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.
From ‘fad’ to fabled
The Coliseum was also headed to the dustbins of history. In the late 1990s, the arena was sold to a management company that ripped out the seating and turned it into a trash transfer station. The company was looking to demolish it, when the D.C. Preservation League put the building on its list of historic, endangered places in 2003.
Now, a developer is aiming to turn the structure into a mixed-use facility of shops and offices, with the shell of the building and its name intact.
Mitchell’s memories are getting a second act, too. A few years ago, he pulled the negatives out of storage and spent a thousand hours, he said, removing decades of dust and grime on Photoshop.
“They’re a collaboration between two different photographers,” he said, “the 18-year-old who shot them and the 60-whatever-year-old that realized them.”
The restored collection was put up for auction, selling for more than $360,000. They were also displayed in a special gallery in the Coliseum last weekend. On Tuesday, 3,000 people will return to the building for a replica concert courtesy of BeatleMania Now, which touts itself as “the world’s best Beatles tribute band.”
The historic power of that night wasn’t something made up in retrospect, according to Mitchell, after the Beatles became arguably the most successful and widely beloved band of the 20th century.
“I actually really did feel swept up by the music. It got into you. It just got into you,” he said. “The world was different the next morning.”