Perception & Reality

I was invited by friends to view four old episodes of the Ed Sullivan Show, the ones with the Beatles. With the DVD in the machine I sat back, curious to relive that night 39 years ago, February 9, 1964.

My high school friend Jean Hartman was in England during the summer of 1963. Returning, she called saying I had to come over and listen to these new “Beatle” records she’d brought back. I went. I listened patiently to this new group, their sound foreign to my ear. I liked the music, but was not smitten by it with the same passion and exuberance as Jean was. Months later, her eyes filled with excited expectation, Jean leaned across the study hall table and whispered, “They’re gonna be on Ed Sullivan this Sunday night, you’ve gotta watch.” I promised I would.

I thought about Jean as my friend hit the remote’s play button and that magical night began to unfold anew. Perception is a funny thing. When we experience something it’s real for that time and that moment, but as we age and life leaves its imprint upon us, that same exact moment often takes on an altered appearance. It is similar to the play of shadow and light on an object; move the light and the object changes. I found my remembered perception differed greatly from reality.

First of all, after years of seeing impressionists present their impression of impressionist Will Jordan’s impression of Ed Sullivan, I discovered Sullivan was not the caricature I perceived. He was a character, indeed, but far more intriguing a man than the boy in me remembered. He was not a buffoon, but a man I would have liked to have known. He was genuinely excited, after all he had pulled off the show business coup of the century, and the reality was he clearly adored these four “boys” as he called them.

Ed Sullivan introduced the Beatles. My eyes filled with the same amazement, consumed by the same magic that captured me those many years ago. As an adult I saw their nervousness and their struggle to work through it. This was their dream, they stood on the edge of success, the door to opportunity had been thrown open, the stakes were lofty, although they had no idea then just how vast. In their eyes I recognized the desire to succeed, to be what the screaming crowd wanted, to please. I watched teenage girls in the audience bursting with innocent joy, their flesh and blood dream before them. Then a realization struck me; just 2½ months earlier, the President of the United States had been shot down in the streets of Dallas. We desperately needed a dose of innocence and fun. It is has been said that not so much as a hubcap was stolen in all of New York City during the time the Beatles were on the air. Beatlemania had begun.

The following week Sullivan broadcast from Miami, The Beatles headlining. Prizefighters Joe Louis and Sonny Liston were in the audience. Mitzi Gaynor performed. I always perceived her as a performer of relatively modest talent with a funny voice. The reality was Mitzi Gaynor knocked me out. She was a highly seductive temptress, a seasoned professional. How could my perception have been so far off reality, I wondered.

The following week the Sullivan show returned to New York with the Beatles final performance on their first visit. This time any trace of hesitation or nervousness was gone. The Beatles were confident, assured, the clown princes of rock and roll who played and sang with harmonies that changed music forever. They had conquered America; realized their dream.

I met John Lennon once, a few blocks from the Ed Sullivan theatre. My own perception was that, should I ever meet him, I would say something clever and he’d laugh. Instead in reality, I was so taken by the largeness of his voice and the light in his eyes, I was rendered speechless, anything I had to say was irrelevant, so I smiled and simply said, “Hello.”

He returned the smile, “Hello yourself,” the distinctive Liverpool voice replied. We shook hands and went on about our day. Three days later he was murdered in front of his home.

I later got a job on a TV show that taped in the Ed Sullivan theatre. At the first rehearsal I walked to the center of the stage and looked out into the theatre; my perception was I had finally achieved success. I looked down at the floor. “John Lennon stood right here,” I said to myself. I smiled at the reality that; that and a buck and a half would get me a ride on the subway.

Following a recent snowstorm I heard a large flock of starlings chattering. My perception imagined disgruntled bird conversations. In reality I had no idea what they thought of the snow and it didn’t matter, they were the sound of spring.

We’ll talk next time From The Road.

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