WASHINGTON - In August 1966, as the Beatles made their way to Washington during what would ultimately be their last tour, a group of six scheming 15-year-olds from the District of Columbia’s Chevy Chase neighborhood developed a plan: 1. See the concert. 2. For free. 3. By sneaking into what then was called D.C. Stadium. 4. Disguised as the Beatles’ opening act, a band called the Cyrkle.
Incorporated into this plan were makeshift costumes, a rented limo, decoy groupies and the unwitting participation of D.C. police, who provided the fake band with a motorcade escort.
Aside from a paragraph-long mention in the Washington Star, in which the kids refused to provide their names, the plot went uncatalogued in the public record. Now, on the concert’s 50th anniversary, members of the fake Cyrkle provide an oral history of how they pulled off one of the greatest pranks in Washington folklore.
John Koehler, fake lead singer.
Bob Booth, fake band member.
Timothy Harr, fake band member.
Tom Hinton, fake band member.
Ed Merrigan, fake manager.
Mark Welsh, fake assistant manager.
Plot to meet The Beatles
John Koehler: We were all from the same neighborhood. Half of us were away at school during the year, but we’d been hanging out since we were 6 or 7. I think the germ of the prank’s idea belonged to Eddie Merrigan or Mark Welsh.
Mark Welsh: I think Bob Booth came up with the idea.
Bob Booth: The germ of the idea might have been Tom Hinton’s?
Tom Hinton: My sister Margie was the one who told me, “Tommy, the Beatles are coming to town.” She went and got us tickets to go to the concert, but my friend Eddie Merrigan and I were always brainstorming. Finally, one of us, Eddie or I, said, “No, we should meet the Beatles.”
I had a cousin who worked in the sales department of the Shoreham Hotel. He’d said, “Guess what, the Beatles are going to be staying in my hotel.” So I told Eddie, “OK, we ought to try to meet them there, at the Shoreham.” But Eddie had a great imagination. He said, “No, that’s where everyone will go. We should try to get into the stadium and meet them at the stadium.” He was just one of those people who took a prank to the next level.
Eddie said, “Here’s the idea. Why don’t we impersonate the group the Cyrkle?” They were traveling with the Beatles and also managed by (Beatles manager) Brian Epstein. My reaction was, “Neat! But we need more people.” So that’s how Bob and Timmy and John and Mark got involved. Four band members, a manager and an assistant manager.
The Cyrkle was a four-man group of recent college graduates, riding on the success of “Red Rubber Ball,” which Paul Simon had co-written for them.
Bob Booth: There was all of this publicity leading up to the concert about the tremendous security that was going to be provided. In part, it was because some comments that Lennon made about the band being bigger than Jesus had recently been publicized. It was a big brouhaha - the KKK was going to picket, or something like that - and all the headlines were saying “Tightest security ever.” I think we wondered, well, how tight is it really?
John Koehler: Personally, I was more of a Stones fan. But back then, it was like if you were going to get a girlfriend, you either had to be an athlete or a lifeguard or be in a band. And so when we were thinking of what to do for the summer, this seemed like the coolest idea.
We decided we needed to arrive at the stadium with some credibility, right off the bat, so that the stadium security would buy our ruse - so that they would open the door and let us drive right in.
Bob Booth: So the first thing we got was a limousine. For three hours, it cost $25.50. I still remember that: We each chipped in five bucks and then we ended up having to pay extra for the driver to keep his mouth shut.
John Koehler: We’d seen the cover of the Cyrkle’s album. They wore turtlenecks and blazers, so we got those, too.
Tom Hinton: I think I was wearing a cape or something. I think I started talking in a British accent.
The Cyrkle’s members were not British. The band came from Pennsylvania.
Timothy Harr: I made us officially start a little group called “the Circle,” spelled the right way, so that if anyone asked, it would be technically correct to say we were the Circle.
John Koehler: We don’t look anything like them. But then again, who knew what they looked like then? All you knew was that you’d hear them on the radio. There was no YouTube, no VH1, no color TV.
Timothy Harr: Unless you had the album cover you had no idea what they looked like. Maybe if you were a teenager. But if you were a limo driver or security or manager of a hotel you had no idea, and that was key.
Bob Booth: Eventually, we decided that there was one best way to be fairly certain that we would be believed when we got to the stadium: We should be escorted there by the police.
Eddie made that phone call. He was 16, not 15. I think his voice had already changed. I think he was shaving.
Timothy Harr: Eddie’s father was a famous lawyer, and Eddie had a certain kind of showbiz swagger for a 15-year-old.
Ed Merrigan died in 1990.
John Koehler: He called up the police and said his name was Mel Austin or something, and that he was helping manage the Cyrkle. I was at his shoulder when he made that call. His confidence was astonishing. He said, “We’re opening for the Beatles at D.C. Stadium two days from now. We’re going to be staying at the Shoreham, and we’d appreciate a motorcycle escort to get us safely there.” I don’t know if this was a normal call for the D.C. police department, but they bought it. They put it on their call sheet.
Bob Booth: That was the crucial piece. We decided if that hadn’t worked, we would have scratched the whole thing.
On the day of the concert, Aug. 15, the six boys - none of whom had a driver’s license - took the bus down Connecticut Avenue to the Shoreham, where a crowd had gathered hoping to catch a glimpse of the Beatles. The boys had arranged for their rented limo and the police escort to pick them up at 4 p.m. The concert didn’t start until 8 p.m., and they wanted to make sure they got to the stadium before the real Cyrkle arrived for their sound check. Tom Hinton had let his younger sister in on the plan. Her job was to start screaming with a friend, at the appointed time, “It’s the Cyrkle, it’s the Cyrkle!” while the boys dashed for the limo.
Timothy Harr: I think we were all clumped in a back hall. It was a long lobby. On signal, we all started running. We were leaping over furniture.
Bob Booth: It was the dynamic where once there were two screaming girls, all the other girls in the lobby went, Oh, we’ll scream, too.
Timothy Harr: Outside, there were four motorcycle cops waiting with our limo. The cops started their motorcycles. The doors closed behind us in the limousine, and there were all these girls pressing on the window. One of the windows got open and two girls made their way in. We had to stop at the corner and make them get out. The driver said, “You should have kept them!”
Tom Hinton: I think one of them was Margie. She hugged me and whispered, “Good luck, Tommy, I hope it works!”
Timothy Harr: And then the die is really cast.
John Koehler: Like, holy s---. Here we go, this is the point of no return.
Tom Hinton: One of the guys had some signs made for the dashboard of the limo - it said Beatles Tour LTD or something like that. We got in the limo and the route we drove took us past the White House, and a bunch of tourists looked up, like, “Is that (Lyndon) Johnson?”
Timothy Harr: So we’re roaring down on the access road toward the stadium. We came around the corner, and there was a long bank, and over the top of the hill, just like a John Wayne Western, come about a thousand screaming girls. They’d seen a black limo and were sure it was the Beatles, which caused some panic from the driver. He said, “We need to get in there or we’re going to be mauled.”
John Koehler: In front of us there was this very large truck entrance with a door that rolled up as we approached it. The police led us the whole way, right in.
Timothy Harr: And this was pretty much where our plan had run out. We’d assumed we would get to the stadium and just scatter.
John Koehler: Instead, we were met by a stadium official, but it was nobody high-level, and we just said, “We’re the Cyrkle, we’re here to open the show.” He said, “Walk right across the field right along the first-base line to the visiting team’s locker room. Go down to the end of the hallway, and that’s your dressing room.”
Bob Booth: The carpenters on the field were still putting the finishing touches on the stage, and by strange chance, one of the carpenters recognized Mark. He knew him from church. And called out to him: “Mark! Mark, what are you doing?” Mark said, “Don’t pay any attention, don’t look, just keep walking.”
Timothy Harr: Two of the workers were debating whether to put a roof on the stage, and they were asking us as expert musicians whether we really needed a roof. We pretended to talk for a minute and decided we didn’t need a roof. So there was no roof.
John Koehler: And then we walk off the field and down the corridor and turn a corner, and all of a sudden there we are in the dressing room.
Bob Booth. The home-team locker room was reserved strictly for the Beatles. Everyone else was to share the visitors’ locker room except the Ronettes - we think they were in the cheerleaders’ locker room. There was a nice big cooler of beer and soft drinks, and we were the first ones there. There we were. Inside the castle keep.
Bob Booth’s father was president of the National Press Club at the time and had managed to secure his son two press passes to the Beatles’ news conference, held before the concert. While Bob and one of the others went to stand at the back of the news conference and watch, Tom Hinton and Ed Merrigan decided to see whether they could sneak into the Beatles’ dressing room. Their strategy was going to be to admit that they were not the real Cyrkle but say that they were paid decoys who had permission to be in the dressing rooms.
Tom Hinton: The Beatles weren’t there, but their instrument guy was, and a couple of other people who I later saw pictures of in Beatles books. We went in with a great sense of confidence - Oh, we’re the group that was hired to impersonate the Cyrkle. And they went, “Oh, OK.” Like they didn’t know about it, but it made sense to them. And then, within about 30 seconds, the door opened and in walked the Beatles.
Meeting The Beatles
Ringo sort of noticed us and said hi. We introduced ourselves for real at that point and said how we’d gotten in. Ringo thought it was funny that we would do that. He called John over and said, “Listen to this story,” and John had some cheeky response like, “So you wanted to meet us, now you’ve met us.” But Paul was saying, “Hey, George, have a listen to this,” and he played a few bars of what I now realize was the beginning of “Lovely Rita.”
By the time they got back to the visitors’ dressing room, the real members of the Cyrkle had arrived and learned what had happened.
John Koehler: I think they might have just said, “Who are you?” I do remember saying to (Cyrkle lead singer) Don Dannemann, “Hey, I’m you!”
Bob Booth: We ‘fessed up pretty quickly.
Tom Hinton: They thought it was funny that we’d come up with such an elaborate plan to meet them - because, of course, by this point we were telling them the ruse was about meeting them, not about meeting the Beatles.
Don Dannemann: My best recollection is that we came in a bus that had everyone in it, except for the Beatles. When we got to the stadium, people told us, “Wait, we thought you were here already.” It came out that these guys had just arrived in a limo said, “We’re the Cyrkle,” and they just let them in.
Earle Pickens (Cyrkle drummer): We thought it was funny and rather clever. I think they were wearing jackets with little red balls inside of them or something.
We were all just graduated - I was a medical student - so we had a perspective on things. The whole thing was so unbelievable for us already, and so surreal.
Tom Hinton: A little while later, security escorted us out of the dressing room, but instead of leaving we just went to the dugout to try to watch the show from there. People started screaming at us - I looked up and saw Margie and her friends all sitting together. Everyone started throwing their programs at us to sign.
Bob Booth: We watched the whole show from the dugout. We were the closest seats other than the ring of policemen all around the stage. Security was tight.
John Koehler: I remember the Beatles coming onstage, and hearing, “Close your eyes, and I’ll - AHHHHHHHH!” because the rest of the show was just screaming.
Timothy Harr: Deafening.
Don Dannemann: Those concerts - it was as if someone had a button with an electric pulse on it that they would push, because you would see people randomly bolt out of their seats - jump, jump, jump - and I remember thinking what a phenomenon it was.
John Koehler: The motorcycle police had been very nice and had offered to escort us back to our hotel after the show. But we didn’t have the limo anymore.
Tom Hinton: We ended up hitchhiking home. I hitched a ride with a bunch of kids who were going back to Chevy Chase. I got off in front of the Avalon theater and walked home. My folks just thought I went to the Beatles concert. Which, technically, we did.
John Koehler: Years later, I was in an elevator in Albuquerque and a folk musician from D.C. by the name of Pete got in. I said, Pete, how you doing?
And we got to talking about how I’d grown up in D.C. He said, “I saw the Beatles when I was living in D.C. I heard a story about some guys who snuck in.” And I thought, Pete, what else would you like to know about it?
Where they are now
Bob Booth is a retired editor at National Geographic and lives in Virginia. Timothy Harr lives in Washington and is an attorney and adjunct professor at Georgetown University Law Center. Tom Hinton is a business author and speaker in California. John Koehler owns a concert-sound-engineering business in Massachusetts. Mark Welsh is a commercial farmer in Colorado. Before his death, Ed Merrigan was a master chef who sang like Pavarotti, appeared in Folgers Coffee commercials and once retrieved the Rolling Stones’ lost dulcimer (but that’s a different caper).
Don Dannemann, the former Cyrkle lead singer, went on to work in advertising and write commercial jingles. Earle Pickens, after the Cyrkle’s brief and illustrious flirtation with fame, went on with medical school and became a general surgeon.