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Lifestyle

Fab 50: Celebrating day in 1964 when the Beatles came to Baltimore

MusicFenway ParkeBay Inc.Ed Sullivan

It was important to look your best. After all, The Beatles were in town.

Today, it's hard to believe such things were important. But for four 15-year-old girls from Highlandtown, preparing to head into downtown Baltimore for a rock concert, such matters were vital. Who knew what could happen?

"In my mind, I thought for sure that Paul's gonna love me, he's gonna see me – in my little-girl fantasies, he'll know that eventually he'll marry me," explains Judy Comotto, now 65 and recently retired from running the continuing education program at Roland Park Country School, then 15 and, as Judy Troch, a star-struck teen totally in love with The Beatles. "We were all dressed to the nines. Little girls dressed up for occasions back then, with the patent leather shoes and a skirt with crinoline and your best ironed dress, your hair was perfect."

Comotto laughs heartily at her memories, and at her teeny-bopper naivete. As do the "we" she refers to – four grade-school friends, tight as could be back in '64, and still close decades later. How close? Close enough that they'll be coming back to Baltimore from all over the Northeast later this week, to mark what they all agree was among the most pivotal events of their young lives.

Come Sept. 13, it will be 50 years ago to the day that The Beatles, in the midst of their first U.S. tour and just seven months after conquering America from the stage of CBS' "Ed Sullivan Show," played a pair of concerts at what was then called the Baltimore Civic Center (it's now the Baltimore Arena, and looks pretty much the same as it did half a century ago).

It was a very big deal.

"It probably changed our lives, liking The Beatles," says Luisa Girlando, also 65, who lives in Annapolis and works for an airlines telecommunications company, when she isn't arranging reunions with her thick-as-thieves girlfriends. "It opened my eyes – The Beatles were a whole new, different sound. We were four good girls, and this is the only way that we could rebel – to like music that everybody else thought was awful."

Comotto and Girlando have remained in Maryland, but their friends have migrated north. Nancy Quade, a retired research librarian who spent 16 years with ABC News in New York and turns 65 this week, lives in Brooklyn. Chris Quigley (then Chris Nizer), 65, spent 39 years teaching elementary school in the Baltimore County public schools. She's now retired and living in Newport, Maine. Although the friends have remained in contact (of late, Facebook has helped keep them connected), they rarely get together. The last time was 10 years ago, to mark 40 years since they and The Beatles breathed the same air for an afternoon.

For this weekend, Quade is taking the train down from Brooklyn, while Quigley will be driving down from Maine with her daughter (but only after watching the Orioles take on the Red Sox at Fenway Park). Their plan is to meet outside the Arena, on a street corner near the Holiday Inn where The Beatles stayed. They'll hug and reminisce, probably share – and take – a few photographs. Then they'll get back in their cars and revisit the old neighborhood – the point of departure for that glorious Sunday 50 years ago, when John, Paul, George and Ringo brought rock 'n' roll history to Baltimore.

Over the course of five decades, some details have become a little vague. Were the tickets $3.50 or $3.75? ($3.75, according to period ads.) Who else was playing? (Jackie DeShannon, Clarence "Frogman" Henry, The Exciters and the Bill Black Combo, according to most sources, although Quade is pretty sure there were six opening acts, including a local group called The Lafayettes). Was it raining that day? (The consensus is that it was overcast, but not raining.)

But most of the memories of the girls' Beatles Day in Baltimore remain as vivid as ever. It all started with Quade and a letter from across the pond.

"I got a letter from my pen pal in England with four postcards of these four guys, this was in November-October of '63," Quade remembers. "They were of The Beatles. She had always been saying Elvis Elvis Elvis Elvis, and then bang, she stopped and said, 'We love these guys, The Beatles. They're so wonderful.'"

Not that Quade was similarly impressed, at least not immediately. "At first, I thought they were totally weird-looking, with that hair. I thought they were awful. But I kept looking at the pictures. And the minute we heard the music — it was unlike anything else we'd ever heard — we were immediately hooked."

She introduced her three friends to the group, and they were soon hooked just as firmly. All four remember seeing The Beatles when they had their U.S. debut on the Sullivan show. When word got out that they'd be touring America in the fall, the girls decided it was their job to will the group into playing Baltimore.

Girlando, for one, wasn't above invoking a little divine intervention. "I used to drag Nancy — she was Lutheran — I used to drag her to my Catholic church, St. Elizabeth's, and I used to light candles that The Beatles would come."

Must have worked. In the spring, it was announced that The Beatles would, in fact, be playing Baltimore, at the Civic Center, which had opened only two years earlier. Ticket prices ranged from $2 to $3.75. The girls went for the best.

"It was a king's ransom for me, it might as well have been $350," remembers Comotto. "I did chores, I did whatever I had to do to come up with the money — including petty larceny out of my cousin's penny loafers."

The tickets soon arrived, and the girls were crestfallen. They got row Z, which sounded like a million miles from the stage. Copious tears began flowing.

"My mother called this guy, Doug something-or-other, who was the commissioner of the Civic Center, and raised holy hell," Quade remembers. "She said, 'These girls are such Beatles fans, and they sent in the very first day.' And he said, 'Put it into perspective. It's a giant arena, they're in row 26. It's not that bad.'

"We were inconsolable, because of those tickets," she says, able to laugh about it now. "I think she talked to the poor man twice. But we never did get any closer."

Eventually, of course, that didn't matter. They were going, and for weeks leading up to the concert, the four girls' little corner of Highlandtown was a full-fledged center of Beatlemania. When they heard the group would be heading by train to Washington, they went and stood by the tracks, hoping to catch a fleeting glimpse (sadly, nothing). They listened to their records and debated who was the best Beatle – Comotto and Quigley were Paul partisans, while Quade favored George ("I thought he was having deep thoughts") and Girlando was firmly in John's camp ("He looked rebellious, and I liked that").

Come the day of the show, Girlando's father, Mr. Joe ("a saint," Comotto remembers) drove Comotto, Quade and his daughter to the Civic Center, getting them there early enough that they could wait outside the Holiday Inn and stand guard.

Mr. Joe even experienced his own moment of Beatlemania, when a pack of over-adrenalized girls mistook him for a Beatle and gave chase.

"They just about carried him away down the street," his daughter remembers with a laugh.

(Quigley went to the show with another group of friends, and paid for her separation from the group – their seats were a section farther removed from the stage. Then again, she got tickets for both the afternoon and evening shows, so there was compensation.)

As for the show itself? Well, here's the thing: the screaming was so loud, most of the predominantly female audience so hyped-up, that it was hard to actually hear anything coming from the stage. The Beatles performed for no more than half an hour. The four women are pretty sure the group played their staples, songs like "Please Please Me," "She Loves You" and "I Want to Hold Your Hand," but aren't going to swear to it.

"Oh, it was noisy," Quigley remembers. "You really couldn't hear the music that well. As soon as The Beatles came on, everybody stood on their chairs. They were folding chairs, so your feet kept slipping through the back, and the chairs kept folding up."

Girlando, who would go on to attend hundreds of rock shows and even spend a couple of years working for a concert promoter, remembers being a little disappointed. "It sounded terrible," she says. "Everybody was screaming. And they really didn't sound that great. …I remember being a little let down by the concert itself."

Soon it was all over. The girls went back to school – Comotto, whose family had just moved to Bowleys Quarters in Baltimore County, started at Middle River Middle, while her three friends stayed in Highlandtown and continued on to Western High.

As the years passed, tastes would change. Comotto would remain a Beatles girl (although she politely declined a ticket offer from her son a couple years ago to see McCartney in D.C., offering to babysit instead). Girlando would turn maybe a little bit to the dark side, admitting "I think the Rolling Stones took over in my heart, because they were even more rebellious." Quigley would hold onto her Beatles ticket stub well into the next millennium, finally selling it on eBay a few years back for $350 (not a bad return on investment). And Quade…well, she'd enter her first year at Western a confirmed Beatles fan (which she still is), but experience a bit of culture shock.

"Luisa and I showed up at Western," she remembers, "with buttons on our bags saying, 'We Love The Beatles.' And the other girls had buttons that said, 'I like Jean-Luc Godard,' or 'I Love Francois Truffaut.' We were like, 'Oh my God, who are these people? We have entered another world.'

"They kind of ragged us about it. They all thought The Beatles were fine, but thought that we were ridiculously crazy over their music. The predominant form of music our friends liked was folk music; they kind of smiled at us in a tolerant way.

"Of course, now I'm sure they're bragging, 'Oh, we loved The Beatles.' But hey, we were there."

chris.kaltenbach@baltsun.com

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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