On a frigid February night 50 years ago, a cavernous sports arena in Washington, D.C., became sacred ground.
Two days before, the Beatles performed on “The Ed Sullivan Show,” inaugurating one of the most frenzied, hysterical fan phenomena of all time. Then the foursome hopped a train to Washington for their first live concert in the United States.
Mike Mitchell, barely older than most people in the crowd, was tasked with documenting the moment when John, Paul, George and Ringo took the stage of the Washington Coliseum. He was mesmerized by the experience, then horrified when he saw how his photographs were used. It was a conflict that captured the growing divide — and in some cases hostility — that the 1960s forged between younger and older generations of Americans. But 50 years later, Mitchell is getting the last laugh and a whole lot more from the iconic photos he rediscovered and restored.
When the lights came on
“I was driving down the road in my green ‘55 Chevrolet. I heard, ‘I Want to Hold Your Hand’ on the radio, and I got it immediately,” Mitchell, now 68, said about the first time he heard the Beatles. “It was as if there was a part of my brain that had receptors for Beatles music almost. And when I heard it, I said, ‘I have to be at that concert.’”
Mitchell, then an 18-year-old aspiring photojournalist, didn’t expect to take very good photos. He couldn’t afford a flashgun, so he feared the pictures would turn out dark and grainy from the poor exposure. He panicked. Then, he got up on the stage, and the lights came on.
“And I took my cues from what the light was inviting me to do,” Mitchell remembered. “I just jumped into action and winded my way through the crowd and I got up close and personal with all of them.”
Mitchell took a few hundred black-and-white images of the rockers, who were only in their early 20s at the time. Some of them were hazy. Some were iconic. But none of them convey the deafening and relentless screams of 8,000 teenagers.
“You know I’ve talked to people who were 10 rows back. They could barely hear the lyrics,” Mitchell said.
The euphoria of the show faded fast for Mitchell, when the magazine, a local rag called Washington, published the photos. The editors put the word “Fad” at the top of the masthead, as a satire of Mad magazine. And then they illustrated little bugs, a play on the Beatles, crawling across the page.
“The adults, at the time, they didn’t get it,” said Mitchell. “It was mortifying to see how it was used. I mean, it hurt me deeply.”
So Mitchell put the negatives in an envelope labeled “Beedles” and packed it away in his basement.