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Smerconish: Larry Kane's front-row travels with the Beatles

Michael Smerconish, Inquirer Columnist

Updated: Sunday, September 4, 2016, 1:09 AM

Larry Kane with John Lennon. Kane, a key presence in a new Beatles film, attended every Beatles concert in America in 1964 and 1965.

Ron Howard's new Beatles movie, Eight Days a Week - The Touring Years, is being advertised with a trailer that begins with a familiar voice saying: "This is the greatest phenomenon in the century thus far."

Larry Kane with John Lennon. Kane, a key presence in a new Beatles film, attended every Beatles concert in America in 1964 and 1965. Courtesy Larry Kane
Larry Kane and Paul McCartney. Kane's father said: "Larry, watch your back. These guys are a menace to society." Courtesy of Larry Kane
Photo Gallery: Smerconish: Larry Kane's front-row travels with the Beatles

That 1964 assessment came from a 21-year-old radio reporter at Miami's top-40 WFUN. Fifty-two years later, Philadelphians will instantly recognize the unmistakable voice of a young Larry Kane. The legendary local newsman has a significant on-screen presence in the movie due to his unique, front-row seat to the Beatles' invasion of America.

"The reason this film is so unprecedented, and so unique, is that it takes you there," Kane told me last week. "Ron Howard assembled never-before-seen footage. I got chills feeling like I was back in '64."

That year, Kane was a cub reporter with a business card that said "news director." When it was announced that the Beatles would play an unprecedented 35 concerts in 25 American cities during their maiden U.S. tour, Kane sent a letter to band manager Brian Epstein on a letterhead that listed his own top-40 station, and six others that catered to African American audiences.

"I think he thought I was a big shot," Kane recalled with a laugh. "Truth is, I was only looking for one interview."

Instead, Epstein invited Kane to accompany the Beatles at every stop. Believe it or not, he was slow to accept.

"Muhammad Ali was training just around the corner from me in Miami. Vietnam was escalating. There was an enormous Cuban influx into Florida. We were living post-JFK assassination amid escalating racial tensions. And the Ford Mustang was all the rage. I didn't want to miss any of it," Kane explained to me.

"As I say in the movie, 'Why would I want to travel with a band that will be here in October and gone in December?' "

There was added reason for Kane's reluctance. Just before the tour began, his mother, Mildred, passed at age 40 from multiple sclerosis.

"She was my inspiration," he said. "When I was going into a radio station till midnight during high school, she would leave notes on my pillow telling me how my newscasts sounded."

Meanwhile his father, a WWII veteran, expressed misgivings: "Larry, watch your back. These guys are a menace to society."

In the end, his radio station forced him to tour with the Beatles, an edict he quickly appreciated.

"I quickly sensed that the band represented the biggest cultural shift in generations, and maybe ever," Kane told me.

He attended every Beatles concert in America in 1964 and 1965, and a few in 1966 - 46 in all. And he watched three performances on The Ed Sullivan Show in person. Which is why Eight Days a Week relies so heavily on his narration.

"This is Larry Kane with the Beatles flying over America," he intones in archival audio used in the movie.

Bonding

The special rapport he enjoyed with the Fab Four is plainly evident in the film. Kane attributes a certain level of bonding with Paul McCartney and John Lennon to the fact that both had also lost their mothers at an early age, a point underscored by Howard's inclusion of a home movie showing Mildred Kane blowing a kiss. And, Kane says, the Beatles shared his nose for news.

"We got along well. They were very intellectually curious," he said. "I didn't ask them the questions most asked, like what they had for breakfast, how they styled their hair, or what they liked in women's hemlines. I asked about war in Vietnam, racial division, immigration in Europe, the royal family, Cuban refugees to Miami, and life after President Kennedy."

As detailed in the movie, it was Kane who, inside a Las Vegas hotel room, told the band that a concert at the Gator Bowl in Jacksonville, Fla., would be before a segregated audience, which McCartney immediately derided as "stupid." When the Beatles refused to play, jeopardizing $50,000, the seating was changed.

But the interplay between the burgeoning newsman and international sensations was not all serious.

"They goofed on me," Kane told me.

"Only kidding, Larry," Lennon says jovially in the movie.

In 1965, while filming Help! in the Bahamas, Kane discovered the Fab Four were high from smoking marijuana. "I'd never seen that before," he says in the movie.

Kane's work on the Beatles caught the ear of Philly's WFIL-AM (560), his first stop in a rapid rise through the local media market. In 1970, at age 27, he became the first Action News anchor, and one year later, the station was No. 1.

Believe it

Kane kept in touch with the band, even calling in a favor from Lennon. In 1975, Kane was raising money for MS, a passion that began with his mother's passing and that continues today. Lennon agreed to come to Philadelphia to help.

"The station management never believed he'd show up," Kane told me. "But he got on a train alone in New York City and got off at 30th Street."

During a weekend spent in town, Lennon delivered a now-legendary, impromptu weathercast, live on Channel 6, while thousands of fans waited outside in a parking lot on City Avenue.

"Frank Rizzo sent a stakeout squad," Kane remembered. "And when I asked him why, he was prescient. He said, 'A man like Lennon could get shot.' "

Kane's involvement with Eight Days a Week began several years ago when he was contacted by Jonathan Clyde, the director of production and marketing for Apple.

"When I first went to Los Angeles to meet with the crew I took with me a list I'd prepared of the seminal moments of the Beatles' tours of America," he said. "So began many interviews, but my more recent contributions were recorded here in Philadelphia, with engineer Matt Teacher at Sine Studios."

Kane said that working with Ron Howard was a wonderful experience and that he was "as approachable and nice as you would expect."

Howard responded in kind:

"Larry is such a valuable eyewitness to an aspect of the Beatles' story I wanted to focus on, which was the brief intense period when Beatlemania morphed from 'novel and fun' to 'seismic, political, and polarizing.'

"Larry's brilliant coverage then, and his ability to articulately analyze it all over again from his perspective today, meant so much to our documentary. He was and remains a very impressive guy."

Eight Days a Week will premiere in London on Sept. 15, and Kane will be in attendance. That day is also the 50th anniversary of his arrival in Philadelphia. The veteran of 23 political conventions enjoyed an anchoring career that spanned 39 years, and included stints at all three Philadelphia network affiliates. He's not finished. He can still be heard offering political analysis for KYW Newsradio. And now his role as the only broadcast journalist to travel to every stop on the Beatles' 1964 and 1965 tours is the stuff of celluloid fame.

Stick around for the rolling of the credits at the end of this spellbinding concert movie. In a list acknowledging on-screen performances that include Whoopi Goldberg, Elvis Costello, Malcolm Gladwell, and Sigourney Weaver, you will see the name of the onetime 21-year-old who had to be ordered to travel with the Beatles.

Michael Smerconish can be heard from 9 a.m. to noon on SiriusXM's POTUS Channel 124 and seen hosting "Smerconish" at 9 a.m. Saturdays on CNN.

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Michael Smerconish, Inquirer Columnist

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