LITTLE ROCK, Ark (Reuters) - A farming town in northeastern Arkansas is hoping that an unexpected visit by The Beatles nearly 50 years ago can get its economy rocking again.
This weekend Walnut Ridge hosts Beatles at the Ridge, a festival dedicated to The Beatles’ only stop in Arkansas.
It all goes back to a Friday night in 1964, when a plane carrying the Fab Four to a Missouri dude ranch experienced mechanical problems and was forced to land on a World War Two-era airstrip in Walnut Ridge.
The band hitched a ride to Missouri but returned to the Walnut Ridge airport on Sunday morning, when hundreds of fans waited to greet them.
The musicians did not perform in the town, but their visit remains a vivid memory for many longtime residents.
“We are in the business of music now,” said Charles Snapp, the festival’s organizer. “The Beatles have helped to revitalize this town and given people hope that there’s a future here.”
Last year’s festival drew about 5,000 people, and Snapp said he expects more this year.
The event will feature a Beatles tribute band, Liverpool Legends, vendors selling art and music and the unveiling of Guitar Walk. The path is designed in the shape of an Epiphone Casino guitar that John Lennon played.
Guitarist and singer Sonny Burgess, a Sun Records legend, will help cut the ribbon.
More than 75 businesses have decorated their shop windows in a tie-dye theme highlighting Beatles songs such as “All You Need Is Love” and “Octopus’s Garden.”
Walnut Ridge, population 4,824, has struggled for years to lure industry and business. As downtown businesses closed their doors, town leaders looked to see what they had to offer besides train tracks and a festival celebrating the railroad.
‘IN OUR BACKYARDS’
Adjoining counties hosted music festivals focusing on the Rock and Roll Highway, a section of road that Elvis Presley, Johnny Cash and Roy Orbison traveled early in their careers.
Walnut Ridge had the Beatles.
“When the Beatles landed here, it changed people’s lives,” Snapp said. “You had to go to Dallas or Memphis to see a group like that, and here they were in our backyards.”
Snapp’s sister was a Beatles fan club president. Their parents owned the local Best Western motel where the plane’s pilot stayed.
“Our mom sweet-talked the pilot, or pestered him to death, to find out when they were coming back,” Snapp said. “He finally said, ‘I wouldn’t go to church if I was y‘all.'”
They didn’t and his sister saw The Beatles.
Snapp acknowledged that The Beatles project is not creating hundreds of jobs. But it is getting people excited while creating a sales tax base and helping pay for building renovations in a tough economy.
The town last year unveiled a metal sculpture of The Beatles, modeled on the famed “Abbey Road” album cover. One Walnut Ridge street has even been renamed Abbey Road.
Arkansas Tourism Director Joe David Rice said Walnut Ridge is nicely positioned for music tourism with its proximity to Johnny Cash’s childhood home in Dyess, Arkansas, which is undergoing renovations.
“Serious music fans are a zealous bunch,” Rice said. “They live to visit homes, venues, gravesites or other shrines somehow connected to their favorite performers.”
While hordes of visitors may not descend on Walnut Ridge, the community could get a steady flow of out-of-towners.
“They’ll spend money, take pictures, post their shots on the web - and the process will continue,” Rice said.
The event is still missing one thing: a Beatle. Invitations to Paul McCartney and Ringo Starr were mailed, but so far, there has been no response.
“Quite honestly, we didn’t expect to hear from them,” Snapp said. “It’s like the lottery: If you don’t buy a ticket, you won’t win. We send the invitations and hope they recognize us someday.”
Editing by Corrie MacLaggan and Xavier Briand