Elvis in Las Vegas- The King- 40 years gone



The billboards went up months before.  Just the words Elvis and the International Hotel.  Everyone knew what that meant.  Elvis Presley was returning to Las Vegas to perform for the first time since his less-than stellar gig at the New Frontier Hotel in 1956.

He had married Priscilla Beaulieu at the old Aladdin Hotel in 1967.  He enjoyed coming to Las Vegas to see various performers over the years but hadn't been a headliner in town since 1956.

His television comeback, "Elvis: One Night with You" had been a ratings smash.  Dressed in black leather and looking tanned and rested, he had reminded the viewing audience that despite a string of marginal musical films and a couple of really good ones, he still had that magic and power.

Kirk Kekorian was putting the finishing touches on his new hotel, the International (today, the Las Vegas Hilton).  He wanted the top of pyramid performers for his new hotel.  While the hotel was under construction, the Las Vegas News Bureau filmed Presley signing the contract with Kekorian.

We knew Elvis would be coming, we just didn't know when.  Until the billboards went up.  That was May, 1969.  Barbra Streisand was scheduled to open the new International in July.  Elvis would follow her and Kerkorian had him booked for month.

The International was the new hotel in town.  The first built since Caesars Palace.  Kerkorian had sold the Flamingo and taken much of the staff from there with him to the International.  He wanted the hotel to be the premiere vacation spot in town.

Ike and Tina Turner were booked in the lounge.  Streisand's name went up on the marquee.  Streisand.  But in our home and countless other homes around Las Vegas and around the world, the name that mattered most was Elvis.

My folks, my mother especially, were big Elvis fans.  Had been since his debut back in the 1950s.  They loved his brand of rock and roll and we had all his albums and all his 45s.  When Elvis was shooting "Viva Las Vegas" back in the early 1960s in town, my dad had gotten off work from the Golden Gate and stood outside on Fremont Street to watch Elvis go by in his race car.  They had shared drinks with Elvis in the lounge at the Flamingo a few years before when Fats Domino was headlining.  Another man at the bar was making racist comments about Fats.  My folks who liked Fats' music alot told the man to shut up.  He refused.  A voice from the back of the bar told the man to shut up.  He refused.  My dad and Elvis got the guy to shut up and my folks spent the rest of Fats' set drinking with Elvis.  When the set was over, Fats came over and joined them.  I have the autographed cocktail napkin from that night.

So, Elvis coming to perform in our town was big news.  That he was coming in August was important.  My mother's 30th birthday was in August.  My dad worked two jobs to save enough money to take her (and me) to the dinner show to celebrate.  The opening night was already sold out but we had reservations for later in August.

My mother went through her wardrobe looking for the perfect dress to wear.  This was still the era when you got dressed up to go out to see a show on the Strip.  My dad could wear the one good suit he had.  She decided that we both needed new outfits. 

The International Hotel had the largest showroom in town.  My mother was a showroom waitress at Caesars so we had a pretty good idea of the lay-out of the room.  There were the banquet tables down front, Kings Row where celebrities of the day often sat and then rows of plush booths.

We would sit in a booth, the area in front of the stage being out of grasp, my dad did not have that kind of money to tip the maitre' d.

We read about the big opening night in the paper. 

Elvis had an orchestra and a gospel group, one of the best around, the Sweet Inspirations.  The audience of over 2,000 included his former co-star Ann-Margaret, Pat Boone, Angie Dickinson, Henry Mancini and Fats Domino.  He received a standing ovation when he walked out on stage.

Cary Grant was a well-wisher backstage that night.

Newsweek reported, ""There are several unbelievable things about Elvis, but the most incredible is his staying power in a world where meteoric careers fade like shooting stars."

Rolling Stone wrote that "Presley to be "supernatural, his own resurrection", while  Variety proclaimed him a "superstar". 

At a press conference after his opening show, when a reporter referred to him as "The King", Presley pointed to Fats Domino, standing at the back of the room. "No," he said, "that’s the real king of rock and roll."

According the Las Vegas Sun's history site:

The day after Elvis opened, Alex Shoofey, the International’s then-vice president and future president, sat in the showroom drinking coffee with Elvis’ manager, Colonel Tom Parker.

Noting the successful opening night, Shoofey appeared unhappy because Elvis had signed only a two-week-per-year contract at the new resort. Shoofey offered to extend the singer’s contract then and there. Parker hesitated, cautioning Shoofey to wait and see how the next couple of weeks played.

“I’ll take that chance right now,” Shoofey said. He then scribbled a new pact on the tablecloth, a common practice in the old casino days of shaking hands and having a cup of coffee. Elvis’ contract was extended for five years.

We went to see Elvis in August, 1969.  It was a rare night out, just the three of us with my younger brother at home with a baby sitter.   He was still too young to go out to show.   It was a Saturday night dinner show.  My dad had tipped the maitre d' and we had a nice comfy booth with a good view of the stage.  The menu had a cut-out on the cover and a picture of Elvis from "Flaming Star".  Somewhere, I still have that menu.

The show that night was tremendous.  I think my dad spent most the evening watching my mother and enjoying how much she was loving the evening.

I think back to that summer when I remember my dad.  How hard he had to work in order to be able to take us out for a special evening and how important it was that my mother spend her 30th birthday with the King.

We never went to see Elvis again.  My parents were hell-bent on saving money for a new house and a better life.

Elvis played Vegas twice a year, every winter and every August.  There would always be time later to see him again.

Or so they thought.

We have the album from 1969, Elvis in Person at the International Hotel.  It's a great double album set that includes one album recorded at the International and another recorded at RCA studios in Memphis to remind us of that evening.

I'm forever grateful that we got to see him in his prime, before the pills, before the yo-yo dieting left him large and not able to perform at the top of his game, before the jokes.

And for that, I thank my dad.