Sunday, September 14, 2014

Pittsburgh press

Photo by Donnie Johnston
Donnie Johnston entered Conference Room A in the bowels of the arena and was struck by the room’s bland, coldly functional decor -- bare, off-white walls and steel doors. Four chairs had been placed before two drab, gray folding tables that would have been more at home loaded down with casseroles at the local Presbyterian church. Donnie assumed the venue would be a bit more regal.
Reporters and technicians were busy hooking up microphones and stringing cables across the tables.

Donnie got busy with his own bulky equipment. Once everything was ready, Donnie placed his finger on the record button and waited. He had one chance at this and he didn’t want to blow it.

Suddenly, a door opened and Ringo, John, George and Paul were ushered into the room.

No screams or gasps of excitement greeted the Beatles. Most reporters assigned to cover the event were men old enough to have daughters in the throng gathered outside. One was Kaspar Monahan, a bespectacled man in his 60s with a wave of gray hair atop his head and a deep vertical wrinkle in the skin between his eyes. He seemed to be either deeply curious or enduring a twinge of pain.

As drama critic for The Pittsburgh Press, Monahan spent the 1940s and ’50s reviewing films and visiting elaborate movie sets, where he interviewed legendary stars like Humphrey Bogart, Doris Day and Jimmy Durante. In 1938, he reviewed “The Wizard of Oz,” then playing at the Loew’s Penn (“Definitely … a picture to see,” he concluded).

Now he was stuck in a small, sterile conference room that was becoming increasingly smokey from lighted cigarettes. Before him were four odd-looking young men from Liverpool. Guys like Monahan remained certain that songs like “She Loves You” and “Please Please Me” would age like room-temperature fish. Sooner or later, America would wise up and get back to real music by true artists like Frank Sinatra and Perry Como.

In an article that fairly grunts with sarcasm, Monahan gave this account of the Beatles entrance:
“No burst of trumpets -- but, heavens to Betsy, suddenly there they are, girls -- and in the flesh. Not looking too rosy either, sorta muddy pale, and those egg-beater hairdos do nothing for them in the way of sex appeal.”

The Beatles were by now accustomed to skepticism and even mockery from the American press. As they settled into their seats, Paul whistled a tune. Cameras clicked. “Look down here, Paul,” a photographer called out. Paul was the epitome of cool. He continued to whistle. Then he began softly singing lyrics.

“Well no one told me about her,” he sang, almost in a whisper, “the way she lied.”

Few in the room could have recognized the tune -- “She’s Not There,” by another British band, the Zombies. The song was then No. 12 on the U.K. singles chart. It would reach No. 2 in the U.S. on the Billboard Hot 100, but not until December.

Paul wore a gray-blue suit with a tie. The rest of the band wore gray or blue sport coats -- John’s being darker than the rest, and his shirt louder, with those wild blue polka dots. And, of course, there was the hair, which dropped down over the forehead before abruptly veering right (or, in George’s case, left) at the eyebrows.

Outside, thousands of fans waited for the arena doors to open. Several pressed their faces against the arena’s thick glass and peered in. They could sense something was happening. Reporters inside heard their screams and howls.

After several moments, a male voice called out, “How about the wear and tear on the clothes, boys, how many sets did you have to bring?”

And so the Pittsburgh press corps’ first meeting with the musical group that had become a worldwide phenomenon began with a question about the lifespan of clothing.

It wouldn’t get much better.

“What do you like for women’s fashions?” one reporter asked.

"I like long hair, you know,” Paul said. “And modern-type clothes.”

Another question: “How do you fellas go about writing your songs?"

"We sit down in a room and just pick up a guitar or any convenient thing," John said dryly.
"Then I go, 'Hmmm-hmm-hmm-hmm,' " Paul added.

Then John: "Sometimes Ringo and I go …” And he begins to whistle melodically.

"Would you repeat that?" a reporter requested.

"Yes, “ said Paul. “Hmmm-hmm-hmm-hmm.'"

Very cute. Kaspar Monahan wasn’t happy. He didn’t bother asking any questions. Nothing seemed worthy of jotting down. At one point, someone asked about all those buttons overeager admirers tore off the Beatles’ jackets. “Paul or John or one of them said something funny, for there was a laugh, but I missed the riposte,” Monahan wrote.

Seven minutes into the session, Donnie saw an opening. His voice rose up, higher pitched and obviously younger than the rest, the words bent by a slight Southern twang:

"Ringo, there's a rumor that you're running for president. Do you have any comment on that?"

“No,” Ringo replied, “I’m not running.”

This was followed immediately by a question about Ringo’s tonsils, and whether he’d have them removed in the U.S. (No, Ringo said, he’d undergo the procedure in England.)

Sitting in the second row of reporters was a young woman who had no notebook and was keeping a low profile. Joyce Barniker wasn’t a reporter, she was a 22-year-old recent graduate of Wheaton College whose uncle Howard Shapiro was one of the concert-promoting Shapiros. That connection resulted in a pass to the press conference and, later, a front-row seat to the concert.

Joyce had a good view of Paul. She could clearly see that, in the midst of this noisy and somewhat chaotic press event, he was doodling on a piece of paper.

What on earth was he drawing? she wondered. Joyce determined to get that piece of paper.
Flashbulbs filled the room with quick explosions of light.

Donnie raised his Brownie Starflash camera, a simple device that cost about $8. Donnie knew it made him look like a small-town hick among the professionals using more expensive Nikon models. But he didn’t care.

He moved close and popped off a few images -- George staring into the camera and smiling, John looking down with a cigarette between the fingers on his right hand, Paul leaning forward and answering a question while a man in a suit emerges from behind to offer a drink in a glass with a straw. Donnie’s images are rare color pictures of the event.

The Beatles answered random questions from the crowd of reporters for about 20 minutes. Then began the press event’s second stage. Radio reporters lined up in front of each Beatle to get brief one-one-one interviews for on-air use. After several minutes, the television reporters would get their chance.

Donnie got in line. He had a favor to ask of one of the Beatles. He’d considered asking John Lennon, but Lennon’s sarcastic wit and the withering look he shot at reporters asking stupid questions gave Donnie pause. Maybe Paul would do it, Donnie thought.

He’d have to wait, however, behind KQV’s Steve Rizen, a cowboy-hat wearing DJ proud of his Texas roots. Clutching a microphone, he leaned close to Paul and asked, “Have you ever seen a Texas hat like this before?”

“Yes,” Paul replied.

“You been to Texas yet?” And then, “What is your opinion of Texas?”

Thus began the first extensive face-to-face interview with a Beatle in Pittsburgh -- with talk of cowboys and oil wells.

During the entire press conference, Rizen’s colleague Bill Clark was stationed just outside the room, where he could look inside and provide narration, repeat questions radio listeners couldn’t hear and offer comments and observations. Live broadcasting was prohibited, but Clark’s radio audience got the next best thing.

KQV used special equipment, recently developed by ABC, that allowed the station to air its coverage on a seven-second delay. Those standing outside the arena could listen to transistor radios and hear updates about events happening inside, sometimes just a few yards and seconds away.

From where he stood, Clark could see cheering fans pressed against plate glass windows “two door thicknesses away.” The crush of people was alarming.

“Frankly,” he said, “I would very sincerely urge those of you out there listening to KQV …. that you not press that hard. You’re going to come through that glass.”

Fans outside chanted, “We want the Beatles! We want the Beatles!”

And still they pressed against the glass.

“Take it easy out there,” Clark urged.

One of the arena’s glass windows would give way that day and shatter into thousands of pieces, newspapers later reported, but no one was injured. Replacing the window would cost concert organizers $450.

The room by now, Clark said, was hot, the air filled with cigarette smoke.

Rizen had finished his brief interview by accepting a sip of Paul’s drink -- “7Up, or something,” the Beatle said.

Finally, Donnie’s turn arrived. He stood in front of Paul and made a special request: A girl named Susan from Culpeper wanted a Beatle to say ‘hello’ to her.

“Paul accommodated me in the most gentlemanly manner,” Donnie recalled.

After several minutes, the radio reporters moved aside to make way for television crews. The press conference was nearing its end.

This story can be found on this site:

1 comment:

  1. Oh my gosh, I haven't been on here (or online) since Saturday, that pic of the girls at the glass door is amazing!