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Beatlemania Hard on Non-Beatles

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Great story in the Washington Post about a comedy duo who shared the bill with the Fab Four in their U.S. debut on the Ed Sullivan Show, February 9, 1964. I was five at the time – my parents tell me I watched it with them, but I honestly don’t remember. I do remember, though, our next door neighbors, girls four and six years older than I, went absolutely insane over the Beatles after that appearance and dragged me into their delirium soon thereafter. I loved “I Want to Hold Your Hand” more than any other song I have ever heard, or will ever hear, with the joyous consuming intensity that only a small child can muster.

    Mitzi McCall and Charlie Brill will remember the most godawful night of their lives.

    “It was a nightmare,” says McCall. “We just about wanted to kill ourselves.”

    Not everybody enjoyed the stateside birth of Beatlemania. Consider, for a moment, everyone else booked to perform on the Sullivan show that fabled night — the entertainers who had to share a bill with the four lads who changed the world, in the very hour they changed it.

    It was a 60-minute show, and John, Paul, George and Ringo played just five brief songs, three at the beginning and two at the end. In between, a benighted cavalcade of aspiring stars gamely tried to distract an audience that couldn’t be distracted, offering more typical Ed Sullivan fare: magic tricks, tumbling acts, celebrity impersonations, a song from the Broadway cast of “Oliver!”

    And there was a young and unknown comedy duo called McCall & Brill, who thought they’d caught a huge break when their manager told them he had won them a slot on the biggest variety show of the age.

    “We were cheering!” McCall says. “And then our manager said, ‘It’s with the Beatles.’ And we said, ‘Oh, okay.’ We weren’t really sure who they were.”

    ….The passage of 40 years has given them some distance about the episode, and they realize now that the quality of their performance is beside the point. But there are limits. Brill has never watched a tape of their five-minute fiasco, and though it now can be seen on a two-disc DVD of the Beatles’ four appearances on “The Ed Sullivan Show” (“Ed Sullivan Presents the Beatles and Various Other Artists”), it sounds as if he never will.

    “If I watch it, I’m going to be right back on that stage,” he says.

    ….As McCall and Brill ran through their act, Sullivan watched and decided that their routine, which he’d never before seen, was a little too highbrow for a national audience. So he beckoned the couple into his dressing room and asked them to audition some other material for him, on the spot. They did, and then Sullivan instantly fabricated a new sketch by cobbling together the bits he liked. It was a complicated and confusing patchwork, and McCall and Brill soon slumped to their dressing room, where they desperately tried to remember their instructions.

    ….By 8 p.m. — showtime — McCall and Brill had a draft of something. Ed Sullivan delivered his famously wooden introduction of the Beatles, whom he called “tremendous ambassadors of goodwill.” He prepped the audience with quick mentions of the season’s past highlights, which included a visit from the Italian mouse puppet Topo Gigio and the Singing Nun. Then: “Now yesterday and today, our theater’s been jammed with newspapermen and hundreds of photographers from all over the nation, and these veterans agree with me that the city never has witnessed the excitement stirred by these youngsters from Liverpool who call themselves the Beatles.”

    The audience sounded like it was ready to burst throughout this monologue, which it did when Sullivan finally said, “Let’s bring them on!” and the band lit into “All My Loving.” “Till There Was You” and “She Loves You” followed. Nobody had ever heard the sort of din that all but drowned out this performance — not the stagehands who were around when Elvis headlined the program, and not the Beatles, who thought the crowd more crazed than any they’d seen. Lennon later said that, looking out from the stage, he’d thought the audience had gone out of its collective mind.

    ….the next thing the country saw that night was a guy in a tux named Fred Kaps performing, believe it or not, a card trick. (The lengthy silences that greeted his act are more bearable when you realize his bit was filmed in advance and dropped into the telecast.) The cast of “Oliver!” was up next, with a young Davy Jones — later the lead singer of the Monkees, a TV imitation of the Beatles — in the role of the Artful Dodger. [Frabnk] Gorshin ran through some impressions of Marlon Brando, Burt Lancaster and Alec Guinness, among others, as he presciently imagined a time when movie stars went into politics.

    ….There was polite applause for everyone, but the audience was desperate to uncork again. One final act stood between the Beatles and their second set.

    McCall and Brill were newlyweds in 1964. Each had started out with ambitions to act, and after landing a few small roles, each wound up in a Los Angeles workshop at Paramount Studios, taught by comedian Jerry Lewis. It was Lewis who introduced them; they fell in love, married and developed a sketch comedy act that was inspired by the work of Elaine May and Mike Nichols.

    They were in their early twenties the night that Sullivan bellowed out the cue that began the most agonizing five minutes of their lives.

    “And now we take you to Hollywood and a very tense moment in the career of an aspiring actress,” Sullivan said. “The office of McCall and Brill!”

    The skit has a simple premise: Brill, dressed in a suit, plays a producer trying to cast an ingenue for a new movie. McCall, in a white dress, is his neat-freak secretary, though she’ll also jump in and out of the frame to play three different gals who audition for the part. The first of them is trembling visibly when she introduces herself.

    “Hi, sir. You might not remember me, but I was Miss Palm Springs 1956. I thought I was going to be nervous meeting a producer like you, but I’m not nervous at all.” Pretending to be beside herself with nerves, McCall then repeats the whole sentence verbatim.

    Nearly dead silence.

    ….”We were in a daze,” he says now. “It was an out-of-body experience. I know we were onstage and I know we were doing something, but that’s it.”

    ….It might have been impossible to get noticed on a night when success was measured in deafening decibels. But for McCall and Brill, the show was so embarrassing that they didn’t return home to California. They headed south to Florida and spent the next week in Miami. One night, after catching a nightclub act, they were walking toward their car when a limo pulled up alongside them. It was the Beatles, who’d flown to the Sunshine State for their second Sullivan appearance, taped at the Deauville Hotel in Miami.

    “Lennon rolled down the window and introduced us to the other guys,” Brill recalls. “He said, ‘What are you doing here?’ We said, ‘Escaping from you!’ ”

    It was six months before their agent called again, McCall says, an eternity in showbiz time. They regained their footing, gradually. Brill wound up with TV roles — he was a Klingon on an episode of “Star Trek,” and he co-starred for years in the cable detective drama “Silk Stalkings.” McCall wrote for shows like “Alf” and “Mr. Belvedere,” and she does voice-over work now. (“I’m in ‘Ice Age,’ the movie,” she says. “I think I’m a turtle.”) They both had roles on “7th Heaven,” the WB series.

    “We’re lucky,” says Brill. “We’re survivors. Being on ‘Silk Stalkings,’ thank you God, has meant we don’t have to have work. We’re in our sixties and I can afford to do L.A. theater, which pays nothing, believe me.”

    ….in the many years they’ve shared their memories with friends and family, nobody has ever said anything positive about their performance. No one. Nobody has suggested they are judging themselves too harshly, although McCall’s mother came close.

    “She said we were much funnier when the show was rerun,” Brill says, laughing. “She really said that.”

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About Eric Olsen

  • Robert Brandt

    Huh, who knew? All I know is that my parents are in quite a funk this weekend with all this “40 years ago” business.