Arkansas town keenly remembers Beatles' visit

Monday, September 20, 2004

By David Hammer ~ The Associated Press

LITTLE ROCK, Ark. -- Forty years later, Carrie Mae Snapp is still aglow over her brush with The Beatles.

Sunday marked the 40th anniversary of the Beatles' improbable, clandestine arrival in Walnut Ridge, population 4,925, and today marks 40 years since a throng -- including a teenage Snapp -- got wind of their visit and surrounded the British megastars as they left for a concert in New York.

It was the musical legends' only visit to Arkansas, a moment still worth remembering for many in Walnut Ridge.

"This was a life-changing event and it sort of validated us in our isolated, little town," Snapp said. "How many times did the Beatles come to Arkansas? In 1964, at the height of their fame, what were the chances of it? Sputnik could have fallen on us more easily."

It was unlikely even from the Beatles' perspective. They only landed in Walnut Ridge because it had an old air base with long enough runways to handle their large plane. Between a concert in Dallas and a benefit for cerebral palsy in New York's Times Square, the road-weary band took a 36-hour break at a dude ranch near Alton, Mo.

They would have made it without drawing attention if it hadn't been for the man who just opened the hottest teenage juke joint in town. Jack Allison, then 31, saw a large jet circling just after midnight Sept. 19, 1964. Now 71 and still running his drive-in barbecue shop, the Polar Freeze, Allison said he told three teens who were hanging out that night to check it out.

The boys made it to the airport just in time to see John Lennon, George Harrison and Ringo Starr get off the jet and fly off in a small prop-plane, while Paul McCartney drove separately in a truck. The boys told friends after that night's high school football game that they had seen the Beatles in Walnut Ridge.

Nobody believed them.

One of those boys was a future sheriff, Gene Matthews, who was later killed in a famous shootout with an anti-tax protester. He was 15 at the time, it was 2 a.m. in a sleepy town, but he had to call someone who would believe him -- the biggest Beatle fan he knew, Carrie Mae Snapp.

Luckily, Snapp's father let her take Matthews' call, and through connections at the airport, found a pilot who confirmed it was, in fact, The Beatles. They had gone on to a Missouri ranch owned by Reed Pigman, the man who piloted them from one frenzied stop to another on their first world tour.

"I was crying hysterically that I had missed the Beatles, but then the pilot said they were coming back," Snapp said. "He couldn't tell us exactly when, but he said, 'I wouldn't go to church if I were you.'"

Walnut Ridge was, and still is, a church-going town. But this was 1964, just eight months after the Beatles' first appearance on "Ed Sullivan" and one day before they returned home to Liverpool. Even conservative parents who looked askance at the rock 'n' rollers recognized the significance.

"My biggest concern was trying to cover the Beatles' departure for the local paper and work in Sunday school and go to church, both," said Harry Truman Moore, now a 57-year-old lawyer in Paragould. "I didn't make it to church, but I got that concession from my parents."

Moore's newspaper report said the pilot of the plane found head cushions missing before he had to fly on to Houston to pick up the AFL's Oakland Raiders.

Snapp takes responsibility for that.

"Part of the group broke into the airplane and there were some pillows laying out that were obviously used," she said, almost giddy. "My parents nearly had a heart attack when they found out I had taken a pillow. They made me give it back, but I got to keep the disposable pillow cases. They didn't know I also got a cigarette butt off the airplane. I might have some John Lennon DNA."

About 300 people, most screaming and swooning, showed up to see the Beatles off at Walnut Ridge. Nearly as many people turned out at the gate at Pigman's ranch near Alton, but somehow, the event didn't have the same impact there.

Alton's current mayor, Richard Haigwood, was one of the few Missouri residents to see the Beatles at Pigman's. He was 17 at the time, and he and some friends snuck onto the gated, canine-patroled compound by floating a river in the middle of the night. For a few days, they were the coolest kids in town.

"I liked their music OK, but I wasn't one of those screaming fans," he said.

The next day at the Walnut Ridge airport, Snapp wasn't screaming either when Harrison and McCartney got out of a red truck just a few feet away. She couldn't breathe, she was crying so hysterically.

To this day, she keeps every Beatles bubble gum card and magazine. She acknowledges that she is exceptional in her focus on that weekend 40 years ago, but she also revels in her vicarious celebrity status, enhanced by a recent documentary film about the visit.

"I know there's no logic in it," she said, "but in some way it's inseparable from me."

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