Like a shot from a revolver, Beatlemania sparked a musical revolution 50 years ago, with their groundbreaking performances on "The Ed Sullivan Show," which became the most-watched program in television history. Now, the Carroll Arts Center is celebrating that cultural touchstone with a pair of Beatles-themed screenings and performances.
'Good Ol' Freda'
First is a screening of the documentary film "Good Ol' Freda," produced by Kathy McCabe, of Arbutus. The film, an official selection at more than 20 film festivals, follows Freda Kelly, a Liverpool teenager who founded The Beatles' fan club and served as their secretary for their entire musical career.
The film features stories from Kelly about her relationship with the band as well as the effects of fame on their families. McCabe said the film has essentially been in the works since 1964.
"What happened was that I was 16 years old and living in Baltimore. I was a huge Beatles fan, because at that time everybody was. What you did in those days was you had pen pals instead of emails or Twitter," McCabe said. "I wanted a pen pal from Liverpool and wrote to one of The Beatles magazines to the page of pen pal requests. I got hooked up with a fellow whose sister worked with Freda, and one thing led to another over the years, and we became friends."
McCabe said over the past 50 years of their friendship, Kelly has remained a very private person. She said it was decades before Kelly revealed she worked with The Beatles.
"Six or seven years ago, we were on a little island off the coast of Spain, because this pen pal thing was the start of a 50-year family friendship, and everybody became very close. We were there having a glass of wine, and she started talking about The Beatles, so I gave her more wine," McCabe said. "Out of those conversations, I knew we had to get her stories out there. She had all of the stories with The Beatles and their families that have never been told before."
McCabe pitched the idea of a documentary film to her nephew Ryan White, who recently won the directing award at the Sundance Film Festival for his film "The Case Against 8."
One of the most notable aspects of the film is its licensed use of The Beatles' music, one of the only independent films to get the rights to do so.
"Freda didn't want to do the film unless she got permission from the living Beatles to do it," McCabe said. "Once they gave their blessing, it opened the door to Beatles Apple Corps to license their music for the film."
In all, the film features four Beatles songs from their history. McCabe said while they were mixing, they initially edited the film with 29 Beatles songs.
"When we told them we wanted 29, they practically fell off their chairs. They said we could have any four songs we wanted," McCabe said. "It was a very hard battle, mostly through the director and the editor to narrow it down. They really had to fit what was going on in the film."
Because so much has been written and said about The Beatles and their music, McCabe said her goal with the film was to bring something new to the canon of Beatles lore.
"As a fan, I knew these stories would never be preserved unless we did it exactly the right way," McCabe said. "This is something I'll be proud of for the rest of my life."
Richard Soisson, of Film Lovers in Carroll County, decided he wanted to bring the film to the Carroll Arts Center after catching a screening of it in the Charles Theater in Baltimore.
"I really liked it because it was so different for a Beatles fan. It's a whole new perspective to see it through the eyes of Freda Kelly," Soisson said. "Kathy was present when they showed the film, and I went to talk to her about showing it here at the Carroll Arts Center. She agreed and we stayed in touch."
Following the film, the Carroll Arts Center will host a Q-and-A with McCabe and local Beatles enthusiast Paul Reuhls.
If, after catching up on Beatles history with "Good Ol' Freda," fans want a chance to come together and see The Beatles, they will have the next best opportunity at the Beatwater tribute band performance June 27 and June 28.
Adding verisimilitude to the June 27 performance will be the presence on stage of Johnny Dark, who emceed The Beatles' only Baltimore performances in 1964. In addition to emceeing the concert, Dark will share some stories of his time with the band. Dark said even though it's been 50 years, the memories are still as fresh today as they were then.
"The music business has always been ripe with hype. When they came along you figured, son-of-a-gun, they'll have three or four hits and then disappear. That obviously didn't happen," said Dark, a disc jockey at Westminster radio station WTTR.
"Back then, the only thing you could take a picture with was a camera with a flashbulb, and when the house lights came down and I went on stage, it was just like the lights had been turned on, and the screaming continued to the point where it was difficult to hear the band."
Beatwater, based in Maryland, aims to match the look and sound of The Beatles in their early years, recreating their presence as it existed up through 1966's "Revolver." Pete Cage, who plays guitar as George Harrison, said if they were to try and tackle their more experimental later albums, it would require a larger outfit.
"Even The Beatles didn't perform live as much after that," Cage said. "With just four guys, we'd have to add keyboards and a whole 'nother level of complexity."
Together with John Banner as John Lennon, Jim Miller as Paul McCartney and A.J. DeFeo as Ringo Starr, Cage works to recreate the experience of seeing the band live as much as possible. DeFeo said catching The Beatles on "The Ed Sullivan Show" changed his life.
"I remember distinctly watching that when I was in kindergarten," DeFeo said. "I came to school the next day with my hair in bangs. They sent me home. I've been a rabid fan ever since."
The group takes its mission seriously. Cage said the group studies old concert footage and bootlegs to dissect the sound of each individual part, as well as to accurately capture the looks and movement of the group. In order to emulate Paul McCartney, Miller had to teach himself to play guitar left-handed, and DeFeo said he has been working on capturing the way Ringo shakes his head while performing.
Cage said the biggest challenge is living up to people's expectations of what many consider to be the greatest rock band of all time.
"There's a huge pressure. Everybody knows all of these songs. That's a catalog that stands the test of time. Every piece, somebody out there knows exactly how it ought to go," Cage said. "After years of playing, I'll still put an album on the stereo and catch something I've never heard before."
Though he said he loves all of The Beatles' band members, Cage said performing as George has created an added appreciation for the guitarist.
"He doesn't do anything that's formulaic. He really did craft the parts and solos and things for the songs," Cage said. "He was very tasteful for what he created. The other tough thing about being George is that Lennon and McCartney would create this two-part harmony that's locked in, and they would give George the third part — the weird part — that added some spice to it."
One of the most exciting parts of performing, DeFeo said, was seeing the way multiple generations respond to the music.
"You do a show, and you see people who were originally there and you see kids who are 5 and 6 and they're all enjoying the music together," DeFeo said. "Seeing this music transcend generations is something special."
Cage said the reason he believes the band has survived for so many years relates solely to the quality of the music.
"It's really, really well-written," Cage said. "Lennon and McCartney and Harrison will go down in history as one of the greatest teams. I remember hearing an interview with McCartney, and he said one of the things he was most proud of was that the message of the music was always love and peace. He said they could have used their music to say a lot of things, but he felt good about that because it's such an enduring positive message."