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Stopover of the Beatles

In 1964, the world’s most popular music group, the Beatles, visited the Lawrence County town of Walnut Ridge. Though brief, their visit left a lasting impact on the community and has recently been the subject of a documentary movie.

That year, the popularity of the Beatles was without rival. George Harrison, John Lennon, Paul McCartney, and Ringo Starr were mobbed by teenage fans at each public appearance. The Fab Four, as they were dubbed, had five singles in the top five slots on the Billboard charts. Their first film, A Hard Day’s Night, appeared in 500 U.S. theaters. The group’s first appearance on The Ed Sullivan Show drew an estimated seventy-three million viewers. In their legendary 1964 concert tour, they performed thirty-two shows in thirty-four days.

On September 18, 1964, the group finished a concert at Memorial Coliseum in Dallas, Texas, and immediately boarded a plane owned and operated by Reed Pigman. (Pigman owned American Flyers Airlines out of Dallas; the Beatles chartered one of Pigman’s planes during the 1964 tour.) Pigman owned a ranch in Alton, Missouri, that would serve as a getaway before the group’s final U.S. concert of the year, which would be in New York. Before traveling to Alton, the Beatles made a brief stop in Walnut Ridge. The Walnut Ridge airport provided the ideal spot for the group to change planes before heading to Missouri. The runway was built as a training facility during World War II and could handle large aircraft. Also, the Beatles could avoid the crush of screaming fans by landing at a secluded airport at the edge of a small town.

Just after midnight, the plane began circling the Walnut Ridge airport and approached the runway. Nighttime aircraft landings were rare in Walnut Ridge in 1964. As the plane circled, three boys left the local teen hangout and raced to the airport to identify the unexpected visitors. To the boys’ surprise, the Beatles departed the plane and quickly boarded a small aircraft headed for Missouri. Details about the secret landing quickly spread throughout Walnut Ridge. Disbelief turned to excitement as teenagers spent the weekend sharing information and spreading rumors about the Beatles’ probable return to the airport on Sunday, September 20.

While most people attended Sunday morning church services, 200 to 300 people descended on the Walnut Ridge airport in anticipation of the Beatles’ return. The plane that had carried the group across the United States sat on the runway waiting for their return from Missouri. Parents snapped photographs of their children next to the plane. Home movie cameras captured the crowd’s excitement. The sounds of teenagers singing Beatles songs could be heard across the runway.

There were many false alarms that morning. Teenagers mobbed a local crop-duster mistaken for the Beatles’ plane. Little did they know that McCartney and Harrison had arrived at the airport an hour early and watched the spectacle from an old truck parked across the runway.

Suddenly, a small commuter aircraft with Lennon and Starr landed and taxied up the runway. The two left the plane, walking through a gauntlet of polite but excited spectators. At the same time Lennon and Starr ascended the steps to the larger plane, the old truck that held Harrison and McCartney pulled up next to it. All four Beatles quickly boarded and left for their last U.S. concert of the year.For many of the Walnut Ridge teenagers, it was their only chance to see the Beatles in person.

Though the encounter lasted only moments, the memory of seeing the Fab Four at the height of Beatlemania has endured. The event has become the subject of a documentary featuring some of the people at the airport. On September 18, 2011, Walnut Ridge unveiled a monument, designed to look like the cover of the album Abbey Road, to commemorate the event. Walnut Ridge also renamed a downtown street Abbey Road. In 2011, the first Beatles at the Ridge festival was held, and in 2012, the town built a guitar-shaped plaza downtown modeled after Epiphone guitars played by John Lennon and George Harrison.

For additional information:
Bustillo, Miguel. “Beatles Said a Fast Hello, Goodbye but a Tiny Town Won’t Let It Be.” Wall Street Journal, September 19, 2011. http://online.wsj.com/article/SB10001424053111904106704576578662518738784.html (accessed February 8, 2013).

Hammer, David. “Walnut Ridge Residents Recall Unexpected Beatles’ Encounter.” Jonesboro Sun, September 18, 2004.

Koch, Stephen. “Fab Four Touchdown.” Arkansas Times, September 15, 2005, p. 30. Online at http://www.arktimes.com/arkansas/fab-four-touchdown/Content?oid=862652 (accessed February 14, 2013).

Michael Bowman
Arkansas State University

Last Updated 8/5/2013

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