Heritage: The day The Beatles came to Wimbledon Palais
By Clive Whichelow
Merton had never seen anything like it, and probably never will again.
Fifty years ago tomorrow, on 14 December 1963, the Beatles came to town and pandemonium broke out.
The Fab Four had staged a concert the previous Saturday at the Empire Theatre, Liverpool for members of their Northern Area Fan Club, and this Saturday they were appearing at Wimbledon Palais at a special concert for members of the Southern Area Fan Club.
Since the date had been booked the Beatles had just been getting bigger and bigger and achieving greater and greater success. They’d gone from being a very popular band to becoming a phenomenon. Just a month previously they had appeared at the Royal Command Performance and the newspapers had started to use the newly-minted word ‘Beatlemania’.
At the start of December the band held first and second positions in both the LP and singles charts. All unprecedented and wherever they went was madness.
St Helier Hospital informed other local hospitals of the Beatles’ visit and warned that they wouldn’t be able to recruit extra staff. The Palais itself was making its own security arrangements and taking on extra people. St John’s ambulance brigade were also on standby.
On the day of the concert shopkeepers in Merton High Street had boarded up their windows and by 7am the first fans were emerging from South Wimbledon underground station to begin queuing.
There should have been no need as all tickets had been distributed in advance and the first of the two 30-minute shows was not due to begin until 12.45.
By 11am there were 200 policemen along Merton High Street and a six-deep queue of 1,000 fans – many shivering with cold - which was to grow to 3,000.
The management took pity on them and let them in an hour earlier than scheduled. Once inside, the fans were supposed to queue, six at a time, along a steel barrier to shake the hands of the Beatles and obtain prized autographs but the queue broke into a seething, fanatical mass of hyperventilating teenagers.
The Fab Four sign autographs
Some tried to touch the Beatles’ hair or kiss them, some fainted, others were dragged away by Palais commissionaires, of which there were 60, along with ten stewards. There was screaming and wailing and girls rolling on the floor in hysteria.
Shoes and handbags were lost in the madness. Surely it had never been like this for the resident Oscar Rabin band?
The Beatles played a second show in the evening by which time the Beatlemania level must have been measuring on the Richter scale.
Worried about the possible damage to their famous sprung dance floor the Palais management had taken the unprecedented decision to have a steel cage erected around the Beatles to prevent the fans doing damage either to the floor or the Fab Four themselves.
At one point the fans were jammed up so hard against the steel cage that John Lennon quipped ‘If they push any harder they’ll come through as chips!’
In fact, at one point, the cage did begin to buckle under the strain. Police managed to push the crowd back as one brave man with a spanner and bodyguards did his best to tighten up the structure.
Wimbledon News reporter Peter J. Wilson said: ‘To cause all this the Beatles must be good – but I never heard them!’ It was said that in full throat massed Beatle fans could drown out the sound of a jumbo jet.
A policeman said: ‘Can you ever imagine this lot growing up and having children of their own? It’s incredible, incredible.’ Throughout the day TV and cinema crews filmed the events.
The Wimbledon Palais de Danse had originally opened in 1922 as a ballroom. Built on part of the precinct of the medieval Merton Priory, the site had previously been occupied by a building known as the Gate House from the 18th century until 1906.
This was replaced in succession by the Wimbledon and American Roller Skating Rink and an airship and balloon factory before transformation into the Palais in 1922.
In the 1950s, ballroom dancing gave way to rock and roll and the building would become one of London’s top venues for the stars. Following the Beatles came the Rolling Stones in 1964, Pink Floyd in 1965, The Who and The Kinks in 1966.
From across the Atlantic came Little Richard, Otis Redding, Jerry Lee-Lewis, and the late Buddy Holly's band, the Crickets.
It didn’t last. The place was sold in 1967 to a gambling organisation and then became a furniture store before being demolished and replaced by flats.
It is hard to believe now but the day the Beatles came to Wimbledon 50 years ago will never be forgotten by anyone who witnessed it.
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