Happy Birthday, Elvis!



Elvis would have been 75 years old today had he not died almost thirty-three years ago.  He was one of the premiere entertainers of the 20th Century, that uniquely American century that we are not likely to see again in our lifetimes.

Like Frank Sinatra before him, Elvis found a renewed sense of performing in Las Vegas.  His coming was heralded in the press and billboards for months before he graced the stage of the newly opened International Hotel (now the Hilton).

He had first come to Las Vegas in the 1956 and played the New Frontier Hotel where he was on the bill with Shecky Greene and Freddie Martin and his Orchestra.  The gig hadn't gone well.  The audience was not quite ready for the boy from Tupelo's style. 

Over the years, Elvis returned to Las Vegas to enjoy watching other entertainers.  He and the late Freddie Bell became friends and when Elvis say Freddie do a rendention of "Hound Dog", Presley wanted the song.  Freddie said sure and Elvis went to the top of the charts.

He came back to Las Vegas in the early 1960s to shoot "Viva Las Vegas" with Ann-Margaret.  The film, playing today on Turner Classic Movies as part of an all-day tribute to the King, is one of his best.  Before he was drafted, he had an up and coming career in the movies.  "Loving You" was a hit.  Howard Hawks had wanted him for the part of Colorado in his upcoming western, "Rio Bravo" starring John Wayne and Dean Martin.  But the Army had other plans and Elvis was drafted.

After he returned from the service, he began making a series of musicals.  Some are good, some are hokey.  "Jailhouse Rock" and "Viva Las Vegas" are the two best.  "Viva" has the additional bonus of footage of Las Vegas from the early 1960s when the town, Fremont Street and the Strip looked much different than it does today.

He married Priscilla at the old Aladdin Hotel in 1967.


It was supposed to be a secret but UPI bureau chief, Myram Borders, who had grown up in Las Vegas and had returned as a well-known and respected journalist, received a call in the middle of the night. 

"This guy is saying 'I have a big story for you but I need money' and I told him the UPI doesn't pay for stories.  I suggested he call some fairly large newspapers in the East which I knew would be closed anyway.   Well, he called back awhile later saying 'no one's answering'.  I said well, what's the story and he said 'Elvis Presley is gonna get married a the Aladdin Hotel.'" (Interview with Myram Borders, 2003)

"So I went out to the Aladdin and started wandering around the hallways, kind of seeing any indication of a wedding, which I couldn't and the security guards thought I was a hooker, trying to go from room to room or something.  They were trying to chase me out of the hotel all the time and all I was doing was walking up and down hallways.  Finally, about 7:30 or 8:00 in the morning I saw one of the Nevada Supreme Court Justices, David Zenoff, walk into the hotel and I thought 'it's true'.  I asked him why he was there and he said 'I'm gonna marry Elvis Presley'." (Interview with Myram Border, 2003).

How had Elvis come to choose the Aladdin as the spot for his nuptials?  He could have been married at any hotel any town or even the Little Church of the West which was famous for its celebrity clientele.  Well, Presley and Prell, according to George Stamos, had a long-time friendship that dated back to the 1950s.  Though Presley never appeared at a Prell hotel, he was often seen in the Casbah Lounge at the Sahara during the years it played host to Louis Prima and his band, Freddie Bell and the Bellboys and many others.

According to Paula Clark, no expense was spared on the Presley wedding.  "Colonel Parker gave us instructions to use 'unlimited funds' in preparing the wedding and reception.  To miss the crowds, Prell had arranged for them to get their license down at the County Courthouse at 2:00 am.  Just before the wedding, Clark realized that there were no provisions for the press and a ballroom was quickly converted complete with donuts and coffee.

As  100 friends, family and a bevy of writers and photographers gathered to watch the King of Rock and Roll marry Priscilla, Myram Borders' story of the impending wedding hit the wire.  She had scooped them all.

In 1968 he had appeared on NBC in a televised special, "One Night with You".  Dressed in black leather and with a small audience seated around him at the lip of a round stage, Elvis reminded Americans across the country, what his brand of magic was all about.  For a country used to seeing him in M-G-M musicals romancing girls, the performance was electric.

That one night of television paved the way for Elvis to return to the stages of the Las Vegas Strip.  Kirk Kerkorian was building the International Hotel when he signed Elvis to perform there.  Barbra Striesand opened the hotel in July of 1969.

Elvis followed her and Las Vegas was never quite the same.  Sinatra had been the King of the Las Vegas Strip for over a decade.  "Liberace could fill a hotel, Sinatra filled the town." Don Payne, former head of the Las Vegas News Bureau, told me in an interview a few years back.

Elvis' arrival at the International heralded the era of a new King in town.  His shows sold out almost as soon as they were announced.  He played the hotel twice a year, in January and August.  "Elvis: That's the Way It Is" (also on TCM later today) captures not only the experience of seeing Elvis live but also the behind-the-scenes drama as well.

His voice and his style were unique.  We had never seen anything quite like Elvis Presley when he blazed on the scene and held us enthralled with his performing.

All these years later, we likely never will again.

Happy Birthday, Elvis!

Here's the schedule for Turner Classic Movies' salute to the King (Friday, Jan. 8th - All Times PST):

3:15 AM Harum Scarum (1965)
  An American film star is kidnapped in the Middle East. Cast: Elvis Presley, Mary Ann Mobley, Fran Jeffries. Dir: Gene Nelson. C-85 mins, TV-PG, CC, Letterbox Format
4:45 AM Kissin' Cousins (1964)
  A singing military officer gets mixed up with his look-alike hillbilly cousin. Cast: Elvis Presley, Arthur O'Connell, Yvonne Craig. Dir: Gene Nelson. C-96 mins, TV-PG, CC, Letterbox Format
6:30 AM Spinout (1966)
  A singing race-car driver has to choose among three amorous females. Cast: Elvis Presley, Shelley Fabares, Diane McBain. Dir: Norman Taurog. C-93 mins, TV-PG, CC, Letterbox Format
8:15 AM Roustabout (1964)
  A female carnival owner hires a hot-blooded young singer to save her touring show. Cast: Elvis Presley, Barbara Stanwyck, Joan Freeman. Dir: John Rich. C-101 mins, TV-PG, CC, Letterbox Format
10:00 AM Girl Happy (1965)
  A rock singer is hired to chaperone a gangster's daughter in Fort Lauderdale. Cast: Elvis Presley, Shelley Fabares, Gary Crosby. Dir: Boris Sagal. C-96 mins, TV-PG, CC, Letterbox Format
11:45 AM Speedway (1968)
  A race car driver tries to outrun the beautiful tax auditor out to settle his account. Cast: Elvis Presley, Nancy Sinatra, Bill Bixby. Dir: Norman Taurog. C-94 mins, TV-PG, CC, Letterbox Format
1:30 PM Blue Hawaii (1961)
  A Hawaiian playboy defies his possessive mother to take a job with a tourist agency. Cast: Elvis Presley, Joan Blackman, Angela Lansbury Dir: Norman Taurog. C-101 mins, TV-PG, CC, Letterbox Format
3:15 PM Viva Las Vegas (1964)
  A race-car driver falls for a pretty swimming instructor who wants him to slow down his career. Cast: Elvis Presley, Ann-Margret, Cesare Danova. Dir: George Sidney. C-85 mins, TV-PG, CC, Letterbox Format, DVS
4:41 PM Short Film: Romantic Nevada (1943)
  C-9 mins,
5:00 PM Elvis on Tour (1972)
  Extensive concert footage highlights this documentary about the King's touring in the early '70s. Cast: Elvis Presley, James Burton, Glenn D. Hardin. Dir: Robert Abel, Pierre Aldridge. C-93 mins, TV-G, Letterbox Format
6:42 PM Short Film: Look At The World Of Soylent Green, A (1973)
  C-10 mins,
7:00 PM Elvis: That's The Way It Is 2001 (2001)
  Restored version of the King's classic Vegas concert film. Cast: Elvis Presley. Dir: Denis Sanders. C-96 mins, TV-14, CC, Letterbox Format
9:00 PM Jailhouse Rock (1957)

After learning to play the guitar in prison, a young man becomes a rock 'n roll sensation. Cast: Elvis Presley, Judy Tyler, Mickey Shaughnessy. Dir: Richard Thorpe. BW-96 mins, TV-G, CC, Letterbox Format, DVS