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I Saw Them Standing There by Debbie Gendler - Review

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Photo of Debbie Gendler

Debbie Gendler


I Saw Them Standing There Cover

 Many people marvel today at the enormous popularity and fan adulation of Taylor Swift. However, 60 years ago, the Beatles were the equivalent of four Taylor Swifts as they took the United States by storm, beginning with a legendary 1964 performance on The Ed Sullivan Show. Debbie Gendler was at that performance, as well as several Beatles concerts over the next few years. She has now written a memoir, I Saw Them Standing There, detailing her experiences with the Fab Four, their relatives, business associates, and others in the Beatles empire. What makes her story fascinating is that Gendler was just 13 years old when she first became involved with the Beatles. Further, many of the events detailed in the book took place before she graduated high school. During those years, Gendler had access to the Beatles and their associates that few adult journalists would ever enjoy. She tells her story with the exuberance and occasional regrets of a teenage mega-fan in a unique position in the Beatles universe.

Debbie Gendler was a typical New Jersey seventh grader whose life changed when she got a Beatles album as a gift from a amily friend who had traveled to England in the spring of 1963. The Beatles were practically unknown in the United States then, with almost no radio stations playing their music. Gendler adored the music. She was so thrilled by the group and their songs that she wrote off to the Beatles Fan Club in London, asking to join. Other letters followed with no response.

Finally, six months later, she received a telegram asking her to go to a New York City law office to discuss the Beatles. Since Gendler’s Oakland, NJ, home was only 25 miles from the Big Apple, getting there was no problem. (That proximity also made it much easier for her to get back and forth to Beatles events over the next few years.) A few days later, Gendler’s father drove her to the law office, where she met the Beatles’ manager, Brian Epstein, and several other individuals involved in promoting the singers. Epstein and his associates thought Gendler was over 13 and wanted her to manage the Beatles’ U.S. Fan Club. Gendler had to decline the offer, but she got a ticket to the Sullivan show instead. From there, her lifelong connection to the Beatles blossomed.

From that moment on, the Beatles’ publicity machine went into high gear, and their music got more airplay. Their first U.S. album debuted in January 1964 at number one, and then came the historic Ed Sullivan Show. Gendler became increasingly involved with the Beatles Fan Clubs in the United States and had several meetings with Epstein and others involved with the Beatles’ management. She eventually had her chance to meet the Beatles in 1965, but Gendler made a blunder (you’ll have to read the memoir to find out what she did), and the meeting didn’t go well. She was undeterred and kept up her Beatles activities, culminating in a 1967 trip to England. Gendler met George and Paul’s parents there, sat in on a studio session with Paul and Ringo, and even went night clubbing with Paul and some associates.

I was fascinated by Gendler’s accounts of her meetings with notable music industry figures of that era. She also attended concerts at various New York City club venues for groups, including the Rolling Stones, Herman’s Hermits, Gary Lewis and the Playboys, the Velvet Underground, the Kinks, and the Moody Blues. Events that would have been once-in-a-lifetime experiences for many people were daily occurrences with Gendler. Along the way, she acquired a vast trove of Beatles memorabilia, including Beatles talcum powder (liberally spread around as a prop by actor Eddie Deezen in the movie I Wanna Hold Your Hand) and hairspray. Even though she’s given away some of her collection over the years, it would be pretty valuable today if she ever sold it.

The Beatles broke up about the time Gendler went to college, but her relationship with the members didn’t end there, nor did the book. The memoir’s second half details her experiences as an adult with the former group members. After college, she went to work for CBS and began a 50-year career in the television industry. Naturally, that position gave her access to many more celebrities, but Gendler confined the book’s contents to her experiences that related in some way to the Beatles. Those included booking Linda McCartney for a cooking show and testifying as a witness at a copyright infringement suit involving Beatles’ properties. Gendler became good friends with Paul’s brother, Mike McCartney, a well-known photographer, and he invited her to various events where Paul and Linda were in attendance. Gendler’s memories aren’t all happy; she discusses her reactions to the deaths of John Lennon and George Harrison.

Gendler drops numerous names in her book, many of which will be unfamiliar to many readers. She reminded me of Forrest Gump, who had a knack for associating with celebrities. In Gendler’s case, her famous acquaintances went beyond her Beatles days. A middle school friend and fellow Beatles fan moved away from New Jersey and changed her name to P. J. Soles, future star of films like Rock ‘n Roll High School and Halloween. I lost track of who some of the music executives were, even though, for Gendler, they were old friends and associates.

The book also hops around chronologically and repeats itself at times. Gendler could have used tighter editing to organize the material better. She also includes some anecdotes in the book in which she had no involvement. That material tends to be the memoir’s least interesting parts. One fascinating exception is a discussion of whether the infamous Kray brothers tried to strong arm their way into the Beatles’ management shortly before the group disbanded.

Anyone interested in I Saw Them Standing There should realize what the book is not. It’s not a biography of the Beatles. It’s not a recounting of their 1964 Ed Sullivan appearance (which occupies only a few pages). Instead, it’s the story of a 60-year love affair between one woman and the Beatles. Along the way, she had access to the inner circle that was rare for anyone and unheard of for a teenager. She includes several personal photographs and letters from the organization in the book. The rest of us can now share in her “you are there” experience. I highly recommend I Saw Them Standing There for fans of the Beatles or of 60s rock music in general.

NOTE: The publisher graciously provided me with a copy of this book through NetGalley. However, the decision to review the book and the contents of this review are entirely my own.

Author Debbie Gendler discusses I Saw Them Standing There with the Plastic EP podcast:

Debbie Gendler (Supnik) is a four-time Emmy-nominated Talent and Development Executive and Producer formerly at CBS New York and Los Angeles, and ABC, and who also served as Women in Film’s (LA) first Executive Director. Debbie is responsible for developing over 9,000 television episodes with Weller/Grossman Productions for 36 broadcast and cable networks including the launches of HGTV and the National Geographic Channel in the United States. As an “original” Beatles fan who was in the studio audience for the group’s first appearance on The Ed Sullivan Show, she has given countless interviews on television, radio, and podcasts, including the CBS Grammy 50th Beatle Anniversary Show where her interview traveled around the world as part of a Grammy Exhibit, and on the accompanying DVD to Ron Howard’s feature documentary on the Beatles. Now, 60 years later, Debbie works as a co-producer at SOFA Entertainment, owner of The Ed Sullivan Show. Debbie is a magna cum laude graduate of Boston University’s College of Communication and lives in Beverly Hills, California.

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