles. In every major market, stations competed to be the “number one station” for the latest information on the Beatles. When the band landed in New York on Feb. 7, 1964, thousands of teens greeted them at the airport, followed them to their hotel, Sullivan rehearsals, and their performances.

The Sullivan show received 50,000 applications for tickets to The Beatles debut show. There were only 728 tickets available. On the day of the performance—Feb. 9—the crowd was unruly outside the theater. Thousands gathered in the streets, blocking Broadway for eight blocks. Photos of the crowd show many teens carrying their transistor radios, reacting to the hype of the deejays that were on-site doing remote broadcasts.

The television audience for The Beatles debut live performance reached 73 million viewers, at that point the largest TV audience in history for a variety program. At the time, 73 million viewers represented 40-percent of all Americans.

Some 73 million people tuned into the Ed Sullivan Show for The Beatle’s first appearance on Feb. 9, 1964.

The Beatles performance on Sullivan jump-started the rock ’n’ roll revolution that was begun with Elvis in 1956. But Elvis, who also came to national attention on the Sullivan show, had been drafted into the Army and returned a movie star, not a rock star. Buddy Holly had died in a plane crash in 1959, and for a time rock music seemed to have died with him. Between 1959 and 1964, rock ’n’ roll was hijacked by middle-of-the-road teen crooners like Pat Boone and Paul Anka. The Beatles got the Rock Revolution back on track.

A musical “British Invasion” was built around the Sullivan show. The Beatles performances on the show were followed by the Dave Clark Five, Gerry and the Pacemakers, The Searchers, The Rolling Stones and others. Over the years, many major American groups played Sullivan as well. In the music business, two shows could make-or-break a musical group: American Bandstand and the Ed Sullivan Show. It was through the Sullivan show, however, that The Beatles were introduced to most of America. When The Beatles “broke big” in February 1964, American Bandstand was in the middle of moving their studios from Philadelphia to Los Angeles.

Fifty years after their introduction to America, Beatles memorabilia brings premium prices. Given the current market, the $1 million auction estimate seems achievable.

Wayne Jordan spent more than 40 years in the music business as a performer, teacher, repairman and music store owner. In 25 years of musical instrument retailing he has bought, sold, rented or repaired thousands of pianos, band & orchestra, combo, and folk instruments. Wayne is currently a Virginia-licensed auctioneer and certified personal property appraiser. For more info, visit Wayne Jordan Auctions or Resale Retailing with Wayne Jordan.

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