For the majority of people, the Summer of 1969 is remembered as the Summer of Love. But for those of us living in Las Vegas it was the Summer of Elvis.
Here is my remembrance:
For the WW II generation, their icon was Frank Sinatra. "Liberace would fill a hotel, Sinatra would fill the town" says Don Payne, former manager of the Las Vegas News Bureau. In the 1950s and the 1960s, Sinatra was synomous with Las Vegas. The Rat Pack. The Sands. Frank, Sammy and Dean. The Steam Room. Drinks for everyone. "You never wanted to go to sleep. There was always something going on and I have the checks to prove it." Burton Cohen, former manager of the Desert Inn Hotel.
But in 1969, a rumble began. Like the sound preceding an earthquake, a mention in Joe Delaney's column, another in Forrest Duke's column, a billboard. All said "Elvis Presley, International Hotel, August 1969."
Elvis had not toured in years. After years of routine MGM musicals, he was considered by many to be washed up.
However, in 1968, he performed on NBC dressed in black leather, looking hotter than women could remember and sounding like a good drink on the rocks. Songs about love, about lust, about one night with you. Elvis, with that voice, the hot rock and roller that many had remembered and loved from his pre-Army days, was back.
Phone calls poured in to the switchboard. People wanted to know when he was coming and how much were the tickets.
Chatter began and grew into momentum. Every one was talking about Elvis and everyone wanted to go.
A bit of a backstory:
My folks have loved Elvis from the beginning. My mom, a young teenager in Battle Creek, MI when Elvis first exploded out of Memphis, still has all her 45s and many of the albums. My dad says he liked Elvis but not to the degree of my mother.
In 1963, my dad was a Keno Writer (up from being a shill and Keno Runner) at the Golden Gate. On Sunday morning, he got off work and stepped outside on the corner of Fremont and Main. To his surprise, they were filming one of the race scenes from Viva Las Vegas. My dad stood on the corner as race cars whizzed by. He claims Elvis was in one of those cars. Who am I to argue?
We saw the film in its initial run at the old Stardust Drive-In. That was a wonderful drive-in theater behind the recently demo'd Stardust Hotel.
My mother's birthday is in August (Happy Birthday, mom) and it would be her thirtieth birthday (she'll love me highlighting that) that summer of Elvis. My dad worked two jobs and, unbeknowst to my mom, saved all his spare money.
For her birthday, he surprised us with tickets for all three of us. With tickets selling out in advance, how he did it, I'm still not sure but I suspect it included calling in some favors.
A dinner show at the newly opened International Hotel (most people do not realize that Elvis was not the one who opened the showroom at the International. Barbra Streisand holds that honor. Elvis was the second main act to play the showroom.) This required getting dressed up. Not just any dress up. Mom had to have a new outfit. Dad had to get his suit out of mothballs (they are from Michigan after all) and get it cleaned and pressed. I got to wear my Easter outfit. (Imagine my happiness. Nothing says getting dressed up like putting on a dress with a print that resembles your grandmother's wallpaper. I'd have prefered a new outfit but no dice.)
That fateful morning mom and I went to the beauty salon to have our hair done (bouifants all around!) and our nails done. Mom looked fabulous and this was before getting into her new frock.
The late afternoon finally arrived and we finished dressing. The babysitter arrived to look after my five year old brother. My folks, were all dressed up for a night on the town - which was a rarity in our household as going to a show usually meant the lounge at the Mint to see Johnny Cash or the Nashville Nevada Club. To me they looked like Hollywood royalty.
We climbed into our chariot (an old Dodge) and headed towards the Strip.
What I remember most of that evening is the booth (very plush and I think it was purple leather), the great view of the stage we had (Dad must have tipped the maitre d' quite well) and the look of joy on my mom's face when Elvis hit the stage.
I don't know that my dad paid any attention to Elvis that night. He was captivated by the look on my mom's face and I knew that all his hard work was at that moment, to him, worth it.
Elvis returned twice a year to the International Hotel from that summer on. His shows always sold out months in advance.
Even when he got older, slower and bigger, the crowds came. They sang along with him, they adored him, they loved him. And in those moments, Elvis seemed to have found his place. No one knew to the extant he was haunted by demons off-stage.
Over the years, we watched his television specials and bought his albums. We still have his Live from the International! two album set. But we never saw him live on stage again. We talked for years afterwards about that evening but never tried to duplicate it. Perhaps we thought it would be like trying to catch lightening in a bottle
In the summer of 1977, I was spending my last summer at home. Just before Labor Day, like my mother before me, I was to travel to a new city to begin a new life. But, in those humid, monsoonal days of August, I was working down in the basement of the airport to earn money for my trip. My folks and younger brother were traveling through Utah. I stayed behind to work and keep an eye on and feed the various dogs, cats, snakes and skunk.
We always listened to the radio (usually KLUC) down in the airport basement, trying to win tickets to see the Rock shows at the old Aladdin Theater of the Performing Arts (where I actually did see some wonderful, memorable Rock acts). On that fateful day in August, I heard the news as it came over the radio. Elvis. Dead. Memphis.
I was shocked. My first thoughts were how upset my folks would be.
That evening, after work, I stopped by the house to feed the various animals and get ready to go out with friends. The phone rang. It was my mom. They were calling from some small country store in Utah. They had heard something about Elvis on the radio but didn't get the whole story.
I had to tell my mom that Elvis was dead.