Volume 73, Number 46 | March 17 -23, 2004

Film

Ears On A Beatle
DR2 Theatre
103 East 15th Street
212-239-6200


Could the FBI have intervened at the Dakota?

Play reexamines circumstances of John Lennon’s death

By Jerry Tallmer

Photo by Joe Schuyler

From left to right: Dan Lauria as Howard and Bill Dawes as Daniel in “Ears On A Beatle” at DR2 Theater

Someplace in Mark St. Germain’s files he still has the clipping:

“Two witnesses to the shooting have not been identified: a pair of men in a taxi that pulled up behind the limo as John and Yoko stepped from it, then jumped back into the cab which made a screeching U turn on 72nd Street.”

That scrap of text is from one of New York City’s newspapers, St. Germain doesn’t remember which. It would have appeared a day or maybe two days after the killing outside the Dakota on the evening of December 8, 1980.

Around 20 years later, when he came across it during some research, it sent playwright St. Germain thinking. He puts a reading of the above cryptic sentence into the mouth of Daniel, the younger of two FBI men, toward the very end of “Ears on a Beatle,” St. Germain’s drama about the FBI surveillance of the dangerous alien whom that square from Squaresville, J. Edgar Hoover, always took pains to identify as “John Lennon, the former member of the Beatles rock group.”

More yet, St. Germain puts fictional FBI men Daniel McClure and Howard Ballantine into the taxi that makes that screeching U turn and speeds away on 72nd Street as Lennon crawls into the Dakota office to die, but it’s a getaway for a perhaps more complex reason than might first pop into your mind.

The older FBI agent in the play, the stoic, caustic veteran, is Ballantine, a man in his 40s. McClure, in his 20s, is more idealistic, more emotional, more open. At the DR2 Theatre on East 15th Street, where “Ears on a Beatle,” directed by its author, is now in previews toward a March 28 opening, Daniel McClure is played by Bill Dawes, Howard Ballantine by Dan Lauria.

The three playmakers, St. Germain, Lauria, and Dawes, sat side by side, facing the press at a long table the other day, around a corner from their rehearsal space. They were asked to think back to that December 8, 1980, the night Mark David Chapman, carrying a copy of “Catcher in the Rye,” gunned down John Lennon outside the ominous old Dakota (where Ira Levin had set “Rosemary’s Baby”), or in any event to where and when they first heard a news flash of Lennon’s assassination.

“I remember it well,” said St. Germain. “December 9 is my birthday. I was a college student at Seton Hall, and was at that moment on December 8 in my parents’ kitchen in Lyndhurst, New Jersey. Hearing it, I just instantly broke down. My parents were surprised, because I didn’t have the habit of breaking down. But I was just appalled. It was clearly the end of an era.”

Dan Lauria, the sturdy actor familiar to millions from “The Wonder Years,” is the oldest of this trio. “Twenty-one,” Lauria said with a poker player’s smile, before citing his actual age. “I was doing [Arthur Miller’s] ‘All My Sons’ with the Vetco Players at the ATA Theatre on 54th Street. We went out after the performance to a Blarney Stone on Eighth Avenue. We were all vets — Vietnam vets — who never believe anything is accidental. So it was ‘Here we go again . . . ‘ “

Bill Dawes, who is 25 years younger than Dan Lauria, smiled apologetically and said: “I’m on a sharp learning curve. All I know is that Lennon was the cool Beatle. The first time I heard about his FBI files was when I auditioned for this play.”

Lauria said: “I was surprised when we did this show up in the Berkshires” — in a school cafeteria, under auspices of Julie Boyd’s Barrington Stage Company of Sheffield, Mass. — “how many teenage kids knew about John Lennon. Not the Beatles — John Lennon.”

Neither St. Germain nor Dawes ever met Lennon or saw him close up, but Lauria did, so to speak.

“I saw him a couple of times walking around New York. He didn’t seem reclusive. In 1975 we were playing ball in the park [Sheep’s Meadow, Central Park] and he was watching us play ball. He seemed quite nice.”

Lauria had been a Marine Corps officer in Vietnam.

“Ninety-nine percent of the officers there, when they got out, they contacted the FBI for possible jobs. So I had a lot of contact then with the FBI. Since then, I worked at Ground Zero after 9/11, and there were lots of FBI’s there — but I never thought to ask them about John Lennon.”

Lauria is no conspiracy theorist, but as an ex-Marine he says he knows one thing: “There is no way that Lee Harvey Oswald could have shot Kennedy with that Italian rifle. No way. And then Ruby, killing Oswald, as an act of patriotism? No way. I don’t know about the Mafia and all that. All I know is that that weapon didn’t put those bullets into JFK.”

What Lauria, in related context, has learned from doing this play is “there is proof the FBI knew of Mark David Chapman [well before the assassination] and had him under surveillance. I don’t for a minute believe they were involved in Lennon’s death,” says the ex-Marine, “but . . . if you look back at that night, Chapman got Lennon to sign an album, and then stood there for four and a half hours, outside the Dakota, waiting until Lennon and Yoko Ono came back. The FBI was there. “Why didn’t they pick Chapman up?”

When they were doing the play up in the Berkshires, a woman from Connecticut had introduced herself after the show. She had written a book about Chapman’s killing of Lennon, and in it she says she’d had a premonition that Lennon was about to face death, and had written him a letter warning him to be on guard.

So, gentlemen, was there a conspiracy, do you think?

“I can’t say that I can commit [an opinion] either way,” said playwright St. Germain, who got started on this whole project a couple of years ago when someone asked him to think about doing a musical on John Lennon.

“Still, there are some strange coincidences. Not the matter of the date [the FBI had closed its Lennon files on a December 8 exactly one year earlier] — that happens all the time. But Chapman having the same psychiatrist as Sirhan Sirhan? Bizarre.”

“From my point of view,” said Bill Dawes, “as a character who’s in the loop, a lot of information on Chapman has been suppressed. That doesn’t mean he’s a Manchurian candidate, but . . . “ He terminated it with a shrug.

“Ears on a Beatle” is really as much a drama about the contrasting ages, know-how, and personalities of these two mercenaries (in the A.E. Housman sense) as it is about the man — “the subject,” as they invariably refer to him — whom they’ve got under surveillance.

“The kind of people who do this kind of thing,” says the Dan Lauria who plays one of them. “They have this knowledge that weighs them down. I love your line,” he said, turning to the actor who plays his young sidekick: “I wish I didn’t know.’”

Do any of these three listen to Lennon and the Beatles, nowadays?

“Yes,” said Dan Lauria.

“Yep,” said Bill Dawes.

“I have to say I now listen to John Lennon a lot,” said Mark St. Germain. “The Beatles are the Beethovens of our time.”

So the subject is closed. Or is it? “When you look at those FBI files on Lennon,” says agent Ballantine, “you’d be amazed at how much is still blacked out.” Now about that Italian rifle....


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