Vince Calandra had never even held a guitar before. But, even back in February of 1964, he had a pretty good sense that he shouldn’t drop this one.
Calandra, a self-described “street kid from Brooklyn,” had worked his
way up on “The Ed Sullivan Show” from mail boy, to cue card holder for
guest stars like Buddy Holly, to stage producer. A coincidence of
clothing led to his brief brush with fame that day, though.
The Beatles arrived at the studio on Saturday for rehearsal the day
before their big American debut on Feb. 9, but George Harrison was laid
up at the Plaza Hotel with strep throat.
The band’s road manager, Neil Aspinall, was standing in for
rehearsal. Before it got started, manager Brian Epstein rushed over to
send him back to the hotel to deal with crises. Harrison’s sister,
Louise, who’d been taking care of him, couldn’t get past security back
into the hotel (“You and about 1,000 other women have
come here and told
us they’re George Harrison’s sister,” Calandra recalls them saying);
plus, the band was in danger of being booted out of the Plaza due the
mob scene of teenagers forming outside.
Calandra, in matching dark suit and tie, was the next closest thing
to a Beatle nearby. It wasn’t his normal duds, but he had dressed up for
theater plans that night. They put a moptop wig on his head, gave him
Harrison’s guitar and told him to stand near Paul McCartney.
For three songs, he was an honorary Beatle. Calandra, now 79 and living in Los Angeles, felt welcomed into the fold right away.
“There was just something about them when you started meeting them,”
he tells The New York Post. “You really wanted them to succeed. They were
unpretentious, they knew they were talented . . . . Paul said, ‘My whole
life, we always dreamed about doing this show.’ ”
The significance of the show had been dawning on Calandra, then 29,
throughout the week — especially when he heard the Plaza Hotel had
banned Beatles wigs in the lobby due to rabid fans. He was terrified he
would screw up.
“I just stood there like a statue,” he says. “I didn’t move, I didn’t hit the strings, I didn’t open my mouth.”
The Beatles were the only act he can remember in 14 years on the “Ed
Sullivan” that asked to go into the control room and hear the playback
for themselves. Even when they put a wig on Sullivan’s head, they still
acted like professionals.
“It wasn’t like, ‘Yak yak yak, look at this guy,’ ” he says. “It was like, ‘OK the gag’s over, lets get down to business.’ ”
Calandra went on to a long, successful career in television
producing. But he still thinks about how nervous he was, not wanting to
let the band down while holding the guitar that day.
“They had like a purity about them,” he says.
And the guitar he held? “Fifty years later,” he says, “how much you think that thing was worth?”
Vince Calandra is appearing with other panelists at “It was 50 Years
Ago Today: Celebrating 50 Years of The Beatles in the USA” at the 92nd
Street Y on Thursday. Details and tickets ($29) at 92y.org.