Good Ol' Freda
Directed by Ryan White
Playing at the Charles Theatre Sept. 15 and 17 with special guest producer Kathy McCabe
"Dear Beatle people": The phrase will inspire nostalgia in the circa-'60s Beatles fan who followed the band with the same enthusiasm as modern-day devotees of, say, One Direction. Freda Kelly, president of the official Beatles fan club, would use the salutation to begin her column in The Beatles Monthly Book, the magazine for fanatics of the group, published from 1963 to 1969, not long before the band split. From the slow dissolution of the foursome, back through 1961, in their early days, Kelly-a Liverpudlian herself-transcended mere fandom; she graduated from loyal concertgoer to band manager Brian Epstein's secretary at the age of 17, and ultimately, became a close confidante of the band. In Good Ol' Freda (produced by Baltimorean Kathy McCabe), she finally records her experiences, sharing anecdotes that even casual Beatles fans will delight in. (The film appeared at this year's Maryland Film Festival.)
Speaking to the camera, Kelly oozes charm and congeniality, qualities that won her the job, which she maintained for 11 years. She "was a fan without being an over-the-top fanatic. I would call her an admirer. She appreciated the Beatles," says Tony Barrow, the Beatles' press officer, in the film. Indeed, Kelly's collectedness about her situation, then and now, is perhaps her most striking feature.
She first saw the Beatles in '61 at Liverpool's the Cavern Club while she was on a lunchbreak. Of the band's reported 292 lunchtime shows at the underground venue, Kelly attended about 190 by her count. She describes getting back late to her job in a typing pool, smelling of the club, which had an aroma of "disinfectant, rotten fruit, and sweat, all rolled into one." She was so much a regular that she could ring up Paul McCartney before a show and request a song for a friend. She became their fan club president and answered their fan mail. She recalls asking McCartney for money for stamps, which she initially paid for out of pocket.
In December of 1961, Brian Epstein-whose family owned NEMS, the largest record store in Northern England-approached the Beatles about a management contract. Around then, he asked Kelly, who had befriended him during shows at the Cavern Club, to be his secretary. "It was by St. Boniface's Hall in Penny Lane. It was a Saturday night. I walked in and I just know Eppie coming up to me, and he told me that he was signing the Beatles and he was starting his own firm and he needed a secretary. Then he said did I want to come and work for them. And I said, 'Oh, go on then.' I remember I just kept saying 'Oh, go on then.'"
Kelly wasn't a groupie, and the distinction is important. She remembers the Beatles as idiosyncratic individuals. While making the Magical Mystery Tour (shortly after Brian Epstein's death), she attempted to lay low in the back of the bus; no luck, Paul McCartney summoned her to sit in the front with the band members. One evening she killed time waiting for a large crowd in the Beatles' band room to dissipate by drinking with the Moody Blues; when she returned to the Beatles, John Lennon deadpanned and said she was fired. She forced him to apologize on one knee. Kelly knew all of the Beatles' parents (or in Lennon's case, his aunt Mimi). George Harrison's father tried to teach her how to dance properly. She nurtured a very close relationship with Ringo Starr's mother, visiting her weekly, staying until 1 or 2 a.m.
Still, Kelly was a fan. She laughs when she recalls that she originally gave out her home address as the fan club address and began receiving 200 letters at first, then bags upon bags of post at her father's house, where she lived. She took her fan-club responsibilities very seriously, because she understood the mentality of those who were in it. If someone sent in a pillowcase and asked for Ringo to sleep on it, she would ensure that he did. Once, she caught an assistant trying to pass off her sister's hair as a Beatle's; she sacked the girl and all of her friends helping out.
Good Ol' Freda captures the excitement surrounding the Beatles when they were emerging as superstars and when they reached the apex of their success. When discussing the band's slow demise, the documentary-which secured the rights to use four Beatles songs -fittingly takes a more somber tone. Kelly's impeccable memory and her down-to-earth demeanor do much to humanize men who have been deified, though her recollections steer clear of any darker sides of the band. Though lacking in grit, for Beatles die-hards and novices alike, the film offers a 90-minute nostalgia trip.