Good Ol' Freda, a documentary about Freda Kelly, the Beatles' personal secretary and head of the Beatles Fan Club, has been a hit on the film-festival circuit. When it premiered at the South by Southwest Film Conference in March, it sold out two shows, and in April it won a $5,000 audience-choice award for best film at the Cleveland International Film Festival. Just weeks before its local debut at the Maryland Film Festival, it was picked up for national distribution by Magnolia Pictures.
When I saw it in Texas, it wasn't what I expected. It wasn't a thinly veiled excuse to make yet another movie about the Beatles; it actually did focus on Kelly, who deserves the attention, surprisingly enough. You can't understand the phenomenon of the Beatles without understanding their strong connection to the teenage girls in their hometown of Liverpool. "No one took those girls seriously," Kelly says in the movie's key line, "but I did, because I was one of them."
She was a 17-year-old secretary who spent her lunch hours at the Cavern, a nightclub near her office. Playing the lunchtime show every day were four scruffy lads in black leather: John Lennon, Paul McCartney, George Harrison, and Pete Best. She got to know the boys by chatting after the shows, and when their fledgling fan club became too much for another woman, Kelly took it over. Then, when the band's new manager, Brian Epstein, needed a secretary, he hired Kelly.
Yet, her story would never have been told if it hadn't been for a 16-year-old girl in Baltimore. That's how old Kathy McCabe was in 1964, when she wrote to The Beatles Monthly, the magazine edited by Kelly and published by the Beatles Fan Club, seeking a pen pal from England. Before long, she and her 14-year-old sister Peggy were corresponding monthly with two Liverpool teenagers: Robbie and Sandra Malloy. The mutual interest was so strong that Robbie visited Baltimore in 1966 and Kathy visited Liverpool in 1970. McCabe met Billy Kinsley, Sandra's husband and lead singer for the Merseybeats, the Liverpool band that played with the Beatles more than 50 times.
"To me, it was just unbelievable," recalls McCabe, the producer of Good Ol' Freda. "I was a die-hard Beatles fan, and like any other girl at that time, I just wanted to hear a Liverpool accent. Peggy and I used to do phone calls with Robbie when it was $2.50 a minute just to hear him talk. I met Freda, because she was part of Billy and Sandra's circle. This group of guys and girls had this big friendship circle, and I became part of that circle. All these people had seen the Beatles play at the Cavern, and I wanted to know everything. For me, it was a dream come true."
By the 2000's, it seemed that everyone who had ever met the Beatles had written a book and/or hit the talk-TV circuit. But not Kelly, who was not only very shy but very protective of her friends and very wary of hustlers trying to exploit the Beatles' name. In fact, McCabe didn't realize just how many stories Kelly had to tell until they attended a wedding for Kinsley's daughter in Ibiza five years ago. McCabe asked if Kelly would be willing to give a talk in a Catonsville living room, just to share those stories, and Kelly agreed, only because McCabe was a longtime friend.
"If you had told me when I was reading The Beatles Monthly in 1964 that Freda Kelly would someday be sitting in my house, I never would have believed you," McCabe says. "She was supposed to talk for an hour, and four hours later she was still answering questions. People were spellbound. She did it again the next year, and she said, 'Maybe I could do this.' Then she was invited to the New York Fest for Beatles Fans in Secaucus, New Jersey, in March 2011, and 7,000 people gave her a standing ovation."
By then the idea of a documentary film was under discussion. It so happened that McCabe's nephew, Peggy's son Ryan White, was a filmmaker who had apprenticed with Emmy-winner Sherry Jones and had already made the well-received doc Pelada, about pickup soccer games around the world. He agreed to take some time off from an ambitious movie about California's Proposition 8 to shoot Good Ol' Freda.
In an early scene, we see Kelly cradling a "Grandma" coffee mug and asking, "Who wants to hear a secretary's story?" Before long, however, she's telling terrific stories, like the one about firing volunteers from the fan club when they tried to send someone else's hair to girls requesting Paul's.
"She understood how important the Beatles were to these girls," McCabe says. "That's why she would go the extra mile to get pieces of shirt or have Ringo sleep on a pillowcase. In this day and age, that seems so far-fetched. Even the Beatles were surprised when they read the letters; 'This girl wants a piece of my shirt?' they'd say, and Freda would say, 'Just leave the letter there. I've got one of your shirts in the cupboard.' 'How did you get my shirt?' they'd ask, and she'd say, 'Oh, I got it from your parents.'
"Freda is both ends of the spectrum," McCabe explains. "The shy part has always been there. She's never wanted to push herself to the front. She even sat in the back of the Magical Mystery Tour bus so no one would see her in the movie. On the other hand, she has this Liverpool humor, which a lot of times is blunt and funny as hell. People in Liverpool know how to take a joke as well as make a joke, so she's very feisty. That comes through in the movie."
It came across when I met Kelly in Texas. Looking like the working-class grandmother she is in a bright red print dress, dark red bangs, and a silver bauble bracelet, she laughed nervously and said, "You're not going to ask which one I kissed, are you?" Instead I asked her if she thought the Beatles might have stayed together if her friend Eppy-manager Brian Epstein-hadn't died of a pill overdose in 1967. "No," she said, suddenly somber, "they were already drifting apart. It was inevitable." Well, what's your favorite Beatles song? "Oh, I have a different favorite on different days." How about today? "Maybe 'Penny Lane.' I lived near Penny Lane."