A piece of plastic stage backdrop autographed 50 years ago by the Beatles during their historic debut on “The Ed Sullivan Show” is expected to be sold at auction for $800,000 to $1 million in April.
That same piece of prized Beatles memorabilia hung for years on exhibit at the Southdowns Lounge in Baton Rouge.
In the mid 1980s, Southdowns owner Rodney Cary and three of his employees paid $1,800 for the 4-foot-by-2-foot plastic wall section containing signatures and drawings by Beatles John Lennon, Paul McCartney, George Harrison and Ringo Starr.
“The boy who sold it to me, he came on hard times,” Cary said Thursday.
When Southdowns Lounge customer Lofton Sproles offered to sell the piece of music history to Cary, the bar owner assumed he couldn’t afford it. He’d recently added a kitchen to Southdowns Lounge and had no extra money on hand.
When Sproles said he’d sell the signatures for $1,800, Cary thought of the tips he and his three-person lunch staff had been saving.
“We never spent our tips,” Cary said. “So we counted them and, damn, if we didn’t have just above that amount.”
Sproles obtained the signatures, which were originally part of a portable wall called a hardwall traveler, when he was 12 years old, Cary said.
“His daddy’s best friend worked on ‘The Ed Sullivan Show,’ ” Cary said.
At the end of each TV season, the hardwall travelers were thrown out.
“But this man knew that his friend’s son was a Beatle fan,” Cary said. “So he cut it (the signatures) out with a pocket knife. It was pretty raggedy.”
Cary displayed the signed wall segment from the Sullivan show at Southdowns Lounge alongside a script telling its history and busts of the Beatles.
“For a long time it was the real thing, until I found out what it was worth,” he said.
Cary and his wife, Laurie, learned how valuable their Beatles item is when they took it to a Beatles festival in Los Angeles.
“We took it there to exhibit it,” Cary said. “Somebody offered $50,000. They came back and offered $100,000.”
After the offer grew to $200,000, the couple took the wall piece back to Baton Rouge with the intention of learning its true value. Cary also stopped displaying it at Southdowns Lounge, replacing it with a photographic replica. No one noticed the switch. Cary put the genuine signatures in a bank vault.
About 2002, Cary, seeing how fragile the piece had become, decided to sell.
“It’s plastic,” he said. “We had to put tape on the back several times.”
Cary sold the signatures to a buyer from New Jersey who flew into Baton Rouge for the expressed purpose of buying them. Cary picked the buyer up at Metro Airport and returned him after a stay of about 90 minutes.
Cary, 75, wouldn’t reveal his selling price for the autographs, a portion of which he shared with Sproles.
Jerry Gort, an 81-year-old former stagehand for “The Ed Sullivan Show,” asked the Beatles to sign the wall on Feb. 9, 1964, according to the Associated Press.
“It was a spur of the moment thing,” Gort told an AP reporter recently from his home in Calabasas, Calif. “They came down from stage right from their dressing rooms, I gave them a marker and asked them to sign the wall.”
The Beatles signed vertically from the bottom up, Lennon first, then McCartney, who scribbled “Uncle Paul McCartney,” and then Harrison. But Starr, shorter than the others, couldn’t reach the top.
“I put my arms around him and lifted him,” Gort said.
Andy Geller, a Beatles collector and television and film voice-over artist, is the current owner of the wall section. It will be auctioned in New York City on April 26 through the Dallas-based auction house Heritage Auctions.
The Associated Press contributed to this article.