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A brief history of the Beatles’ (brief) time in Alaska

Mike Dunham
Part of Larry Flynn's Anchorage collection of Beatles memorabilia. The Beatles passed through Anchorage, but never performed in Alaska. Bob Hallinen / Alaska Dispatch News

The Beatles -- together or separately -- are known to have passed through Alaska twice.

The first time they came was at 1:45 p.m. on June 27, 1966. Most sources say the DC-8 jet carrying the Fab Four to Japan was obliged to set down at Anchorage International Airport because a typhoon named Kit blocked their way.

Gerry Henningsen of Anchorage, a ground service agent with Pacific Northern Airlines at the time, remembers it differently. The layover was planned, he said, a routine refilling stop. But after it landed, a mechanical issue was discovered that kept the plane on the ground longer than expected. “I think it was hydraulics,” he said. Had the plane taken off after repairs were made, it would have been unable to land in Japan because of a curfew at the airports there.

Henningsen was sent on board the DC-8 to get the famous passengers’ paperwork for customs while Beatles manager Brian Epstein, flying with the band, tried to figure out what to do.

“I babysat those guys for two and a half, three hours,” said Henningsen, who was not a Beatlemaniac. “They were not my cup of tea, just four young men who had made a big dent in the entertainment world. We talked about a lot of things. They were asking, 'What’s there to do in Anchorage?’ They saw Earthquake Park on a map and were curious about that.”

But they never got to see it.

After several hours of waiting, the four came down the ramp, George Harrison leading the way, and headed for a waiting bus. They were spotted by local teenagers, whom they gifted with a few souvenirs.

Word spread among the city’s youths in a flash: The Beatles’ plane was in Anchorage and someone had ordered a secret chartered bus to go to the airport.

Anchorage teens quickly put two and two together. Ted Spencer was one of them. He joined a carload of other boys racing to the airport.

“We saw the bus going the other way and realized that was them, so we turned around and chased it,” Spencer said. The driver was so excited that he slid into a stop sign, but kept going. As the bus rolled along Spenard Road to downtown, an ever-growing caravan formed behind it, with fans shouting and honking.

Everyone knew there was only one place in Anchorage swanky enough for the Beatles to stay -- the Anchorage Westward Hotel, now the Hilton. And, sure enough, that’s where the bus was heading.

“The bus went into the alley behind the Westward and we were right behind them,” Spencer said. “We just barely got a glimpse of the Beatles walking from the bus to the back door of the hotel.”

The band and entourage went to room 1050. An Anchorage police detective and two uniformed officers stood guard in the hall to shoo off the curious and the fans, some of whom showed up with armloads of records. Food was delivered -- hamburgers and king crab.

Harrison called Seidenverg and Kay’s, an upscale men’s haberdashery on Fourth Avenue, and ordered a hat and a couple of shirts. The proprietor delivered the goods and said that Harrison, who met him, seemed alert and engaged, but the other three were sitting around looking bored and a little peeved.

That impression is backed up by photos taken of them in the room by British photographer Robert Whitaker. They show the band slumped over chairs and sofas like wet socks. Apparently the most interesting thing that happened was that George got hold of a Polaroid camera and took some candid shots of his mates.

For the most part, the party stayed hunkered in the suite. But Daily News photographer Robin Smith managed to snap Harrison taking a stroll through the Westward hallway in his stockings.

Meanwhile, more than 500 Anchorage teens had gathered in the alley behind the hotel, looking up at the 10th floor, sometimes exclaiming that they’d seen a famous face looking out at them, chanting, “We want the Beatles” and singing -- to the tune of “Bye-Bye Birdie” -- “We love you, Beatles.”

There was a report of a broken window, but Anchorage police said that the kids behaved pretty politely. How politely? Well, when the 10 p.m. teen curfew arrived, the crowd obediently dispersed, leaving a few 18-and-overs.

At 1 a.m., the band reboarded the bus, returned to the airport and left for Japan.

They would never play a concert here, which didn’t dampen the love felt by their Alaska fans. Judy Redmond, one of the lucky teens who spoke with them at the airport, assured a Daily News reporter, “Their popularity isn’t going downhill. They’re my favorite forever.”

Some years later, Ringo recalled, “Anchorage, Alaska, was like a cowboy town to us; it was really like a backwater. My only great memory of Alaska is that at the airport they have a huge, magnificent white bear in a glass case.”

Had they arrived 24 hours earlier they would have encountered Gov. Bill Egan and city officials dedicating the airport’s new hexagonal passenger terminal, where the polar bear was displayed.

Otherwise, there really wasn’t much to do in Anchorage in June 1966 with regard to in-town amusements. Most entertainment was provided by the bars, like the Penguin Club -- “free cocktails for all unescorted ladies!” -- or comic-mimic-singer Johnny Nero at the Alaskan Lounge, though he only performed on weekends.

One option would have been to go to a movie. That week’s offerings included “Days of Wine and Roses,” “How to Murder Your Wife,” “Stop the World, I Want to Get Off” and “Boy, Did I Get a Wrong Number;” it was a bumper year for long movie titles. In the drive-ins -- yes, children, we had drive-in theaters -- they might have seen “Young Fury” at the Sundowner or, at the Billiken, honest to goodness, “Help!”

So far as we know, only one Beatle ever passed through town again: Paul McCartney.

On Jan. 16, 1980, as McCartney arrived in Japan on a concert tour with his band Wings, customs agents found several ounces of marijuana in his luggage. He was put in jail and told that the charges could lead to serious prison time. After making a televised apology, he was deported. The JAL 747 taking him back to Europe refueled here on Jan. 26.

Most of the 200 passengers on the plane got off to stretch. McCartney briefly stepped out of the plane and waved, but otherwise stayed in his seat during the 90-minute stopover.

The only Alaskan reported to have spoken with him was Joyce Horne, a ground agent with Servair. She gave Sir Paul a Fur Rondy pin and suggested that he should perform here. McCartney asked how big the city was and said he’d think about it.

He might have made a faster decision if he’d realized how far the city had progressed since 1966. The same week he touched down on the Anchorage tarmac, B.B. King was doing shows a couple of miles away at the International Inn and Joe Cocker was scheduled to play there the following week. Surely the town could have mustered up an audience for Wings.

And, as the state Supreme Court had decriminalized marijuana in 1975, he could have limoed to the home of any of several Anchorage admirers and enjoyed a joint or two without worrying about breaking Alaska law.

Reach Mike Dunham at mdunham@adn.com or 257-4332.