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Thursday, May 29, 2003 04:32 am

Let It B & B

George slept here

On December 10, 1994, Bob Bartel drove from Springfield to Benton on a mission. He wanted to buy for his wife, Janice, the new Beatles CD being released that day. Of course, the CD, Live at the BBC, was available in Springfield, but Bartel wanted the receipt to say Benton.

Why? Because Beatles guitarist George Harrison had spent a couple of weeks there in 1963, which, to Bartel, made Benton hallowed ground. In fact, to make the Christmas gift really special for Janice, Bartel planned to include a framed photograph of the Benton house where Harrison had stayed.

Which brings us to one of those peculiar junctures that could function as some sort of litmus test separating fans of all sorts into one of two groups: Those who understand why somebody would drive three hours just to buy a CD in a certain town, and those who simply don't and never will. The latter group may be bigger in number. There are enough of the former, however, that Bartel was able to turn that simple Benton bungalow into a combination Beatles shrine and bed and breakfast.

But we're getting ahead of ourselves.

First, Bartel had to find the house. All he knew about it was what he had heard at the annual Fab Four confab, Beatlefest. George Harrison's older sister, Louise, had appeared at Beatlefest in 1993 and '94, and talked about the time George came to visit her in Benton for a couple of weeks during the summer of 1963. Bartel felt this visit was unique and special: Occurring just a few months before the Beatles made their American debut on The Ed Sullivan Show, it represented the only time a Beatle was able to see America without a chorus of screaming girls ringing in his ears.

At the local library, Bartel found a 1964 phone directory and looked up the address of Gordon Caldwell, the Scottish mining engineer Louise had married. The Caldwells landed in Illinois through Freeman Coal Company, which had hired Gordon to design heavy-mining equipment. Benton was a coal-mining town.

Bartel had no trouble locating the house: 113 McCann Street. But he was surprised to find it sitting empty. The house next door was likewise vacant. After canvassing the neighborhood, he discovered that the State of Illinois planned to tear down these two houses to make room for a parking lot.

No one in Benton, it seemed, either knew or realized the historic significance of the little house on McCann.

But Bartel and Janice--who met through an ad he placed in a Beatles fan magazine--knew there were people who shared their passion for the Beatles, people who could help save the home. They tracked down Harrison's sister, Louise, who was then living in Florida, and convinced her to help mobilize Beatles fans. It took some lobbying and maneuvering and a bit of wheeling and dealing, but within a few months, the state agreed to put the parking lot somewhere else, and a group of Benton investors bought the home. It's now a bed-and-breakfast establishment with a "mini-museum" full of Beatles memorabilia called--what else?--Hard Day's Nite B & B.

Bartel is more than just a Beatles fan. He made a documentary, A Beatle in Benton, that won an honorable mention award at the 1997 Berkley Film Festival. And he has recently been hired to work as a consultant for Within You Without You, a one-hour tribute to George Harrison being produced by the American Ballet Company and New York PBS affiliate WNET due out in September.

But Bartel is the kind of fan who would devote the same amount of energy to the Beatles even without consulting fees and awards. The Beatles have held a special spot in Bartel's heart since he first saw the band on TV back when he was a troubled teen growing up in Chicago. When he saw the Beatles on television in 1964, he felt he had found the family he never had.

"I was a fan of John Lennon more than George Harrison, because John was an orphan and I was too," Bartel says. "His music made sense to me when I was a kid full of anger."

Bartel was saddened to read media reports implying that Louise Harrison's efforts to save the Benton house may have contributed to a rift between her and her brother. Some media outlets had reported that Louise had some ownership in the B&B, when in fact she has no financial interest in the home.

"I personally felt really terrible for the longest time," Bartel says. "I thought I was helping create a lasting monument. I didn't want to make it where people were all bummed out and not liking each other. That was never our intention."

But Louise told him that any conflict between the siblings was healed before Harrison died in 2001. "I believe it's finally been worked out. I think it's OK now," Bartel says. "It's all good. It's all about love."

For information on the Hard Day's Nite B & B in Benton, call 618-438-2328, or visit harddaysnitebnb.com.

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