The world knows the magnitude of what happened on Feb. 9, 1964, when the Beatles made their U.S. television debut on “The Ed Sullivan Show.”
Indianapolis-based memorabilia collector Tom Fontaine shared a behind-the-scenes glimpse of what happened two days earlier, thanks to one of the countless Fab Four items that’s cycled through his collection during the past 60 years.
On Feb. 7, 1964, John Lennon, Paul McCartney, George Harrison and Ringo Starr were passengers on a Pan Am Airlines flight from London to their momentous introduction to American fans. Pilot Jerry Shea, a former Marine who lived on Long Island, talked with the Beatles and then wrote a mid-flight letter to Monica Conway, a Woolworths sales clerk Shea knew in London.
“They are very nice, Monica, fine lads,” Shea wrote as part of a two-page note. “I had a chat with each of them and told them of you. I told Paul especially that he was your favorite.”
The pilot also asked the Beatles to sign a postcard for Conway. Years later, the letter and postcard made its way into the collection of Fontaine, a leading expert in Beatles autographs who’s written two books about Lennon, McCartney, Harrison and Starr.
Scecina High School alum Fontaine is the author of 2018’s “The Beatles and their Solo Years: A Trip Down Memory Lane” and the soon-to-be-published “The Beatles Looking Back: The Final Trip.”
It was rare for all four Beatles to sign single items in public at the same time, Fontaine said. One in-person fan club session in Wimbledon in December 1963 proved to be the best source of this type of item.
“The four of them sat at a table for an autograph session,” he said. “I know they did a little bit of signing during breaks of [making English TV show] ‘Ready Steady Go!’ But as far as the official signing of autographs, Wimbledon had to be the only one.”
In 1964, 6-year-old Fontaine started a life of collecting Beatles items by picking up trading cards scattered in his neighborhood after a rainstorm. His collection has included a drumstick used by Starr when the Beatles performed at the Indiana State Fair in 1964 and an autographed guitar strap used by Lennon in the early 1970s.
In 2004, Fontaine sold a piano once owned by Elton John and songwriting partner Bernie Taupin for $140,000.
While Indianapolis Colts owner Jim Irsay owns historic instruments once played by the Beatles, Fontaine specializes in the documentation of intimate interactions between the musicians and the public.
In addition to the Pan Am postcard, a signed “3 Drink Minimum” card from Miami’s Peppermint Lounge also made its way into Fontaine’s collection. When a waitress at the nightclub seemed unimpressed to be serving the Beatles in 1964, the band’s manager, Brian Epstein, asked the lads to sign the card and he then gave it to the waitress with the advice, “Keep this.”
Today, Fontaine estimates a full set of Beatles signatures is worth $8,000 to $12,000, with higher values if autographs appear on photos, album covers and handwritten lyrics.
“Beatles material has never really depreciated,” Fontaine said. “It may have leveled a little bit over the years, but it’s popular again.”
The group that disbanded in 1970 issued what’s described as the final Beatles song, “Now and Then,” in November 2023. An eight-hour film documentary titled “The Beatles: Get Back” was released in 2021.
Looking back at the Beatles’ February 1964 arrival in the United States, Fontaine credits Epstein for making sure the band was a massive success in the United Kingdom before attempting to conquer America.
“Let’s face it, the press [at New York’s JFK Airport] were waiting for them to flop,” Fontaine said. “But it was just the opposite. … They were primed and ready for the American press. And the press fell in love with them.”
In Indiana, Fontaine said it was a point of pride that he turned his family into Beatles fans. Specifically, he recalls sitting next to his father on the couch when the band returned to play “The Ed Sullivan Show” in September 1965.
“He listened to the first songs and they were rock ’n’ rollers,” Fontaine said of his father. “But after he heard ‘Ticket to Ride’ and ‘Yesterday,’ I’ll never forget him looking at me. He just said, ‘Good group.’ I said, ‘Yes!’”