He’d been watching movies at the same theater in his Cape Cod hometown since he was 7 years old. Now, though, the old man who ran the place didn’t want to let him in.
Herb Van Dam was letting his hair grow out, a moptop inspired by a certain new rock ‘n’ roll group from England.
“Take a haircut!” the proprietor of the Buzzards Bay Theater groused to the shaggy teenager, who was planning to bring his best friend’s sister to a movie. “What are you, a girl?”
Back in the early ’60s, Van Dam — now a longtime Salem resident — was the first kid on the Cape to be told to cut his hair, he thinks. Within months, it would give him the story of a lifetime: His fashionable look would land him, for one brief, unexpectedly terrifying moment, at the epicenter of Beatlemania.
With his floppy locks and his big, soulful eyes, Van Dam soon realized he was the spitting image of the “cute” Beatle, Paul McCartney. And when the Beatles played Boston Garden 50 years ago this weekend (Sept. 12, 1964), Van Dam was the boy who made the news for being set upon by a throng of frenzied young women.
It was his own fault, really.
He was in the city at midday with his friend Dan Jarvis, who was moving into an apartment to begin the school year at the Massachusetts College of Art. They were listening to WBZ — temporarily rebranded as “W-Beatles-Z” to play off the group’s surging hype — when the rookie reporter, Gary LaPierre, cheekily warned any young Beatles lookalikes to steer clear of the Garden, as Van Dam recalled. Clusters of anxious female fans already were congregating there.
An inveterate mischief-maker, Van Dam didn’t hesitate. “Let’s go!” he said to Jarvis.
As soon as he and Jarvis hopped out of the cab thattook them tothe Hotel Madison — the old Art Deco building adjacent to the Garden, where the band was staying — they knew they’d made a mistake. The first thing he heard was “that jet propulsion scream” that was quickly becoming synonymous with Beatlemania.
“It quickly went from being a goof to being scary,” Van Dam recalled.
A group of girls charged after Van Dam on Causeway Street, crying “Paul! Paul!” (They ignored Jarvis, who “looked like Omar Sharif,” Van Dam said). When they caught up, they tore the pockets off his pants and the sweatshirt off his back.
“He handed me his watch and his ring just as the girls swarmed him,” Jarvis said.
Van Dam curled up in a ball to try to protect himself. When a police officer approached, Van Dam crawled out of the pack on all fours and sprinted down a side street. He hid under a parked car until he saw the girls’ feet scamper by.
When he climbed out from under the car, a nearby storekeeper beckoned. “Come here, I give you shirt,” he said in a foreign accent.
He handed the grateful teenager something to pull on, then shouted gleefully, “Now go do that again!”
Van Dam brushed himself off and pushed his bangs back on his head so he wouldn’t look so much like a Beatle. Ducking into a coffee shop, he reunited with an equally flustered Jarvis.
As he finished shakily smoking a cigarette, Van Dam stubbed out the butt. A young woman reached over and snatched it out of the ashtray.
“Look, I’m not anybody,” Van Dam pleaded.
The girl narrowed her eyes.
“Well, you could be,” she replied.
That night, he and his friend would sit in the second balcony for the show, having paid $7.50 apiece for tickets that were priced at $4.50.
“We got scalped,” he remembered.
Jarvis recalled the crowd filing into the Garden in a state of collective reverence. The fans were “very well-behaved. It was like, ‘Wow’ . . . it was almost religious; it really was.”
Van Dam mussed his hair and assured everyone within earshot that he was not, in fact, a Beatle. A few girls asked for his autograph, but it was nothing like the mayhem he’d survived earlier in the day.
Van Dam, now 67, can still look like McCartney, who is five years his senior. He’s stockier than the ex-Beatle, and he’s taken to wearing Van Dyke-style facial hair. But the gray hair remains distinctly Beatlesque.
He’ll take part in the West End Museum’s 50th anniversary celebration all this weekend, celebrating the Beatles’ concert in Boston.
He’s had a lot of fun with the resemblance over the years. When he met Pete Best, the original Beatles drummer who was replaced by Ringo Starr, they posed for a photo together. Van Dam raised his eyebrows in the familiar, wide-eyed McCartney way, capturing the look precisely.
Even more than a look-alike, Van Dam has earned a lot of laughs in his lifetime for his uncanny ability to mimic celebrity voices. He can do all four Beatles (he’s partial to John Lennon, his favorite), but he also does a superb Mike Dukakis.
Now semi-retired, Van Dam putters around the grand old Salem home he’s owned with his wife, Connie, for two decades. With or without visitors, he’s got more than enough memories to keep him company.
Until last October, he worked for years as a professional tour guide, entertaining tourists with the architectural histories of Boston, Cambridge, Lexington, and Concord. True to his fine-tuned sense of humor, he treated the gig as if it were another kind of stand-up comedy.
“I put the pill in the applesauce,” said Van Dam on a balmy recent weekday, sitting in his living room. His audiences were mostly on vacation, he explained; their history lessons shouldn’t feel “like punishment.”
It’s been a colorful life. In the ’60s he took photos of Bob Dylan, and he toured as a roadie and companion of singer-songwriter Eric Andersen.
“I had no skills, even plugging stuff in,” Van Dam recalled with a laugh. “But I made him laugh, and I could drive.”
After attending Grahm Junior College in Boston to study broadcasting, he spent much of the ’70s on the road, living the post-hippie lifestyle. In Hollywood, he stayed in a room next door to the brothers Duane and Gregg Allman, who would soon start the band that still bears their name. In Key West, Fla., Van Dam befriended a newcomer named Jimmy Buffett, who hung out with a fellow long-haired freak, a budding novelist they called “Tommy” McGuane.
Back in Boston, Van Dam parlayed the MC-ing skills he’d developed in Key West into hosting gigs at the Ding Ho and Bunratty’s. He soon took a “straight” job, when a girlfriend found him a role in the Dukakis administration, where he worked in community services and perfected his impression of the governor.
Van Dam likes to joke that his crazy quilt of experiences made him a real-life Forrest Gump.
“I was just lucky to be there,” he said. “I was always in the right place.”