By MIGUEL BUSTILLO
WALNUT RIDGE, Ark.—It was more than a day in the life for folks in this sleepy southern farm town.
Forty-seven years ago, at the height of Beatlemania, three teenagers here in the Lawrence County seat in northeast Arkansas ventured out one quiet Friday night to investigate reports that a large plane was mysteriously buzzing over a dusty World War II-era airstrip.
Town Remembers Beatles Flyby
John Lennon boarded a plane in Walnut Ridge, Ark.
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They came back with a fantastic story: It was the Beatles. They’d just hung out.
Now, Walnut Ridge is trying to cash in on the biggest thing ever to hit the town of 4,925—a fleeting stopover by the lads from Liverpool that connects it, however tenuously, to musical history. Few believed the teenagers’ story at the time, but the Fab Four had a respite between concerts and were sneaking to a dude ranch in nearby Missouri owned by Reed Pigman Sr., the businessman whose charter airline was whisking them from show to show. For a few minutes, they stood on the tarmac and chatted with locals before heading off to play cowboys.
“We were kids and had a big story to tell,” recalls one of the boys, Richard Thomas, now a 65-year-old financial planner for Merrill Lynch in Augusta, Ga. “You never would have expected to find the Beatles in Walnut Ridge, Arkansas.”
On the event’s 47th anniversary Sunday, Walnut Ridge unveiled a metal sculpture of the Beatles, modeled on the famed “Abbey Road” album cover (John, Ringo, Paul and George strolling in a crosswalk), and hosted a concert by the Liverpool Legends, Beatles impersonators managed by the sister of the late George Harrison. Paul McCartney and Ringo Starr, the group’s two surviving members, were invited, though no one really expected them to show up.
It’s part of a budding campaign by Walnut Ridge to capitalize on its smidgen-size brush with Beatles greatness and turn it into a tourist attraction.
“The Beatles were there for about 15 minutes!” jokes former musician Bob Tucker, part of the Beatles’ opening act on that tour, Bill Black’s Combo. Now an Arkansas businessman, he amusingly calls the tourism drive “the biggest stretch in the history of show business,” though he doesn’t blame boosters for trying.
Walnut Ridge learned the local teens weren’t fibbing hours after their fateful run-in with the Beatles back in 1964, when a pilot staying at a motel leaked to townsfolk that he’d indeed flown the band—and that they were coming back to depart.
Word got around. By the time the Beatles returned to Arkansas to fly to a gig in New York that Sunday, several hundred excited youngsters were waiting, screaming and snapping photographs.
“I didn’t understand the significance of it. I was into folk music at the time,” says H.T. Moore, who covered the story for the local paper as a high school senior, but forgot to bring a camera. “It was just a real fast, in and out, but the girls were beside themselves, touching the ground where they had walked.”
The Beatles boarded the plane and got back to where they once belonged. That’s the end of the story.
Or at least it would have been, if anyone in Walnut Ridge had ever stopped talking about it.
They never have. Aging women still get weepy retelling where they were when they heard the Beatles were coming to Walnut Ridge, what Easter dress they wore and what trinkets adorned their charm bracelets.
Some still mourn the fact that they weren’t allowed to go because in this stretch of the Bible Belt, parents didn’t let kids miss church on Sunday just to catch a glimpse of some goofy looking Britons.
A stretch of U.S. 67 officially named the “Rock ‘N’ Roll Highway” by Arkansas already runs through town, since Johnny Cash, an Arkansas native, and Elvis Presley played early gigs in the area. Pioneering Sun Records was about 90 miles away in Memphis, so boosters figure they can piggyback on the nostalgia tourism going on.
They tracked down the red 1962 GMC Suburban two Beatles pulled up to the airport in the day the band departed, and had the impersonators roll out of it Sunday at the celebration. They’re trying to rename a local street Abbey Road. A documentary crew is shooting a movie.
“If people will get off a highway to see the largest ball of twine, well, this is a lot more interesting than that,” says Carrie Mae Snapp, who headed the town’s “Beatles 4 Evermore” fan club in 1964 at age 14, but only managed to snag a photo of the back of Mr. McCartney’s head as he boarded the airplane. “I picked up some cigarette butts at the airport. I might have some John Lennon DNA.”
While boosters are eager to capture the spotlight, and rake in a few sales-tax dollars, they have maintained a distance from the current owners of the former Pigman Ranch in Missouri, a nonprofit organization that is selling lots for development under the slogan “The Beatles Slept Here.”
The Buildings for Babies Ranch Foundation plans to auction off the ranch’s furnishings as Beatles memorabilia, including the toilet: “Sit on the same throne as the Beatles!” a marketing brochure exclaims. Its chief executive, who says the group aids underprivileged children, expects the bathroom set to fetch $25,000.
For Kathy Hall, who was 12 when the Beatles whirled through Walnut Ridge, the tourism drive is a nice way to help out a small town with a slowly dwindling population. But the Beatles visit will ultimately always be about the memories.
Ms. Hall’s father was the mayor of Walnut Ridge back in 1964, and he made sure that before the Beatles took off on that airplane, all four members signed his little girl’s copy of their latest album, “Something New.”
Two years later, he died of a heart attack. Ms. Hall still has that album, stored in a vault.
“If someone offered me a million dollars, I don’t think I would sell it,” says Ms. Hall, now 59 and an assistant school principal in Tennessee. “The Beatles weren’t even there long enough to drink a cup of coffee. But that time is very special to me.”
Write to Miguel Bustillo at firstname.lastname@example.org