Zachary Paul Levine carefully pulled a black and white photograph from the sticky embrace of an old scrapbook and held it horizontally. Sunlight from the windows streamed across its surface.
“If you kind of play with this in the light you can start to make out scratches on the back,” said Zachary, tilting the photo. “If you look real close, you can see ‘To Harry Lynn .’ And here, you can see ‘Paul.’ ”
That’s Paul as in Paul McCartney and Harry Lynn as in the man who owned the Washington Coliseum, where exactly 50 years ago the Beatles played their first U.S. concert.
We were in the offices of the Jewish Historical Society of Greater Washington, across from the National Building Museum. Zachary started just last week as a new curator at the historical society. A few days before that, three of the late Harry Lynn’s scrapbooks were donated to the society by the Lynn family.
They’re a treasure trove of 1960s Washington, with photos of circuses and ballets, musicians and politicians. There’s a photo of Satchel Paige captioned “Greatest pitcher in baseball of all time” and one of Joan Crawford captioned “Movie star and personal friend.”
And there’s a photo of the Beatles. It’s inscribed on the back, but at some point in the last five decades it was glued to a piece of cardboard. Now you can see only inscrutable ridges of mostly unreadable Beatle handwriting in the emulsion.
When Zachary discovered it, the writing reminded him of faint graffiti he saw on 700-year-old planks from a Cairo synagogue.
Lynn was a Midwesterner and Army veteran who moved to Washington to work in the jewelry business. When he tired of that, he bought the Uline Arena, the great concrete barrel near Union Station that had opened during 1941.
“I went to a number of concerts there over the years,” said John Lynn, Harry’s older son, now a retired lawyer living in Arlington. John was 11 in 1964. His brother, Larry, was 8.
Said John: “My father came home one night to dinner and said, ‘Oh, have you all heard of this band called the Beatles? Well, I just signed them to play here.’ ”
It was a bit of a risk for Lynn, who was more accustomed to renting the building to outside promoters than producing shows himself. But after he placed an ad in The Post on Jan. 31, the tickets — priced at $2, $3 and $4 — sold out in a matter of days. And on the snowy day of the show, Lynn went to Union Station to personally greet the Beatles He had served in Liverpool during World War II and felt a kinship with the lads.
That evening, John and his brother were among the 8,000 spectators.
“My father, because he didn’t know anything about the group or the crowd, he was concerned for our safety,” John said. “We didn’t sit in the front row. He put us off to the side so we could get out in case there was any trouble. Mainly, I remember the screaming.”
Ah, the screaming. This was the start of Beatlemania in America. The pubescent roar of the mainly female crowd sounded like a squadron of jet engines. And yet even so, it was clear the Beatles were good, very good. Whenever I watch clips of the concert, I’m struck by how professional they were: relaxed, but with a deadly sense of purpose.
“None of us really knew we were at the beginning of something,” John said. “Now it all seems preordained, but it was anything but that.”
It was certainly a good night for Harry Lynn.
“He was so flabbergasted by the result,” John said. “One day we came home from school, and there was a new car out in front of the house.”
It was a 1964 Lincoln Continental convertible.
“That was what he bought my mother with the profit from the Beatles show,” John said.
Lynn sold the building in 1970. He didn’t think he could compete with the Capital Centre, the bigger, better venue his friend Abe Pollin was building in the suburbs.
Harry Lynn died in 2006 at age 97. Now his scrapbooks have joined more than 200 others in the historical society’s collection, assembled by everyone from teenage girls to community groups. They help tell the story of Washington’s Jewish presence.
“The culture of scrapbook-keeping has been great for us,” Zachary said. “Now you wouldn’t have it. You’d have to go through millions of e-mails.”
What exactly did Paul McCartney write on that photo? We may soon find out.
On Wednesday Zachary will bring the picture to a Smithsonian facility. A high-tech instrument will use something called reflectance transformation imaging to shoot a powerful light across the surface, hoping to reveal the long-lost scribble. It’s the same technology they use on Rembrandts and da Vincis, to name just two artists who never played at the Coliseum.
For previous columns, visit washingtonpost.com/johnkelly.