December 22, 2010 Edition

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Polar Freeze, Allisons,
central to Beatles WR visit

Jack and Velma Allison of the Polar Freeze have become gold record donors for the Lawrence County Chamber of Commerce Tourism project to construct a sculpture to memorialize the Beatles' September 1964 visit to the Walnut Ridge Airport.
John Bland

One of the most legendary weekends in the history of Walnut Ridge began at the Polar Freeze late one Friday on the night of Sept. 18, 1964. Jack and Velma Allison, owners of the Polar Freeze, sat down recently at the barbecue eatery, along with Charles Snapp, to recall the sequence of events that surrounded the Beatles' historic visit to the Walnut Ridge Airport, their only visit to Arkansas.

The Allisons are also one of the most recent gold record donors with a $1,000 gift to help construct a sculpture at the airport to memorialize the Beatles' historic visit here.

On that September 1964 evening, Jack was out picking up trash around the old Polar Freeze building, located where the current Polar Freeze parking lot is now located.

"It was a clear night," said Allison. He saw and heard a big airplane overhead that was apparently headed for the Walnut Ridge Airport, located about two miles north of town.

At the same time, three teenaged boys, Gene Matthews, Bob Cole and Richard Thomas, were circling around the Polar Freeze in a car.

Jack said to them, "Boys, there's a big airplane up there. Why don't you go check it out at the airport?"

When the boys arrived at the airport, the Beatles were walking off the airplane. Allison said, "They were real friendly to the boys and said they were going to a dude ranch. The boys said the Beatles were practicing their 'quick draw.'"

The Beatles were apparently trying to quietly land at the Walnut Ridge Airport, which was big enough to accommodate their airplane, en route to a dude ranch near Alton, Mo., where they would relax until Sunday. They were on a U.S. tour and were flying from Dallas to Walnut Ridge. On Sunday morning, during the church hour, The Beatles would return to Walnut Ridge to fly on to New York.

The teenaged boys, who had encountered the Beatles, reported back to Jack at the Polar Freeze. "As excited as the boys were, I thought it really was the Beatles, or they at least thought it was the Beatles."

"So many people didn't believe it at first," said Jack.

Charles Snapp, who is a member of the Chamber of Commerce Tourism Committee, said the pilot for the Beatles would spend the weekend at Alamo Courts motel, which was owned by Snapp's family.

Snapp said, "The pilot told dad this was the closest airport (to the ranch) that could handle their plane without attracting a crowd,"

"I think the pilot told dad, 'I can't tell you, but if I were you, I wouldn't go to church Sunday," Snapp said. That, and the fact that the airplane remained at the airport all weekend, was enough confirmation to attract an estimated 250 to 300 people to the airport by late Sunday morning.

Jack and Velma explained that the Beatles were considered by some to be "a little radical at the time" with their long hair and rock and roll music. Some parents insisted that their children go to Sunday school and church, while some others allowed their children to go to the airport in hopes of seeing the Beatles.

"I didn't even want to go," said Snapp. "Mom, Dad and Carrie Mae came to get me at a friend's house." Snapp said. On the other hand, Carrie Mae, Charles' sister, was a teenager at the time and was a big fan of the British singing group and a local leader of "The Beatles Forever Fan Club."

"I remember the mayor (Buddy Stewart) coming out to the airport," said Snapp. "He asked everybody to get back. 'Don't mob them,' he said."

"The girls all screamed, but it was real orderly," Snapp said of the Beatles return to the airport on Sunday. McCartney and Harrison returned from the ranch to the airport in a van, while Lennon and Starr flew back to Walnut Ridge in a Cessna-type airplane, Snapp said.

Carrie Mae Snapp, who is still a resident of Walnut Ridge, summed up the experience and what it meant. "This was a life-changing event and it sort of validated us in our isolated, little town. How many times did the Beatles come to Arkansas? In 1964, at the height of their fame, what were the chances of it? Sputnik could have fallen on us more easily."

The planned Beatles sculpture is one of two attractions planned in Lawrence County along Rock 'n' Roll Highway 67. The sculpture will be a life-size replica of the Beatles' Abbey Road album cover and will be located at the airport. The Lawrence County Chamber of Commerce Tourism Committee is also planning a guitar walk, to be located along Highway 67 in downtown Walnut Ridge.

The guitar walk will focus on rock and roll stars, such as Elvis Presley, Jerry Lee Lewis, Johnny Cash, Roy Orbison and Fats Domino, who played at clubs along Highway 67 around the 1950s.

Dr. Brett Cooper, chair of the committee, said the idea is to give people traveling the Rock 'n' Roll Highway a reason to stop and spend some of their tourism dollars in Lawrence County.

Charles Snapp said the tourism committee decided to capitalize on one of Walnut Ridge's claims to fame - being the Beatles' only stop in Arkansas. The committee is also working with the local high school art departments to create a painting of the aircraft on the ground in front of the airport terminal building, along with footprints to replicate the Beatles' steps from their plane.

"We will be encouraging everyone to walk in their steps," said Danny West, tourism committee member, who is also working on the sculpture.

The footprints will lead to the sculpture, which will be individual cutouts of the Beatles in front of an etched brushed aluminum background to replicate the Abbey Road album cover.

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