Forty-two years ago today — September 11, 1966 — Del Mar was renamed “Clarksville” as part of a promotion for the Monkees’ TV show to debut the following night. The Sunday event marked the first time the foursome performed in public.
Ron Jacobs was a DJ at L.A. radio station KHJ at the time. “One of Boss Radio’s most exciting promotions was staging an actual ‘Last Train to Clarksville,’ ” he says on his website. “A few hundred KHJ winners rode to ‘Clarksville,’ the city of Del Mar.”
“The tenth callers would get two free tickets to the Last Train to Clarksville,” recalls KHJ promotions associate Barbara Hamaker in the Michael Nesmith biography Total Control.
“To this day I don’t know how we did it,” continues Hamaker. “I was the one who had to type up all the releases and all of the stuff that was involved in getting kids onto the train…we used some Podunk town called Del Mar.”
According to Ron Jacobs, “Once the winners debarked there and ate their fried-chicken lunch — whackatawack, a quartet of helicopters slowly alit near the train.”
The Monkees emerged and were greeted enthusiastically by contest winners and curious locals who’d been told they’d be meeting “the next Beatles.”
The mayor of Del Mar was there to officially declare the town “Clarksville” and nail up a sign near the train depot. The Monkees single “Last Train to Clarksville” was at #61 on Billboard’s Hot 100 chart — it would soon hit number one. The song’s original title had been “Last Train to Home, Girl.”
“It’s good we decided on ‘Clarksville,’ ” Peter Tork told reporters. “Can you just see the mayor saying, ‘I now proclaim this the city of Home Girl’?”
Micky Dolenz talked to the press about the group’s rising profile. “We really don’t know where it’s at yet. I mean, like, we just got back from the [publicity] tour, and then we got up this morning, flew down to San Diego, took a helicopter to Del Mar, and now we’re on a train to L.A.”
“The four soon-to-be-‘American Idols’ boarded the caboose and picked up instruments that were set up and waiting,” says Jacobs.
The two songs performed were “Papa Gene’s Blues,” written by Mike Nesmith, and a cover of “She’s So Far Out, She’s In” by Baker Knight (also released as a single by Dino, Desi, and Billy in May 1966).
“By the time the train pulled into Union Station,” says Jacobs, “the rumor that the fellows were lip-synching their stuff had been put to rest.”
The Monkees’ debut episode was screened for the 400 or so contest winners, who had left L.A. at noon and returned just before 8 p.m. The Monkees’ TV show debuted on NBC the following night and quickly became popular enough nearly to qualify the “next Beatles” hyperbole as prophetic.
The live “Clarksville” performance was filmed by KHJ for an L.A. TV show called Boss City and aired on September 17, 1966.
“That footage is lost and has never turned up on the collector’s circuit,” says local Monkee memorabilia dealer Duane Dimock, aka Ed Finn, coauthor of The Monkees Scrapbook.
“All that exists is some silent black-and-white 8-mm footage that shows a person donned in a gorilla suit, crawling and pounding his chest along the tops of buildings. The Monkees show up in their classic long-sleeved, double-breasted shirts, get off the train, and move through the crowd to the stage. A prior band had been warming up mostly teenage kids. Then you see the Monkees waving at the crowd from the train.”
The Del Mar junket wasn’t the Monkees’ first foray to San Diego. In November 1965, the foursome shot scenes for their pilot episode at the Hotel del Coronado. Exterior scenes were filmed on the beach near the hotel — this footage would also turn up in the series’ original title sequence and throughout the episode “Here Come the Monkees.”