While Beatles fans continue to bask in the afterglow of Paul McCartney's triumphant concert this past week, 49 years ago today all four of the Beatles stopped, albeit fleetingly, in our fair city.
That's right. At 2:05 p.m. on Aug. 18, 1964, the Fab Four first set their Beatle-booted feet in Canada at Winnipeg International Airport. They were greeted by some 1,000 screaming fans.
Intended as a routine 25-minute refuelling stop, word leaked out the Beatles were on board a flight from London to Los Angeles that day to begin their first full North American tour. "Around noon, I got a call from the public relations director for Air Canada who was a good friend of mine," recalled CJAY TV personality Bob Burns, host of the popular Teen Dance Party. " 'Get out to the airport for the interview of your life,' he told me."
Radio stations CKY and CKRC were also tipped off and announced the imminent arrival of Liverpool's most famous exports, resulting in a mass of teenagers descended on the airport. Traffic was blocked and the parking lot jammed. As the Pan American Lockheed Electra, dubbed "Jet Clipper Beatles," taxied to a halt, they unleashed a deafening roar. "We want the Beatles!" With no plans to disembark, Beatles manager Brian Epstein noticed the pandemonium on the observation deck and prevailed upon the lads to make a brief appearance. Dressed in suits and ties, all four emerged from the plane waving to the hysterical throng.
First down the stairs was Paul McCartney. "Hello Winnipeg!" he shouted. Reporters quickly swarmed in, microphones thrust in his face. "It's a luverly welcome," chirped McCartney. Burns managed to snag John Lennon saying "Bob Burns from CJAY Television" to which the cheeky Beatle replied, "That's not my fault." As Burns remembered, "He had a smart-aleck answer for everything." Burns took great pride in being the first Canadian television reporter to interview a Beatle. He found Ringo Starr the most gregarious. "He seemed more mature than the others," he noted. Other reporters managed to glean a few words from various Beatles.
Among the mob of squealing teens jostling for a sight of their heroes was 14-year-old Diane Clear. "Oh, I wish they had stayed longer," she gushed to a reporter. "They are so cute." CKRC receptionist Sharon McRae was fortunate to shake hands with George Harrison and receive a kiss on the hand from Ringo. She was later besieged by a horde of Beatlemaniacs. "I was just overwhelmed by all the people and the noise."
"George and Ringo were very polite and nice," recalls McRae, who says she wasn't a Beatlemaniac at the time. "It wasn't until I got home that night and my parents, neighbours and friends started bombarding me with a million questions about that day that I realized what a big deal it really was."
Minutes later, waving one last time, the four ducked inside the plane. But not before Ringo suggested the group might return to Winnipeg on their next North American tour.
Seventeen-year-old Silver Heights Collegiate student Bruce Decker, a member of rock band The Deverons, heard the news on the radio and with friends lit out for the airport. "We couldn't see anything from the observation platform so we sneaked down to the ramp," Decker related years later. "It was fascinating to see the Beatles in person here in Winnipeg."
Seizing the moment, he suddenly dashed across the runway, some 23 metres, to the stairs of the plane just as the four Beatles were stepping back inside. "Quick thinking, that's all it was," reflected Decker. "I just figured I could make it up those steps and I no sooner thought of it and I was gone. I had to get a closer look at them. The crowd roared when they saw me go. I got right up the stairs before the Mounties grabbed me." His friends had to wait while the Mounties detained him.
Decker's bold move amused the Beatles. "Just as the Mounties were wrestling with me, I caught a glimpse of the Beatles through the door and they were chuckling." As fans began collecting money for Decker's bail, authorities eventually let him go without any charges. He became the object of instant adulation. "Kids crowded around me, touching me and screaming. Tears were streaming down their faces as they asked me: 'What do they look like? Did they say anything?' The girls thought there was some kind of magic about me just because I'd got so close to them." At a Deverons gig that evening, Decker was heralded as a hero by the audience. The next day, his impulsive act made the front page of the local papers dubbed Decker's Dash.
Dozens of dazed teens remained behind after the plane was long gone. "It was a little embarrassing having to tell kids to stop kissing the runway after the plane left," commented RCMP Sgt. E. G. Varndell. Others sat on the grass weeping. "We've never seen anything like this before and I hope we won't see it again."
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