On Easter weekend James Denzer and Diane Ramsey, coworkers at the Farm & Fleet supply store in Decatur, became the first couple to get married at the Hard Day's Nite Bed & Breakfast in Benton, Illinois. The couple strolled down the center of the front room toward a judge standing near the fireplace while a boom box played classical covers of Beatles songs. Louise "Lou" Harrison, George Harrison's older sister, served as the maid of honor. She invited the newlyweds to her house for pizza after the ceremony.
The wedding was covered by Becky Malkovich, a writer for the Benton Evening News and the younger sister of actor John Malkovich. The Malkoviches are an old Benton family; they owned the Evening News from the 1940s until 1987. "It was a nice wedding," said Malkovich. "As the bride walked down the aisle they played 'All You Need Is Love.'"
George Harrison's sister? John Malkovich's sister? Clearly the Illinois Tourism Board has been ignoring Benton's celebrity appeal, the center of which, of course, is the Hard Day's Nite.
Located in a two-story bungalow once owned by Lou Harrison, the B and B's hook is this: in 1963, when he was 20, George Harrison came there to visit his sister. Lou and her then husband, Gordon Caldwell, had moved to downstate Illinois from a Quebec mining town in the early 60s, after Caldwell was hired as an engineer at the Freeman Coal Company in West Frankfort. They bought the house for $12,000 from Loren P. Lewis, a descendant of explorer Meriwether Lewis and, not coincidentally, the Franklin County judge who presided over the Denzer-Ramsey wedding. Lou planted the redbud tree that now shades the porch.
During his visit, George went to see a Cliff Richard flick at a drive-in in nearby Marion. He jammed with a band called the Four Vests. He went camping and took pictures of katydids. After George was gassed from the fast pace of southern Illinois living, he crashed in his sister's back room.
"The house is not a shrine," says Lou, who now lives 20 miles outside of town. "He happened to have been there a couple of weeks."
The Hard Day's Nite is owned and operated by two couples, Jim and Daryl Chady and Connie and Dorothy Schultz. They're friends with Lou, now 69, who makes appearances from time to time. The owners have turned the room where George slept into a minimuseum, full of dozens of Beatles artifacts, including the turntable from radio station WFRX in nearby West Frankfort, where George and Lou once dropped off the Beatles 45s "From Me to You" and "Please Please Me" for the station's Saturday-morning teen show. The turntable is even autographed by former teen DJ Marcia Schafer.
A rust-colored sofa sits along the north wall of the room. You can't miss it: it's been roped off with a yellow ribbon for a sort of crime-scene effect. "This sofa is from Lou's New York apartment," Dorothy Schultz explains during a tour. (Lou left Benton in 1968, and worked for George's music-publishing company Harrisongs in New York during the early 1970s.) "George sat on it. And we think the other Beatles did too."
"Oh, don't mention the sofa," Lou says later. "My brother is embarrassed enough about this whole thing."
The bungalow was probably built around 1927, says Jim Chady, and he thinks it was probably a Sears house, built from one of the catalog company's prefab kits. "Sears houses would come on the railroad tracks, and the tracks are just a block away," says Chady. At least 60 trains a day come through Benton on the Illinois Central and Union Pacific lines, which can be a problem if you're trying to run a bed-and-breakfast devoted to the quietest Beatle.
When Lou moved to New York, she sold the house to a business agent named James B. Moore. In 1994 the neglected bungalow was sold to the state of Illinois, and the neighboring office of the Illinois Department of Mines and Minerals announced plans to raze it and build a parking lot. As mines in southern Illinois had closed down, other Mines and Minerals bureaus had closed, and the department's offices had consolidated in Benton.
When news of the impending demolition reached Bob Bartel, a Springfield-based private detective, he decided to take action. Bartel is a hard-core Beatles fan who met his wife of eight years, Janice, through a personal ad in Beatlefan magazine. They were married on October 9, John Lennon's birthday. Bartel knew the house had a history, having heard Lou talk about Benton at Beatlefests in Chicago.
"It's the mania," says Bartel. "The mania always comes to the surface. That's what the Beatles generated. People walk on the grass in front of the house knowing that George walked on it, or ask, 'Did George touch this doorknob?' And I think it's the mania that Lou gets trifled about. History can develop into folklore, and folklore can develop into history. My job as a private detective-forensic historian is to retrace from the present day backwards."
Bartel started snooping around, and eventually he presented documentation of the house's history to the Capital Development Board in Springfield, which had jurisdiction over the property.
"Number one, I brought video [of Lou talking about the house] from Beatlefest. I also brought the book The Complete Beatles Chronicle, which is a day-by-day chronicle of Beatles history," says Bartel. The Capital Development Board turned his "evidence" over to Steve Thompson, a resource protection manager for the Illinois Historic Preservation Agency. "He reviewed it, and concluded with me that it did show George was actually there. That's what started the ball rolling."
Bartel's campaign didn't stop there. "We had petitions signed from all over the state," he says. Danny Malkovich, managing editor of the Benton Evening News, wrote an editorial in support of saving the house. News of the house even spread to the BBC and the London Times.
Meanwhile, Lou had moved to Florida, where she was heading a nonprofit environmental education agency. She was contacted by the BBC for comment, so she drove up for a visit. While she was in town she met with Steve Thompson and state senator Jim Rea at the Mines and Minerals office.
"Driving back to Florida, I stopped at every historical marker I saw to see the significance of being historical," she says. She saw a lot of war sites. "I thought maybe we should put a historical marker on a house where there was a young man who wrote beautiful music and talked about what God was, rather than where a bunch of earthlings slaughtered another bunch of earthlings." Though the state never granted the house landmark status, it did agree to postpone the teardown in order to give the house's defenders a chance to find another buyer.
Benton residents Jim and Daryl Chady had met Lou and George at that 1963 Four Vests concert, held at the VFW Club in nearby Eldorado. They still remember George picking up a Rickenbacker 425 he had purchased in Mount Vernon and guesting on lead guitar for covers of "Your Cheatin' Heart," "Matchbox," and "Roll Over Beethoven."
The Chadys had been looking for a retirement project they could share. When they heard about the old Lou Harrison house, they contacted their friends Connie and Dorothy Schultz. In March 1995 the Chadys, the Schultzes, and another couple pooled $40,000 to buy it. "I don't know who came up with the idea for the bed-and-breakfast," says Daryl. "We didn't want to rent out the house. We didn't want to turn the house into a museum. What else can you do?"
Connie Schultz, a rehabber by trade, renovated the place, and Daryl Chady shopped for early-60s furniture at area auctions. The bedrooms became the Paul Room, the Ringo Room, the John Room, and the George Room, which--perhaps in honor of Harrison's biggest hit, "Here Comes the Sun"--faces east. Later that year, Lou moved back to Illinois.
For $65 a night (or a $50 corporate rate), guests at the Hard Day's Nite get a room with a private bath and a television and VCR. The B and B's video library includes titles like Help!, Give My Regards to Broad Street, The Compleat Beatles, and the requisite A Hard Day's Night.
Continental breakfast is served at a long table surrounded by walls full of artifacts: a pair of size eight and a half Beatle boots, a black jacket like the ones the Fab Four wore on the Ed Sullivan Show, and illuminated museum cases containing several guitars. "That's the [Rickenbacker] George bought in Mount Vernon," says Dorothy. "Of course, it's not the exact one. It's a copy." In another case is a letter written, she explains, "from Mrs. Harrison to a Beatle fan saying how tall George is, what size clothes he wears, and how much he weighed when he was born." In the front room, a plaster German shepherd that resembles Lou's old dog, Sheba, stands guard near the fake fireplace. A calendar above the antique front desk reads September 1963. Much of the memorabilia belongs to the Bartels. Lou contributed a 1964 snapshot of herself in a white suit on her way to the Ed Sullivan set in New York.
"I'm gratified with the loving care these people have put into it," Lou says. "It's a warm, friendly house with a sort of--what would you say?--Beatle atmosphere, but not overwhelmingly so."
The house has inspired something of a local cottage industry. Bartel produced the two-hour video documentary A Beatle in Benton, Illinois. And last year Benton-area writer Jim Kirkpatrick released the 103-page paperback Before He Was Fab (George Harrison's First American Visit). Chapter titles include "Shopping for Records," "Lou Moves to Benton," and "Lou Leaves Benton."
Actor Butch Patrick of Eddie Munster fame has stayed there, as have Bill Haley and the Comets (including stand-up bassist Al Rappa, the last original Comet). Badfinger, whose 1971 hit "Day After Day" was produced by George, sent the Hard Day's Nite an autographed picture for its evolving wall of fame.
Still, people haven't been flocking to Benton (population 8,000) to stay at the Hard Day's Nite. "We're not that busy," Jim Chady says. "It's getting close to paying its own way, but not quite." Daryl adds, "People in Benton don't even know about us."
"It's such a tenuous connection to George Harrison," Becky Malkovich says. "But the people who run it are very nice. My brother comes back to visit, but he's never stayed there. We joke about starting the In the Line of Fire Bed & Breakfast. We'd have a Places in the Heart Room, and the Con Air Room. But I don't think it's going to fly."
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Becky Malkovich.