Building on the Beatles

Arkansas found itself in some pretty lofty company earlier this year in a USA Today story.

The national news outlet featured the “10 Best Places for Beatles History,” and most of the listings were unsurprising: John Lennon’s home in Liverpool, the Ed Sullivan Theater in New York, Abbey Road Studios in London, the Hollywood Bowl in Los Angeles, and others.

Standing tall with those iconic locations was Beatles Park in Walnut Ridge, the product of an energetic grass-roots community effort that was part brainstorm, part passion and part tenacious hard work.

Next weekend marks the 50th anniversary of the seminal event that has led to the remarkable transformation of a previously run-down area of downtown.

In 1964, finishing up their first American national tour, the Beatles planned to make a clandestine stop and plane-switch at the Walnut Ridge airport (its military-base runway dimensions made it large enough to accommodate an airliner) on their way from Dallas to Missouri, and then New York.

Word got out, and a throng of teens (as well as many of their parents) beset by Beatlemania was there on the tarmac that September 20th Sunday morning to see the Fab Four off.

It’s hard to truly appreciate, from a half-century away, the phenomenal unlikelihood of any rural Arkansas teens coming within arm’s reach of the most popular band in the world at the time.

At big-city airports, crowds of 20,000 screaming fans were not unusual, hoping for just a far-away glimpse of John, Paul, Ringo or George.

“There was a better chance of a Sputnik satellite landing on Walnut Ridge than the Beatles showing up here,” said Carrie Mae Snapp, who was 14 at the time and stood close enough to touch the band members.

The idea to capitalize on that unique historical footnote–it was the Beatles’ one and only visit to Arkansas–was born after the General Assembly designated a 111-mile portion of U.S. 67 as the “Rock ‘n’ Roll Highway.”

A local tourism committee in Walnut Ridge was seeking a musical tie-in to the highway, with the idea of incorporating some sort of large-scale sculpture.

“A lot of times you think of a committee as a place where good ideas go to die,” said member Dr. Brett Cooper of Williams Baptist College. “This committee was one where some great ideas were born.”

Many of those committee members from 2010 have taken leadership roles far beyond Beatles Park in creating not only a successful event that helped downtown Walnut Ridge earn a prestigious Henry award from the state Department of Parks and Tourism, but also sparking reinvestment in a small-town downtown that needed some new life.

Member Danny West donated his time to artfully craft the 20-foot metal sculpture (depicting theAbbey Road album cover) that is the centerpiece of Beatles Park, and opened a pair of local retail businesses nearby.

He also helped draft the design for (and did more gratis work on) a 115-foot concrete-and-steel guitar display near the town’s railroad depot, which houses the Chamber of Commerce.

Members Charles and Jackie Snapp donated land for the park, and were instrumental in devising a local “Invest in your Dreams” program, offering cut-rate rent to tenants willing to invest in downtown businesses and share some of the renovation costs.

The couple also restored another historic downtown structure, which recently opened as The Hotel Rhea.

The unveiling of Beatles Park in 2011 surpassed all expectations. Louise Harrison (George’s sister) volunteered her tribute band–The Liverpool Legends–for entertainment. The Wall Street Journaldid a story. And more than 3,000 people showed up.

The next year, community volunteers decided to merge what had previously been the Iron Mountain Festival, held in October, with the annual commemoration of the September 20 Beatles visit.

Now in its fourth year, the Beatles at the Ridge festival next weekend is expected to draw more than 10,000 visitors to the town of 4,800.

A full slate of events–all free-admission–is augmented by a radically transformed retail environment around The Grill District, denoted by a restored neon sign from a landmark downtown restaurant.

Comedy shows, art displays, talent contests and musical performances by various groups, including two Saturday night sets by The Liverpool Legends, will be spread across several stages in downtown Walnut Ridge and a sparkling new event center called The Studio–located in an old Main Street building that tourism committee member Fran Cavenaugh has brought back to spectacular condition.

Festival visitors can dine in several downtown eateries, including the Dark Side Coffee Shop where selections include an “I Wanna Hold Your Ham” sandwich and an “Olive Need is Love” salad.

Shoppers can find Beatles memorabilia and more (including vinyl albums) at Imagine, a corner shop that also features a variety of works for sale from numerous local artists.

It’s an amazing turnaround from just five short years ago, when empty storefronts lined that section of Walnut Ridge.

Beatles fan or not, everyone can appreciate an inspiring example of community initiative.

If you are a fan, take USA Today‘s advice. Arkansas’ Beatles Park deserves its top 10 ranking.


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