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Rolling Stones at 50: San Bernardino set the stage for the band's US debut (poll)

Mick Jagger shakes maracas in the background at a Rolling Stones show at the Swing Auditorium in San Bernardino.
Mick Jagger shakes maracas in the background at a Rolling Stones show at the Swing Auditorium in San Bernardino.
Courtesy Steve Chapman
Mick Jagger shakes maracas in the background at a Rolling Stones show at the Swing Auditorium in San Bernardino.
Retired concert promoter Bob Lewis holding a piece of the stage from San Bernardino's Swing Auditorium. He frequently booked shows at the venue until a plane crash destroyed the building in September of 1981. Photos of the crash are attached to the stage segment.
Kevin Ferguson
Mick Jagger shakes maracas in the background at a Rolling Stones show at the Swing Auditorium in San Bernardino.
A postcard showing the Swing Auditorium. The Swing operated until 1981, when a plane crash demolished the building.
Mick Jagger shakes maracas in the background at a Rolling Stones show at the Swing Auditorium in San Bernardino.
LoRee Gastineau of Highland, CA holds her ticket stub for the Rolling Stones first show in the United States.
Kevin Ferguson/KPCC
Mick Jagger shakes maracas in the background at a Rolling Stones show at the Swing Auditorium in San Bernardino.
Jim Gastineau with his wife, LoRee. The two first laid eyes on each other during the Rolling Stones' second appearance at the Swing Auditorium, Halloween of 1965.
Kevin Ferguson/KPCC

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This year the Rolling Stones are celebrating their 50th anniversary as a band with a worldwide tour, and just this past weekend, Mick, Charlie, Ronnie and even Keith took the stage at the Echoplex on Glendale for a surprise club gig.  But did you know that the first ever concert the band performed in the US took place right here in California? Not at the Hollywood Bowl, not the Troubadour, but in San Bernardino.

KPCC's Kevin Ferguson has the story.   

RELATED: 50 years of the Rolling Stones in LA: Dean Martin mocks them, and more reminders of how old they are

In the spring of 1964, San Bernardino had one place for rock shows: The Swing Auditorium on E Street. A 6,000 capacity dance hall that — before the Stones — hosted Bob Hope, Jack Benny, and other tamer acts until Bob Lewis came around.

Lewis, now a retired concert promoter, had set up dozens of rock and roll shows in the Inland Empire already, but that spring he was approached by a couple investors looking to put on a concert on Friday, June 5, at the Swing.

"Of course, they wanted the Beatles," said Lewis. 

Which wasn't as crazy an idea back then as it seems now. He made a few calls to New York, but, no dice. The Beatles were all booked up and that was that. But word got around and about an hour later he got a call from Kevin Eggers, another talent agent who heard Lewis was looking to book a British band.

"He said I've got an act coming to the states called the Rolling Stones. Never heard of em! Never heard of the Rolling Stones," said Lewis. "So I called the radio station, KMEN, the general manager. I said, 'Jerry, I've got an act coming in and I want to see what you think because I'd have to have their sponsorship.' So he repeated over the phone, "Rolling Stones" and his program director was walking by his office, and he said 'The Rolling Stones, they're really hot!'"

The show was booked, and the Stones were on their way to make their US debut in San Bernardino, a city more famous today for its messy finances than its contributions to the arts. Bob Lewis says it wasn't always like that.

At the time, the Rolling Stones weren't nearly as famous as they are now. They'd had a couple hit singles in the UK, all of them covers except for one original: a sunny and acoustic pop tune called "Tell Me."

Despite that, they still had a few loyal fans in the States. After all, this was the British invasion. LoRee Gastineau is a retired high school English teacher, but in 1964 she was just a high school student, just 15 years old and living in Nearby Colton. For LoRee and her friends, this was the highlight of her month.

"They were an up-and-coming band. We of course listened to the Beatles and then we started listening to the groups that came from England," said Gastineau. "We love the beat, we loved the lyrics, and with the Stones it was a new take on some old classics from blues and such."

The band had just arrived in the states a few days earlier performing on Dean Martin's Hollywood Palace show. He wasn't impressed, and the only things rolling were Martin's eyes. 

 That Friday, the band arrived in San Bernardino

"They got in around five o'clock. They did a very brief sound check--very basic, you know: Testing, 1 2 3 4. And then they just stayed in the dressing room til they were ready to go on.," said Lewis. 

LoRee Gastineau and her friend lined up the Swing right after the Stones not long after sound check.

"…and when the doors opened we made our mad rush to the stage," said Gastineau. 

The audience was 4,000 strong and largely made up of teenage girls not much older than LoRee. After hours of waiting, at around 9:30, the Rolling Stones walked on stage, opening with a Buddy Holly cover.

The room was hot. Mick danced. The girls screamed. Gastineau says the highlight of the band's set for her and other locals happened halfway through…

"Of course the favorite song that they played was Route 66, because San Bernardino was mentioned in that song," said Gastineau. "We all knew the lyrics of all the songs and we screamed especially loud when we got to 'San Bernardino.'"

The Rolling Stone's 11-song set at the Swing lasted just 20 minutes.

"That was their total repertoire. That was it. They didn't rehearse a lot. After a 20 minute set, the show's over and the Stones did their London exit," said Lewis. "They just dropped their equipment, ran out and we had a school bus--we didn't have limousines then, we didn't have a budget for limousines! So we put them in a little yellow school bus that would get them in and out of town unnoticed, which worked."

The Stones wrapped up that first tour with less than a dozen dates. While they may have been a hit in San Bernardino, the rest of the tour was by all accounts a failure: more awkward TV appearances followed, a couple of state fairs with indifferent audiences. But in 1965, they released "Satisfaction," and that was that. 

The Rolling Stones would go on to play the Swing Auditorium at least twice more. In 1981, the year "Start Me Up" came out, they planned to come back to the Swing for one more show, but that never happened. Then a plane crashed into the auditorium on September 11 of that year, causing damage to the building was so severe it was never rebuilt. Bob Lewis, the promoter, still keeps a small piece of the stage at his home in Claremont.

The site where the Swing once stood is a parking lot now. Gastineau not only remembers the first Stones show at the Swing, but the second one that same year. The one where her future husband, Jim, was in the opening band. She says she was heartbroken to see the Swing go, but happy for the memories.

"Knowing that that particular band, The Rolling Stones, is still around today, that's kind of special. Knowing we were at the very first United States concert," said Gastineau.

The Rolling Stones perform tonight at the Staples Center to surely a much, much bigger audience and with any luck, a set that'll go longer than 20 minutes.