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All Together Now: Civil Rights and The Beatles' First American Tour

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“We will not appear unless Negroes are allowed to sit anywhere,” The Beatles said in a press statement on September 6, 1964. Halfway through a 23-city U.S. tour, the group was looking ahead to their date at the Gator Bowl in Jacksonville, where they’d heard that blacks were confined to the balconies or upper tiers at public events such as concerts.

The next day, The Florida Times-Union ran a disparaging editorial entitled “Beatlemania Is A Mark Of A Frenetic Era.” The group was called “a passing fad, perfectly timed and fitted to the mores, morals and ideals of a fast-paced, troubled time.” Their sound was described as “high pitched monotone.” There was no mention of segregation, but it was clear that the paper hardly considered these “hirsute scourges of Liverpool” intelligent enough to comment on social issues.

“The Beatles were interlopers in the eyes of most people,” says Kitty Oliver, a Jacksonville native who was one of a handful of black teenage fans who attended their Gator Bowl concert. “They were nobodies, and strange on top of that. Especially in the south, in a place like Jacksonville, where tension was already high about differences. Whether you were coming from another state to demonstrate civil rights, or coming from another country to undermine our youth – it was equally threatening.”

The Fab Four’s outspokenness certainly stood in sharp contrast to the behavior of most American pop stars, who were coached to stick to safe topics like favorite desserts and most embarrassing personal habits.

“At that time, no one that I knew of really took the initiative to address any kind of social issues,” says Mark Lindsay, lead singer of Paul Revere & The Raiders. “I can see The Beatles coming over here and being assailed by this weird, unfair policy of segregation. They were not just good musicians. They had intellect. They spoke up.”

With Great Power...

“They were really the first group to have the power to do that,” agrees singer Brian Hyland, whose big hit was “Sealed With a Kiss.” “They used that platform really well. They could’ve just let it ride and not said anything about the Jacksonville show. It took a lot of courage.”

Both of these artists were part of Dick Clark’s Caravan of Stars, an interracial tour crossing paths with The Beatles in an America that was churning with racial tensions. Protesters were marching in northern cities from Seattle to Baltimore demanding better jobs, schooling and housing for blacks. In the south, the situation was more desperate. Blacks were still denied a place at a lunch counter or a seat in the front of a city bus. In July, President Lyndon Johnson signed the landmark Civil Rights Act, banning discrimination “on the basis of race, color, religion, sex, or national origin.”

But old prejudices die hard. In the weeks after, riots broke out in Harlem and Rochester. Black churches, homes and businesses were burned in Mississippi. And there were countless incidences of violence throughout southern cities, including Jacksonville.

In February 1964 – the same month The Beatles first appeared on Ed Sullivan - a bomb exploded in the home of a black family whose son had integrated into a white school. A month later, rioting broke out.

Oliver recalls, “I was a junior in high school, and there was a very tense situation downtown that summer. I got involved in demonstrations and picketing. There wasn’t any violence that I recall, but people were yelling at us.”

When The Beatles arrived, the city had settled down, but was still spinning its wheels in desegregation efforts. Only 60 of the 30,000 black students in Duval County attended integrated schools.

Live at the Gator Bowl

Opening the concert that Friday night was the Exciters, a black R & B vocal quartet from New York, best known for their hit “Tell Him.” Though WAPE - “The Big Ape” - the local radio station promoting the concert, chose the support act, The Beatles were most likely pleased.

Oliver recalls, “Where I sat, there were two other black kids. I ran into them accidentally as I found my seat. I went alone. No school friends would go. I remember that I sat in the high-up least expensive seats, because that is all my family could afford. Yes, it was scary in the sense that I didn't know what to expect. You develop a strong antenna for danger, watchful of any sudden movements or shift of mood in a crowd, and, at the same time, a shield that allows you to look straight ahead and seem impervious.”

Once The Beatles started to play, Oliver forgot about any possible danger. “There were a lot of girls screaming, and I was screaming too,” she says with a laugh. “And singing all the lyrics to the songs. I loved The Beatles, and had seen Hard Day’s Night seven times. I even won one of those short “_______is my favorite Beatle” contests and my name was called on the radio announcing that I had won a free signed album. I kept it for decades.”

And The Beatles’ human rights crusading continued for decades, until the group’s end and right on through their solo careers. Paul McCartney summed up their position when he told a reporter in 1966, "We weren't into prejudice. We were always very keen on mixed-race audiences. With that being our attitude, shared by all the group, we never wanted to play South Africa or any places where blacks would be separated. It wasn't out of any goody-goody thing; we just thought, 'Why should you separate black people from white? That's stupid, isn't it?'"

“I think The Beatles did a lot in terms of bridging cultures, and that was something very new at that time,” says Oliver, who now lives in Ft. Lauderdale, where she’s an oral historian and author. “They came from another country and another culture, so that made them intriguing to many black people. These people were different and they were singing some R & B songs that were familiar to us. It was the cross-cultural aspect that went beyond racial issues that made them so important. They gave us a new way of dialoguing at a time when we were really at odds with each other.”

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10 Regional Twists on Trick-or-Treating
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Walk around any given American neighborhood on the night of October 31, and you’ll likely hear choruses of "trick-or-treat" chiming through the area. The sing-songy phrase is synonymous with Halloween in some parts of the world, but it's not the only way kids get sweets from their neighbors this time of year. From the Philippines to the American Midwest, here are some regional door-to-door traditions you may not have heard of.

1. PANGANGALULUWA // THE PHILIPPINES

Rice cakes wrapped in leaves.
Suman

The earliest form of trick-or-treating on Halloween can be traced back to Europe in the Middle Ages. Kids would don costumes and go door-to-door offering prayers for dead relatives in exchange for snacks called "soul cakes." When the cake was eaten, tradition held that a soul was ferried from purgatory into heaven. Souling has disappeared from Ireland and the UK, but a version of it lives on halfway across the world in the Philippines. During All Saints Day on November 1, Filipino children taking part in Pangangaluluwa will visit local houses and sing hymns for alms. The songs often relate to souls in purgatory, and carolers will play the part of the souls by asking for prayers. Kids are sometimes given rice cakes called suman, a callback to the soul cakes from centuries past.

2. PÃO-POR-DEUS // PORTUGAL

Raw dough.
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Instead of trick-or-treating, kids in Portugal go door-to-door saying pão-por-deus ("bread for god") in exchange for goodies on All Saints Day. Some homeowners give out money or candy, while others offer actual baked goods.

3. HALLOWEEN APPLES // WESTERN CANADA

Kids trick-or-treating.
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If they're not calling out "trick-or-treat" on their neighbors’ doorsteps on Halloween night, you may hear children in western Canada saying "Halloween apples!" The phrase is left over from a time when apples were a common Halloween treat and giving out loose items on the holiday wasn't considered taboo.

4. ST. MARTIN'S DAY // THE NETHERLANDS

The Dutch wait several days after Halloween to do their own take on trick-or-treating. On the night of November 11, St. Martin's Day, children in the Netherlands take to the streets with their homemade lanterns in hand. These lanterns were traditionally carved from beets or turnips, but today they’re most commonly made from paper. And the kids who partake don’t get away with shouting a few words at each home they visit—they’re expected to sing songs to receive their sugary rewards.

5. A PENNY FOR THE GUY // THE UK

Guy Fawkes Night celebration.

Peter Trimming, Wikimedia Commons // CC BY-SA 2.0

Guy Fawkes Night is seen by some as the English Protestants’ answer to the Catholic holidays associated with Halloween, so it makes sense that it has its own spin on trick-or-treating. November 5 marks the day of Guy Fawkes’s failed assassination attempt on King James as part of the Gunpowder Plot. To celebrate the occasion, children will tour the neighborhood asking for "a penny for the guy." Sometimes they’ll carry pictures of the would-be-assassin which are burned in the bonfires lit later at night.

6. TRICKS FOR TREATS // ST. LOUIS, MISSOURI

Kids knocking on a door in costume.
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If kids in the St. Louis area hope to go home with a full bag of candy on Halloween, they must be willing to tickle some funny bones. Saying "tricks-for-treats" followed by a joke replaces the classic trick-or-treat mantra in this Midwestern city. There’s no criteria for the quality or the subject of the joke, but spooky material (What’s a skeleton’s favorite instrument? The trombone!) earns brownie points.

7. ME DA PARA MI CALAVERITA // MEXICO

Sugar skulls with decoration.
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While Dia de los Muertos, or Day of the Dead, is completely separate from Halloween, the two holidays share a few things in common. Mexicans celebrate the day by dressing up, eating sweet treats, and in some parts of the country, going house-to-house. Children knocking on doors will say "me da para mi calaverita" or "give me money for my little skull," a reference to the decorated sugar skulls sold in markets at this time of year.

8. HALLOWEEN! // QUEBEC, CANADA

Kids dressed up for Halloween.
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Trick-or-treaters like to keep things simple in the Canadian province of Quebec. In place of the alliterative exclamation, they shout “Halloween!” at each home they visit. Adults local to the area might remember saying "la charité s’il-vous-plaît "(French for “charity, please”) when going door-to-door on Halloween, but this saying has largely fallen out of fashion.

9. SWEET OR SOUR // GERMANY

Little girl trick-or-treating.
iStock

Halloween is only just beginning to gain popularity in Germany. Where it is celebrated, the holiday looks a lot like it does in America, but Germans have managed to inject some local character into their version of trick-or-treat. In exchange for candy, kids sometimes sing out "süß oder saures"—or "sweet and sour" in English.

10. TRIQUI, TRIQUI HALLOWEEN // COLOMBIA

Kids dressed up for Halloween.
Rubí Flórez, Flickr // CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

Kids in Colombia anticipate dressing up and prowling the streets on Halloween just as much as kids do in the States. There are a few significant variations on the annual tradition: Instead of visiting private residencies, they're more likely to ask for candy from store owners and the security guards of apartment buildings. And instead of saying trick-or-treat, they recite this Spanish rhyme:

Triqui triqui Halloween
Quiero dulces para mí
Si no hay dulces para mí
Se le crece la naríz

In short, it means that if the grownups don't give the kids the candy they're asking for, their noses will grow. Tricky, tricky indeed

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Hey, Vern: It's the Ernest P. Worrell Story
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Mill Creek Entertainment

In her review of the 1991 children’s comedy Ernest Scared Stupid, The Washington Post film critic Rita Kempley described the titular character, the dim-witted but well-meaning Ernest P. Worrell, as “the global village idiot.” As portrayed by Kentucky native Jim Varney, Ernest was in the middle of a 10-film franchise that would see him mistakenly incarcerated (Ernest Goes to Jail), enlisting in the military (Ernest in the Army), substituting for an injured Santa (Ernest Saves Christmas), and returning to formal education in order to receive his high school diploma (Ernest Goes to School).

Unlike slapstick contemporaries Yahoo Serious and Pauly Shore, Varney took a far more unusual route to film stardom. With advertising executive John Cherry III, Varney originated the Ernest character in a series of regional television commercials. By one estimate, Ernest appeared in over 6000 spots, hawking everything from ice cream to used cars. They grew so popular that the pitchman had a 20,000-member fan club before his first movie, 1987’s Ernest Goes to Camp, was even released.

Varney and Ernest became synonymous, so much so that the actor would dread going on dates for fear Ernest fans would approach him; he sometimes wore disguises to discourage recognition. Though he could recite Shakespeare on a whim, Varney was rarely afforded the opportunity to expand his resume beyond the denim-jacketed character. It was for this reason that Varney, though grateful for Ernest’s popularity, would sometimes describe his notoriety as a “mixed blessing,” one that would come to a poignant end foreshadowed by one of his earliest commercials.

Born in Lexington, Kentucky in 1949, Varney spent his youth being reprimanded by teachers who thought his interest in theater shouldn’t replace attention paid to math or science. Varney disagreed, leaving high school just two weeks shy of graduation (he returned in the fall for his diploma) to head for New York with $65 in cash and a plan to perform.

The off-Broadway plays Varney appeared in were not lucrative, and he began to bounce back and forth between Kentucky and California, driving a truck when times were lean and appearing in TV shows like Petticoat Junction when his luck improved. During one of his sabbaticals from Hollywood, he met Cherry, who cast him as an aggressive military instructor named Sergeant Glory in an ad for a car dealer in Nashville, Tennessee.

In 1981, Varney was asked back to film a new spot for Cherry, this one for a dilapidated amusement park in Bowling Green, Kentucky, that Cherry considered so unimpressive he didn’t want to show it on camera. Instead, he created the character of Ernest P. Worrell, a fast-talking, often imbecilic local who is constantly harassing his neighbor Vern. (“Know what I mean, Vern?” became Ernest’s catchphrase.)

The spot was a hit, and soon Varney and Cherry were being asked to film spots for Purity Dairies, pizza parlors, convenience stores, and other local businesses. In the spots, Ernest would usually look into the camera—the audience shared Vern’s point of view—and endorse whatever business had enlisted his services, usually stopping only when Vern devised a way to get him out of sight.

Although the Purity commercials initially drew complaints—the wide-angle lens created a looming Ernest that scared some children—his fame grew, and Varney became a rarity in the ad business: a mascot without a permanent corporate home. He and Cherry would film up to 26 spots in a day, all targeted for a specific region of the country. In some areas, people would call television stations asking when the next Ernest spot was due to air. A Fairfax, Virginia Toyota dealership saw a 50 percent spike in sales after Varney began appearing in ads.

Logging thousands of spots in hundreds of markets, Varney once said that if they had all been national, he and Cherry would have been wealthy beyond belief. But local spots had local budgets, and the occasions where Ernest was recruited for a major campaign were sometimes prohibited by exclusivity contracts: He and Cherry had to turn down Chevrolet due to agreements with local, competing car dealers.

Still, Varney made enough to buy a 10-acre home in Kentucky, expressing satisfaction with the reception of the Ernest character and happily agreeing to a four-picture deal with Disney’s Touchstone Pictures for a series of Ernest features. Released on a near-constant basis between 1987 and 1998, the films were modest hits (Ernest Goes to Camp made $28 million) before Cherry—who directed several of them—and Varney decided to strike out on their own, settling into a direct-to-video distribution model.

“It's like Oz, and the Wizard ain't home," Varney told the Sun Sentinel in 1985, anticipating his desire for autonomy. “Hollywood is a place where everything begins but nothing originates. It's this big bunch of egos slamming into each other.”

Varney was sometimes reticent to admit he had ambitions beyond Ernest, believing his love of Shakespeare and desire to perform Hamlet would be perceived as the cliched story of a clown longing to be serious. He appeared in 1994’s The Beverly Hillbillies and as the voice of Slinky Dog in 1995’s Toy Story. But Ernest would continue to be his trademark.

The movies continued through 1998, at which point Varney noticed a nagging cough. It turned out to be lung cancer. As Ernest, Varney had filmed an anti-smoking public service announcement in the 1980s. In his private life, he was a chain smoker. He succumbed to cancer in 2000 at the age of 50, halting a series of planned Ernest projects that included Ernest Goes to Space and Ernest and the Voodoo Curse.

Varney may never have gotten an opportunity to perform in a wider variety of roles, but he did receive some acknowledgment for the one he had mastered. In 1989, Varney took home an Emmy for Outstanding Performer in a children’s series, a CBS Saturday morning show titled Hey, Vern: It’s Ernest!

“It’s a blessing and a curse,” he told the Orlando Sentinel in 1991, “because it's as hard to escape from it as it is to get into it.''

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