50 years later, Beatles still rockin' the Vegas Strip

The Sahara Hotel & Casino was under siege. Two thousand teenagers had surrounded the hotel, queuing up outside and in the lobby. Sheriff's deputies used loudspeakers to warn that anyone under the age of 18 would be arrested.That didn't stop these devoted fans, many registered with their parents as guests of the hotel to be allowed in.

Chants of "We want the Beatles, we want the Beatles, we want Ringo," rang out. At 2:30 a.m. on Wednesday, Aug. 19, 1964, their prayers were answered. The Fab Four had arrived at the Sahara, and using a back stairway and a freight elevator, bypassed the milling fans to reach Suite 4722 undisturbed. A day later, The Beatles would perform two shows for more than 11,000 screaming fans packed in the Las Vegas Convention Center -- the only venue in 1960s Las Vegas that was large enough to accommodate the audience. 

Nearly 50 years later, Las Vegas still embraces Beatlemania with a hit Cirque Du Soleil show featuring original recordings of the Fab Four's songs and a tribute show performing the group's signature hits. The Sahara, the hotel that originally hosted The Beatles, is preparing for a new life as the remodeled SLS Las Vegas. For those of us who missed the iconic pop group's original visit to Sin City, Vegas.com offers some "Help!" to relive the original performance and get your Beatles' fix in modern Las Vegas.

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The Beatles performin Las Vegas in 1964

50 years later, Beatles still rockin' the Vegas Strip

By Jennifer Whitehair and Nicole Lucht

They only performed two concerts, but The Beatles left an impression that echoes through Las Vegas today as loud as the screaming fans who drowned out their 1964 performances.

The Beatles who?

 

Beatles arrive in Las Vegas

 

The Beatles head toward their room on the 47th floor of the Sahara Hotel and Casino in 1964. Photo by Las Vegas Sun

In the 1960s, Vegas was no stranger to performers with devoted fans. At the Sands Hotel and Casino, Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin, Sammy Davis Jr. and Joey Bishop were selling out the Copa Room as early as 1958. Rat Pack fans were willing to sleep in their cars and hotel lobbies on busy weekends, just for a chance to see the crooners.

But nothing had prepared the city for Beatlemania.

When booking agents first approached Las Vegas hotels on behalf of The Beatles, they were turned down. Stan Irwin, Director of Entertainment at the Sahara, had the foresight to realize what a Beatles' concert would mean to both the Sahara and Las Vegas. 

In a 1989 interview with newspaper columnist Mike Weatherford, Irwin said "I'm the only one who seemed to have known about the Beatles, so I bought them."

Weatherford, in his book "Cult Vegas: The Weirdest! The Wildest! The Swingin'est Town on Earth," reasons that it was more likely that the hotels considered The Beatles an act appealing only to teenagers. Casino owners had seen the indifference Las Vegas audiences had toward an earlier teen idol. In 1956 Elvis Presley failed to capture the interest of audiences and critics when he performed at the New Frontier Hotel and Casino. 

Whether it was foresight or luck, Irwin and the Sahara managed to secure the hottest ticket in Las Vegas when they booked The Beatles. 

"I'd been thinking of putting them in our main showroom, the Congo Room, but it held just 600 and there was no way to get any more seats in the place" Irwin told John Romero in his book "Las Vegas, the Untold Stories."  "I said, hold it, these guys belong in the Convention Center and I rushed over there to check the seating. They told me they could put 7,000 a show in the rotunda. I said that was still too small, and asked for the balcony too. They agreed and that pushed the total seating for each show to 8,408."

Tickets ranged from $2.20 for the cheapest balcony seats to $5.50 for the best seats. Following a common Las Vegas practice, Irwin had set aside blocks of tickets (casino comps) for not only his own casino's high rollers, but also for neighboring hotels as well. 

"I put aside a block of tickets for every major casino in town -- but up to the day the Beatles arrived there were hardly any takers," he told Romero. "Even our own casino bosses didn't seem to catch on until about a week before the concert when our big players started calling for tickets... And at the last minute, every casino on the Strip called us and pleaded, 'Do you still have my Beatles tickets.'"

While high rollers and casino hosts may have been slow on the uptake, Las Vegas teenagers were not. More than 1,400 teens stood in line on June 29, 1964 to get tickets to the two shows.

The Fab Four arrive

 

Beatles Play a Slot Machine

 

The Beatles enjoy a slot machine brought to their room at the Sahara Hotel and Casino in 1964. Crowds of fans prevent the group from enjoying the casino as a normal guest. Photo by Las Vegas News Bureau

Hotel and local officials were no doubt congratulating themselves when The Beatles' chartered plane arrived at McCarran International Airport at 1:45 a.m. on Aug. 20, 1964. The landing was hours before the Fab Four's scheduled arrival and managed to avoid the chaotic scenes that had greeted them at other appearances.

That success was short-lived. As the limousines carrying the group arrived at the Sahara, they found the hotel surrounded by 2,000 teenagers. Sheriff's deputies on loudspeakers tried to control the crowd who were unfazed by threats of arrest and continued to chant "We want the Beatles," We want Ringo," "Ringo-o-o," "Paul," and "Johnny." The Fab Four had to use a back stairway and a freight elevator to avoid the milling fans and reach Suite 4722 unmolested.

A Las Vegas Sun newspaper photographer managed to get past security, snap a few photos of the group arriving and instruct Ringo on how to operate the "telly" before being thrown out of the group's suite. After that The Beatles were self-imposed hostages. Having booked their Las Vegas gig so they could see the famous Sin City, the group was stuck in their hotel room except when they were taken to the Las Vegas Convention Center to perform. The Sahara brought up a few slot machines for the Fab Four to enjoy and created a photo-op seen around the world. Less than 12 hours later, The Beatles would perform their only two Las Vegas shows.

The Show

 

Las Vegas Sun Beatles

 

The Las Vegas Sun newspaper captured the excitement of Beatlemania the day after the concert in their Aug. 21, 1964 edition.

Crowd estimates range from 11,000 to 16,800 total for the two shows -- a record in Las Vegas at the time. Today, Celine Dion performs to an audience of 4,100 at The Colosseum at Caesars Palace and only high capacity venues like the MGM Grand Garden Arena, Mandalay Bay Events Center and Thomas & Mack Center can boast capacity of 14,000 or more.

"When I walked on stage at the Convention Center to introduce the first show, only four words left my mouth: 'Ladies and gentlemen, the --" and all hell broke loose," Irwin told Romero. "Like the rest of us from the Sahara who were there, I never heard a note. The screaming drowned out everything."

The Las Vegas Sun reported that the stage was surrounded by police officers and guards, some from as far away as Phoenix. The show was almost inaudible. A poor sound system and screaming fans drowned out the group as they performed their hits and songs of fellow artists including "She Loves You," "Do You Want To Know a Secret, " I Want to Hold Your Hand," "All My Loving," "Twist and Shout" and more.

Thirty minutes after taking the stage, the Fab Four were done, leaving the screaming fans in their wake.

"I'll never forget a girl who came running down the aisle toward the stage," Irwin related to Romero in "Las Vegas, the Untold Stories." "One of our muscle guys picked her up and carried her out of the rotunda. Close behind her came a second girl who got the same treatment. As they carried this one out she kept screaming, 'Put me down you idiot. I'm her mother.' "

A few hours later, The Beatles left Las Vegas, never to perform as a group in the city again.

A revolution

Aug. 20, 1964 marked a turning point in Las Vegas entertainment. Beatlemania introduced the Las Vegas Strip to a new concept - the arena show. It would eventually lead to major venues like The Joint, The Colosseum, MGM Grand Garden, Mandalay Events Center, Thomas & Mack Center and the 20,000-seat arena scheduled for development behind the Monte Carlo and New York - New York hotel and Casino.

It also proved to casino operators that rock 'n' roll was not only here to stay, but that there was a growing audience who wanted to see it in Las Vegas.

Today the city welcomes resident shows from pop princess Britney Spears, Bruno Mars, Santana, Elton John, Celine Dion, Shania Twain and hard rock band Guns N' Roses.

While The Beatles never performed as a group again in the city, their legacy lives on in LOVE by Cirque du Soleil. Here acrobatics, fantastical dance numbers and colorful characters combine with The Beatles' music in an enormously popular Las Vegas show. Steps away from the theater housing "LOVE," The Mirage also offers Revolution Lounge. Smaller than the typical Vegas nightclub, Revolution hints at the Beatles' psychedelic phase through contemporary design and decor.

Down the street at Saxe Theater in the Miracle Mile Shops at Planet Hollywood, B – A Tribute to the Beatles takes audiences on a trip through the Fab Four’s musical career, including a tip of the hat to Ed Sullivan, who welcomed the Beatles to America on his TV show 50 years ago.  

The Hard Rock Hotel, just off the Strip on Harmon Avenue, has a Beatles memorabilia case  near the Dragon Salon in the HRH Tower. Former Fab Four costumes can be viewed, as can other collectibles, such as books, key chains, a Beatles wig and toys. 

Finally, the mopped-top group stayed at the Sahara Hotel during their 1964 appearance. The Sahara closed in 2011, but the SLS Las Vegas has announced that its complete remodel of the property will be complete and the hotel open for business Labor Day weekend, 2014. Whether you'll be able to book the room where Paul, Ringo, George and John stayed is not yet known.

Find The Beatles in Las Vegas

Beatles 1964 Vegas Show