Oregon Historical Society Museum exhibit mad for The Beatles

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PORTLAND — It seemed like the whole world was watching “The Ed Sullivan Show” on Feb. 9, 1964. Except Lori Benton. Her parents “forced me to go to church on Sunday nights,” she said.

So Benton missed a major milestone in the history of Western civilization: The Beatles’ first appearance before the astonished eyes and ears of America.

She eventually gained some musical freedom. Benton remembers spinning pop, folk and blues 45s on her brother’s little turntable: Elvis Presley, Bob Dylan, The Rolling Stones and The Beatles.

“It sure opened up a whole world beyond church hymns,” Benton laughed. “I became an avid rock ‘n’ roll fan. It was fabulous.”

Benton recently relocated from Portland to Vancouver, but she was back downtown, at the Oregon Historical Society Museum, on a recent afternoon to visit a fun, impressively thorough traveling exhibit about the Fab Four’s early, touring years. The exhibit remains on display through Nov. 12 — featuring rare American tour memorabilia, TV and film clips, audio interviews with Beatles, their professional colleagues and their star-struck fans; there are even a couple of interactive opportunities to sit in for Ringo on drums and vocals.

Museum marketing manager Rachel Randles said music lovers of every age have been pouring through the door. The music and story of The Beatles just never seems to get old, she said.

“They are a powerful, multigenerational force,” Randles said. “We’ve been amazed to see a huge uptick in visitors since this exhibit opened.”

On a weekday afternoon, most exhibit visitors were sufficiently gray on top to cherish their own firsthand memories of Beatlemania, a disease that infected much of the world from 1964 to 1966.

“As they matured, so did I,” said Jill Hibbs, visiting from Oregon City, Ore.

“I’m going to have to go back and listen again,” said Joan Smith of Portland, a married mom who couldn’t afford to buy records in those days — but who vividly remembers dancing with her children when The Beatles rocked her radio. “The Beatles are deep in my soul,” she said.

Jackets and contracts

Some of the artifacts in this exhibit are large as life and instantly recognizable. A stage set of the band’s guitars and drums is arranged in proper iconic fashion, with George and John’s electric six-strings pointed this way, left-handed Paul’s violin bass pointed that way, Ringo’s shiny, miniature Ludwig drum kit behind. See the tan jacket (complete with sheriff’s star) that Paul wore at the record-setting Shea Stadium concert as well as at the Portland show, and the black jacket sported by Ringo while ambling across Abbey Road for that famous album cover. (The exhibit provides an Abbey Road backdrop for you to amble across too, while your bandmates snap photos.)

Other artifacts are easy to miss, unless you squint. Hidden among the many autograph cards, newspaper stories, concert programs and gold records are a few song lists that were hand-scrawled by different Beatles and affixed to the edges of their guitars for quick reference. (Also here, in Paul’s hand on Atlantic City hotel stationery, is a draft of lyrics for a real non-hit, “What You’re Doing.” Remember that one? Didn’t think so.)

The exhibit even features a grab bag of artifacts from the Beatles’ own heroes and influences, including a guitar played by blues master B.B. King and, amazingly, the 1959 death certificate for Buddy Holly.

Look carefully for a couple of telling historical details. One concert-tour contract includes this rider: “The artists will not be required to perform in front of a segregated audience.” If you saw Ron Howard’s great Beatles-on-tour film, “Eight Days a Week,” you saw both Ringo Starr and Paul McCartney expressing outrage at the very idea of dividing fans by skin color.

The exhibit touches on a controversy that helped spur the Beatles to abandon live concerts and become a studio-only band: the reaction to John Lennon’s offhand remark, in March 1966, that the Beatles had grown “more popular than Jesus.” He meant this as a comment about religion versus mass media in people’s lives, but religious fundamentalists reacted with fury — and held Beatles record-burning parties. That summer, the Beatles permanently gave up touring.

If You Go

What: “Ladies and Gentlemen … The Beatles!”

When: 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Monday through Saturday; noon to 5 p.m. Sunday.

Exhibit on display: Now through Nov. 12.

Where: Oregon Historical Society Museum, 1200 S.W. Park Ave., Portland.

Admission: $10; $8 for teachers, students; $5 for 18 or under.

To learn more: https://www.ohs.org/

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