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Looking back, it's difficult to comprehend just how truly groundbreaking those young British chaps known as The Beatles were in 1964.

Playing on The Ed Sullivan Show in February of that year, the band attracted approximately 73 million viewers (the entire U.S. population was only 191 million at the time).

In the first week of April, all top five pop singles on the American Billboard chart were Beatles songs. That's never happened since for another musical artist, and likely never will.

The Beatles' debut U.S. tour tackled a staggering schedule: 32 concerts performed in 24 cities over a mere 33 days.

None of those venues were in Arkansas, though the next-to-last performance was close (Dallas). The Fab Four would never play together in the Natural State.

They did, however, grace our state with their presence--and the ongoing annual commemoration of that event has not only claimed a celebratory side note in Beatlemania, but also catapulted a small Arkansas community's festival to national recognition.

Walnut Ridge, Ark. (pop. 4,800) sits literally at a crossroads. U.S. highways 63, 67 and 412 all converge there.

The nearby municipal airport just north of town is also an intersection point that forever linked the quartet of John, Paul, George and Ringo to Arkansas, and still connects fans of all stripes--from casual admirers to raving devotees--to the band and their local visit 54 years ago.

Now known as Beatles at the Ridge, the two-day event every third weekend in September is a success story for a small town that figured out a way to capitalize on a footnote.

For years, the travel-stop detour by The Beatles after their Dallas concert in 1964 was a trifle of anecdotal trivia treasured by Walnut Ridge residents, but neither known nor regaled by few others. It had been pure happenstance that the old air base's mile-long runways made the airport the ideal spot for the singers to park their large airliner and sneak off to a ranch getaway in Alton, Mo., before their final U.S. performance in New York.

Word had leaked out locally--it was and is a small town, after all--and several hundred people turned out to witness the fleeting but famous moments of the Fab Four switching planes before taking to the skies and heading back to the Big Apple.

A coterie of civic-minded townsfolk can be credited for turning an item worthy of Trivial Pursuit into a tourism triumph. The first Beatles at the Ridge celebration was convened in 2011, and not without some skepticism by the usual naysayers that inhabit and inhibit every little town. The growing collective vision that persevered in promoting the festival as a way to put Walnut Ridge on the map in a distinctive way also swept a new mayor into office a few years afterward.

Ever since assuming the office, Charles Snapp has epitomized the combination of community cheerleader and civic strategic planner. His tireless efforts on both fronts have paid off in ways that can only be called "big time."

Beatles at the Ridge is expected to draw flow-through crowds in excess of 17,000 next weekend, and the festival has found nationwide fame and prominence in publications and news outlets such as USA Today and Huffington Post.

Earlier this year, Mayor Snapp and Lawrence County Chamber of Commerce director Lesa Walter accepted the Festival of the Year award by the Arkansas Festivals & Events Association--beating out much larger events in Little Rock and other more populous areas.

That's quite a feat considering Beatles at the Ridge is a free-admission event, and is 100 percent volunteer-led and sponsor-funded.

The revitalization surrounding Southwest Second Street, which was renamed Abbey Road and is the site of a 20-foot metal sculpture recreating the album cover of the same name, has sparked other development and initiative.

The city's Christmas in the Park light display has expanded to far exceed normal expectations in a little town. Main Street has experienced a virtual explosion of commercial development this year with the opening of two new local restaurants, a Casey's convenience store and a Dollar Tree.

Growth compounds growth, and next weekend's Beatles at the Ridge promises to be bigger and better than ever. Set for Sept. 14 and 15, the festival will feature 12 different bands, including four contemporary Christian acts. Grammy-nominated tribute band The Liverpool Legends takes center stage on Saturday night. Playing vintage instruments in authentic costumes with meticulous attention to every musical detail, their rendition of "Hey Jude"--on its 50th anniversary as the overall No. 1 song of 1968--will undoubtedly bring down the house.

There's also an Artists and Authors Symposium that attracts Beatles experts from around the country, a barbecue-wing cookoff, a car show and more than 100 vendor booths. Downtown stores, such as The Spider's Webb bookstore (one of my favorites), will also be open for visitors to stroll and shop.

Small towns everywhere face struggles. Whether you're a Beatles fan or not, this festival showcases one community whose leadership and residents are doing a lot of things right.

That alone is worth enjoying, and applauding.

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Dana D. Kelley is a freelance writer from Jonesboro.

Editorial on 09/07/2018

Print Headline: Fab Four fever-fest

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