Despite having no musical ability, 81-year-old Vince Calandra got to be a member of The Beatles – at least for a day.
It was February 8, 1964, and The Beatles were set to make their American television debut.
“Neil Aspinall, their road manager, was standing in for George Harrison who had a 102 degree fever,” Calandra said. “Brian Epstein, their manager, comes over and starts to whisper in his ear.”
Calandra was no musician but they handed him George Harrison’s guitar and had him stand in for Harrison on the set.
“I am left handed. I have never held a guitar in my hand,” Calandra said. “They tell me, ‘This is George Harrison’s favorite guitar so make sure you do not drop it.’ “
As rehearsal began, Calandra was unknowingly holding an important piece of Beatles memorabilia.
“I stood there with George Harrison’s guitar, worth about a million dollars now,” Calandra said.
Calandra grew up in Brooklyn. In high school he was an all-city baseball player. He was offered scholarships to six colleges and decided to attend St. John’s College. He was drafted by the New York Giants, but couldn’t play for them because he had to join the army for two years of compulsory military training.
After his military service, the G.I. Bill covered his tuition and he began taking classes in television production.
“This was in the 1950s when jobs in television really started to happen,” Calandra said. “One day you could be a stage manager and another day you could be a director, so I was having a good time.”
Calandra’s career began when he acquired a position in the CBS mailroom. One of the places he delivered mail to was the Ed Sullivan office.
“They asked me if I would be interested in working on the weekends on the Ed Sullivan Show,” Calandra said. “I said yes and I started as a cue-card guy. I did that for about a year and a half, working full-time at CBS and weekends on the Ed Sullivan Show.”
He picked up odd jobs on other shows before he got a job editing promos for CBS. Calandra got married in 1960 and in the same year, became the production assistant on the Ed Sullivan Show.
“The Beatles were very professional. There was an air about them,” Calandra recalled about their appearances on the show. “The stagehands would bring their kids around and Paul McCartney and Ringo Starr would take pictures with the kids.”
The studio was packed with people and Calandra had to help get in some famous people.
“I was sneaking people in through the men’s restroom, like Walter Cronkite’s daughter and Leonard Bernstein,” Calandra said.
Not only was the studio packed, but the streets were packed with people and the band required a police escort.
“The Beatles came down Broadway in limos, with at least 20 police escorts on motorcycles. They looked like the Charge of the Light Brigade,” Calandra said.
After the show, he said, Ringo Starr flirted with Calandra’s wife.
“Ringo Starr took a real liking to my wife. They danced at a party we had in Miami,” Calandra said.
But one of his favorite memories, he said, involved John Lennon and another act on the show that night.
“John Lennon loved Coca-Cola. Next to the vending machine was the comedy duo Mitzi McCall and Charlie Brill. Lennon knocked on their door to ask for some change for the machine. They gave him some change to get him out of the room,” Calandra said. “Lennon came back and asked if he could sketch them. Lennon finished the sketch and signed it. After Lennon left, they threw away the sketches.”
The Ed Sullivan Show was not the only time he spent with The Beatles.
“I also worked with the Beatles when they played at Shea Stadium. Paul took a scorecard from the Mets game and wrote the set-list on the back of it,” Calandra said.
Calandra was “the go-to guy” when it came to the Beatles. If the Beatles were in New York or in Miami, Brian Epstein, the Beatles manager, knew to call him. Even today, Calandra is “the go-to guy” for authors writing about the Beatles.
“I can talk for more than two hours, uninterrupted, just about my relationship with the Beatles,” Calandra said. “Basically, myself and my boss, the producer of the show, are really the only two guys alive that were there for all the Beatles’ appearances. People can write books, but the story is that there are 7 billion people on the face of this earth and I’m the only one who was actually on stage with them.”
Calandra was also part of another famous rock ‘n’ roll moment in history.
“I was the one that had to tell Mick Jagger not to sing the lyric of ‘Let’s spend the night together’ and to instead change it to ‘Let’s spend some time together’ before they performed on The Ed Sullivan Show,” Calandra said.
Calandra has worked in the industry for 57 years. He has been told by many that he was born for this job because of his personality and temperament. His great work ethic and his ability to listen well attracted many celebrities to him, he said.
Calandra went from holding cue cards for Elvis, to hanging out with Roger Moore, star of the 007 movies.
“Moore, the famous James Bond, did the dishes at my house. He was the only person my wife allowed to smoke a cigar in the house,” Calandra said.
One of Calandra’s favorite memories is of how Moore came to have dinner in his house.