Ed's title for the article, is simple, 'Elvis'. And we have decided to keep it as is!
One of my favorite past-times is looking at the 'Biography' re-runs on cable TV.
One of those recent programs brought back some vivid personal memories of, 'The King of Rock and Roll', Elvis Presley. I had two encounters with Elvis Presley. One was a near-encounter, the other a close-encounter, and the two events, years apart, make for a poignant story.
Flash back to April, 1956. I am in Las Vegas for the third straight year covering the Desert Inn Golf Tournament of Champions, a benefit for the Damon Runyon Cancer Fund. The host is Walter Winchell and the celebrity guests include Bob Hope and Bing Crosby who annually compete in a putting contest.
Winchell, my colleague at ABC Radio, being his usual arrogant self, sneers, as he tells me, 'Hope and Crosby are a coupla patsies. They only think they can play golf. They still haven't beaten me on the putting green'. Unfortunately, he's right! Vegas, in those days was just beginning to boom, but it's still mostly a Hollywood and California playground - a getaway for the stars. Among the favorite entertainers on the strip are Liberace, Milton Berle, Nat King Cole, Sinatra and the Rat Pack, Louis Prima and Keeley Smith, and Vic Damone. The 'must see' act, though, is comedian Sheckey Greene, the king of the strip.
Sheckey is headlining at the Venus Room of the New Frontier Hotel. The opening act is a new young singing sensation, Elvis Presley, who is billed as the 'Atomic Powered Singer'.
Presley's fame has been achieved largely through radio broadcasts of his records. His ground breaking appearance on the Ed Sullivan Show where he will be seen by 55 million people is five months away. The good news is that his single recording, Heartbreak Hotel, has just topped the one million mark in sales.
Dick Tufeld, who is the West Coast correspondent for the Bill Stern Sports program for which I am writer-producer-reporter, and who will later gain fame as the voice of the robot on the 'Lost in Space' TV series, gets us reservations for the New Frontier show.
Elvis Presley, 'the Atomic Powered Singer' opens with his best shot - his hot hit, Heartbreak Hotel. It seems that Tufeld and I are the only ones applauding. There is deadly silence in the house. Presley and his group go all out for the next 45 minutes - to no avail. This older, conservative crowd doesn't understand what they are seeing and hearing, and they don't care. They've come to pay homage to Sheckey and resent having to sit through this strange music. The Presley act mercifully ends, and out comes Sheckey Greene to thunderous applause. These are his people - his audience, and they let him know it.
Scotty Moore and Elvis Presley Las Vegas 1956 - Above photo from the book Flashback
Immediately after the show I say to Tufeld, 'Let's go backstage and see if Presley is still there. Let's tell him how much we enjoyed his performance'. Too late - we find that Elvis and his group have long since gone.
Adding insult to injury is Bill Willard's review in the Las Vegas Sun ... 'for the teenagers, the long, tall, Memphis lad is a whiz; for the average Vegas spender or show-goer, a BORE. His musical sound with a combo of three is uncouth, matching to a great extent the lyric content of his nonsensical songs'.
The four-week engagement is cut short after two weeks.
Fast forward to March 2, 1960
Elvis is now an icon. He's a recording star, a personal appearance star, a TV and a movie star. And he has just completed a tour of duty as a Sgt. E5 with the US Army in Germany. He is due home for discharge at Fort Dix, New Jersey. I am now a TV news correspondent for ABC and get the assignment to cover him.
When I get to Dix, he has not yet arrived, but his reception party is in place.
Among them, Nancy Sinatra, daughter of Frank; and the fantastically beautiful Tina Louise, star of Gilligan's Island. I interview them, and even though they are celebrities in their own right, they are gushing admirers of Elvis, just like the teen fan club members who are also here to greet him.
Nancy Sinatra waitng for Elvis to arrive, Fort Dix, March 3, 1960.
Elvis arrives and, as we wait for the cameraman and electrician to get set up, I tell Presley the story of how I saw him in Vegas and tried to see him to let him know how much we enjoyed his act.
'Man', he says, 'that was the only mistake Colonel Parker (his manager) ever made. The worst night of my life! I thought we'd knock 'em dead by opening with our big hit, Heartbreak Hotel. When they sat on their hands there at the New Frontier, it was heartbreak hotel come to life'. Then he chuckles and winks at me and says, 'I‘m sorry we missed you, but we figured if anybody came back stage it would be to lynch us'.
The lights and camera all set, we do the pro forma interview - some of his Army experiences and his future plans. As we wrap it up, I thank Elvis for being so generous with his time.
'Thank you for coming to see me', he responds. 'Don't thank me, thank my assignment editor. 'Oh', I don't mean now', he says, 'I'm sorry I missed you back in Vegas when it really counted'.
Ed Silverman interviews Elvis Presley on March 2, 1960 at Fort Dix.
It was the last time I saw Elvis Presley, but it's a meeting I'll never forget.
That early Las Vegas rejection was a burr under Presley's saddle. After he became a superstar, he rejected all offers from Las Vegas for 13 years. When he finally accepted an offer to perform, he promptly broke all Vegas performance attendance records and did so year after year, constantly topping his own records. The failed Atomic Powered Singer had truly become the King of Las Vegas.
Elvis Presley and Tina Louise, actress and future star of Gilligan's Island.
With thanks to Ed Silverman and courtesy of Voice of NC. Ed Silverman is a distinguished broadcast journalist and documentarian, having received numerous major awards for news and documentaries. During his career, he found himself in the midst of some of America's most historic events. He served as a TV network news correspondent, commentator and analyst, and was Assistant Director of News Operations for ABC TV network and Director of News and Public Affairs for WABC-TV, New York. And most importantly met Elvis Presley !!!
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