Chris Armbruster’s John Lennon display, including a Matryoshka “nesting doll” in the image of Beatle John.
(Credit: Chris Armbruster)

On the day of my wedding at the Loyola College chapel, I signed the guest register “John Lennon,” a bit of fiction that pleased the rock-and-roll make-believe in me. It was Saturday, December 6, 1980. Deborah and I were 22.

The reception was at the Polish National Alliance on Eastern Avenue, a dance-in-a-circle-arms-’round-each-other good time of food, drink and live music. It could have been the wedding scene in The Deer Hunter. The next morning was spent with my grandfather and friends from Spain on Macon Street, where my parents’ wedding reception had been held in 1953.

And the day after that — Monday, December 8; 42-years-ago today — bride and groom drove to the Eastern Shore and checked into a sportsman’s motel (it may have been the Fin & Feather!) – and did not turn the television on.

The next morning, the world – and my small part of it, the place where I will always be six and the Beatles are on Sullivan – changed forever. We drove to a diner for breakfast and, while waiting to order, I picked up a copy of the Easton Star-Democrat, founded 1799.

While Deb perused the menu, I scanned the front page and there, in the midst of holiday shopping tips and pessimistic forecasts for the coming oyster harvest was this: Ex-Beatle Lennon Slain in New York.

“Oh my God!” I cried, echoing what had been said a million times once the news broke the night before. “Oh my God!”

“What, what?” said Deb.

Before I could answer, the waitress was at our table to take our order, saying, “Didn’t ya know? The world’s insane.”

In Baltimore, Sunpapers metro desk reporter Sandy Banisky – a longtime friend, colleague and fellow Beatles fan – was getting dressed for work when her roommate told her in a mournful tone to turn on the TV. She did and began to tremble.

John had been Sandy’s favorite from the beginning, way back in Waterbury, Connecticut where she and her best friend, the late Maria Minervini, screamed while playing the band’s 45-rpm singles.

Unlike many parents, her father, Sam – then in his early 50s and working as a lab tech at a brass and copper factory – happily indulged his first born. And enjoyed making good-natured jokes about the fleeting shelf life of the world’s newest pop stars.

“When A Hard Day’s Night came to the drive-in, my father bought four tickets – one for himself, me, my sister Marcy and Maria and drove us in our Pontiac. He brought a newspaper and a flashlight and sat in the back reading while we sat up front and watched.”

Sixteen years later, Poland’s Solidarity union movement was gaining steam against the Soviet Union, the Chrysler Corporation asked the federal government for an additional $350 million to stay in business and Yoko Ono called for 10 minutes of global silence – 2 p.m. EST – to honor her slain husband.

The then-vaunted Sun – which ran a six-column, banner headline the morning after the murder, the kind typically reserved for political assassinations – had no apparent plans to cover the memorial in Central Park.

The Sun metro editor at the time was Gilbert L. Watson III (1944-2015), a widely beloved newspaperman of the old school. On the Saturday after the murder, Watson was at a Eutaw Place party with Banisky, other reporters and some of the younger editors. It was the eve of the Manhattan vigil and Watson was not convinced that the paper should send someone. The night wore on and urgent voices, along with a few tumblers of Scotch, wore Watson down.

“We badgered him – ‘Gil, we have to be in Central Park tomorrow,’” remembered Banisky. “Finally he says, ‘Fine, go, go.’”

Banisky left the party, got a few hours sleep and was on a 5 a.m. train to New York in the morning. Once there, it wasn’t difficult to find the gathering crowd.

“I’m walking along a sidewalk across from Central Park and there are boom boxes in open windows playing Beatles songs. It was surreal,” she said. “Cabs are pulling up and people in suits are getting out. I see lots of young people and [DJ] Cousin Brucie from WABC who I listened to when I was a kid.

“I’m in this throng and it’s obvious where to go, [toward] a stage with the famous photograph of John in the t-shirt that says New York City. The ten minutes of silence was profound. I felt that I had shared in something.”

Old school journalism? Banisky writes the story in longhand in a coffee shop, finds a payphone and dictates to someone on the Calvert Street desk.

The piece runs three columns wide the next morning below The Sun logo on A1.

It began: “Like members of a far-flung family reuniting for a funeral, 100,000 people who grew up with the music of John Lennon came together in Central Park yesterday to say good-bye to the singer and composer murdered here a week ago.”

A framed photo of John and Yoko in the Baltimore kitchen of former Sun reporter and editor Sandy Banisky. The image — one of the last taken of the former Beatle — appeared in the Village Voice the week of Lennon’s murder. (Credit: Sandy Banisky)

The man who murdered John (whose name I will not write), traveled from Hawaii to New York to commit the crime. Chris Armbruster, a well-known Baltimore record dealer and a passionate Beatles’ fan, was living in Waikiki at the time, age 19. He was working store security and made rounds checking dumpsters to make sure employees weren’t stashing stolen goods. Every time he got in his car to go to the next store, a John Lennon song was on the radio.

“That’s all they were playing,” he said, always a clue that a musician has passed. “Rock star death cliches came to mind – dead in a bathtub or a car crash but not murder.”

When the time came for silence, it was 8 a.m. in Hawaii. “I got up early, went down stairs and started listening to the radio, waiting for the silence. I wondered where I’d be if I was in Maryland. Just before eight, my folks came down the stairs and I figured ‘so much for paying my respects and feeling connected to my friends back home.’ They sat down with me and didn’t say a word.”

For the past 40 years, Frank Lidinsky has said the same 34 words at Mass every December 8, also the Feast of the Immaculate Conception in the Roman Catholic Church. By the time you read this, Lidinsky – the most devoted of Beatle fans – will have recited them at St. Ignatius on North Calvert Street during the prayer of petitions.

“For John Lennon, assassinated 42 years ago this very cold December night, let us remember his simple messages of give peace a chance and all you need is love. We pray to the Lord…”

Rafael Alvarez will be reading and signing books at the Highlandtown branch of the Pratt Library – Eastern Avenue and Conkling Street – at 2 p.m. on Saturday, December 17. He can be reached via orlo.leini@gmail.com

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