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Leslie Moonves was a teenager growing up on Long Island, N.Y., with no idea that he would one day run the network he was tuned to for "Ed Sullivan."
In fact, just days before the historic broadcast, the CBS chairman and CEO had no idea whom the Beatles were.
"I remember the first time I heard the word ‘Beatles,’" he recalls. "It was that Friday. I was in seventh grade and my best friend, who was really into music, said, ‘You gotta watch them, they’re on "The Ed Sullivan Show" on Sunday night.’
"I said, ‘Really? There’s a group called the Beatles?’ It sounded gross.
"But I watched, and I saw this unbelievable crowd reaction to these guys. And at school the next day, the Beatles were all anybody was talking about. And I felt very cool, because I had seen it. But three days earlier, I hadn’t heard of them."
These days, the Ed Sullivan theater is familiar territory for Moonves.
"I’ve done a number of presentations for advertisers from that stage," he says, adding that his mind immediately goes to the Fab Four. "(I think), ‘The Beatles were here! The Beatles were here!’ On these very planks beneath my feet."
Even Ringo Starr didn’t know the magnitude of what was about to happen when he played with his bandmates that night.
"Incredible!" he recalls. "It was ‘Ed Sullivan,’ it was a big show. We didn’t know while we were playing that 70 million people were watching, but it was being in America that was so exciting.
"All the music we loved was in America, it came from America to England."
While holed up at their Manhattan hotel, they were interviewed by the city’s leading deejays, which, all by itself, was an amazing experience.
"With Murray the K and Cousin Brucie, we were on the radio — we were in the hotel rooms on the phone to Murray the K. You didn’t have anything like that in England. The whole experience was just incredible."
CBS anchor Walter Cronkite scored tickets to the "Sullivan Show" for his teenage daughters Nancy and Kathy.
"The Beatles were already huge, and huge to me — monumental!" Kathy Cronkite says. "The idea of seeing them in person was like going to another planet. And when we got there we were screaming our heads off, so we couldn’t hear the music.
"Then, afterward, we got to meet them," she adds. "They were very nice. They put their arms around us for a picture, which was really fabulous. Ringo and I happened to be standing next to each other, and he was MY Beatle. So that was especially exciting."
For Cronkite, a former actress who appeared in the classic film "Network" but is now a mental-health advocate, many of the details have vanished with the passage of time.
"In the scope of the rest of my life, it has faded in significance somewhat," she says, but takes pains to emphasize, "I don’t mean it wasn’t important. At the time it was absolutely huge. And back then, when I was 13, I’m sure I thought it was the main thing that would EVER matter."
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