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Elvis came to Las Vegas 50 years ago and history was made

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July 22, 2019 By John Przybys

Apologies to Celine, Elton, Britney, Gaga and all the others who’ve committed to performing a regular schedule of shows in Las Vegas, but let’s bow to The King, who 50 years ago this month kicked off a historic series of shows in Las Vegas — and its first residency. A VIP-only gig on July 31, 1969, marked the first show in what would become a seven-year-long residency at the International Hotel (which later became the Las Vegas Hilton and is now the Westgate). By his death in 1977, Elvis Presley had performed more than 600 — maybe even more than 800 — shows there, all of them sold-out. The shows encompass a defining arc of Elvis’ career, not only including the vital performer coming off of the acclaimed 1968 “comeback special,” but the final years of Elvis’ life, when pop culture consensus was that he had become a parody of his former performing self.

Richard Zoglin, author of “Elvis in Vegas: How The King Reinvented the Las Vegas Show” (Simon & Schuster, $28), argues that Elvis’ shows changed Las Vegas entertainment, ushering in a rock ‘n’ roll sensibility here that continues today.

Here are 50 notes of the exciting, historic, ultimately melancholy melody that was The King’s Las Vegas reign.

1 — RCA Records announced the first show with a nine-page release that began: “On July 31, 1969, a tall, rangy, handsome and gifted singer-actor-performer will make his first appearance before a live audience in more than a decade when he steps on to the stage of the new International Hotel in Las Vegas. His name is Elvis Presley, and because of the evocative magic of those four simple syllables, his appearances at the International take on a special emotional as well as astonishing statistical meaning for millions of Americans, both teenagers and adults.”

2 — By 1969, the 34-year-old had sold more than 250 million records during 15 years with RCA. His recording of “Hound Dog” had sold more than 7 million copies since its 1956 release, and Elvis had starred in 32 movies, earned 47 single gold records and 10 gold albums.

3 — Elvis’ recorded voice had “been heard by more people in the world than that of any other performing artist in the history of the recording industry,” according to RCA, and the International contract would make him “one of the highest-paid performers in the history of Las Vegas.”

4 —Elvis’ contract with the International paid $100,000 a week for a four-week engagement, according to Zoglin. That matched what Frank Sinatra and Dean Martin were making, putting all three at the top of Las Vegas’ entertainer pay scale.

5 —The shows weren’t Elvis’ first performances in Las Vegas. In 1956, he played the New Frontier’s Venus Room, which billed him as “the atomic powered singer.” Elvis was listed as an “extra added attraction,” sharing the bill with Freddy Martin and his orchestra.

6 — Critical reaction to that New Frontier lounge appearance was tepid and colored with skepticism about Elvis’ chances of success in Las Vegas.

7 —“For the teen-agers, the long, tall Memphis lad is a whiz; for the average Vegas spender or showgoer, a bore. His musical sound with a combo of three is uncouth, matching to a great extent the lyric content of his nonsensical songs,” wrote the Las Vegas Sun’s Bill Willard.

8 —Elvis held no grudge against Las Vegas. In 1963, he filmed “Viva Las Vegas” here, and on May 1, 1967, he married Priscilla Beaulieu at the Aladdin.

9 — “Viva Las Vegas” was considered by many fans and critics to be among his best films. Elvis confidant Joe Esposito told the Review-Journal in 2014 that “Viva Las Vegas,” which memorably co-starred Ann-Margret, was one of Elvis’ favorite films.

10 — The International shows would come just eight months after Elvis’ critically acclaimed TV special, which aired in December 1968. Officially called “Singer Presents Elvis,” it is widely known as “the comeback special.”

11 —The special drew “a whopping 42 percent of the viewing audience,” Zoglin notes, and it revealed an earthy, charismatic Elvis, helping to reignite interest in the performer.

12 —But first, Elvis had to take care of a final bit of cinematic business: In early 1969, he filmed “Change of Habit,” a drama in which he played a hip, inner-city doctor who fell for a nun (honest!) played by Mary Tyler Moore.

13 — On July 13, 1969, about two weeks before opening night, the RJ reported that Presley’s monthlong set of shows was 80 percent sold out.

14 —The International, which opened July 1, 1969, was then the world’s largest hotel-casino at 30 stories tall, with just over 1,500 rooms, and with a showroom that seated about 1,150.

15 —Elvis didn’t open the Showroom Internationale. That distinction goes to Barbra Streisand, on July 2, 1969. According to Zoglin, Elvis’ manager, Colonel Tom Parker, deemed it too risky for Elvis to open a new showroom with all the technical glitches that might bring.

16 —Elvis saw Streisand perform the second-to-last show of her engagement, and according to Zoglin, “Midway through the show he turned to one of his Memphis pals and muttered, ‘She sucks.’ ”

17 —A full-page RJ ad announced the other performers on Elvis’ bill: Comedian (and longtime Las Vegas resident) Sammy Shore, the Sweet Inspirations, the Imperials and the Bobby Morris Orchestra. The ad also named James Burton (guitar), Jerry Scheff (electric bass), Larry Muhoberac (piano), John Wilkinson (guitar) and Ronnie Tutt (drums). The bottom of the ad read: “This announcement courtesy of Elvis and the Colonel.”

18 —Fun trivia: The Sweet Inspirations was co-founded by Cissy Houston, Whitney Houston’s mom, and the group recorded with a stellar roster of artists including Jimi Hendrix, Aretha Franklin and Van Morrison.

19 —The band lineup changed as Elvis’ tenure at the International continued, filling what became known as The TCB Band (for “taking care of business”).

20 —Elvis’ contract called for him to play two shows a night, at 8 p.m. and midnight. Tickets began at $15, “top of the Vegas scale at the time,” Zoglin writes.

21 — The early show was a dinner show, and the midnight show included drinks. Included on the July 1969 Showroom Internationale menu: Roast sirloin with pommes parisienne, tomate au gratin and Parfait Internationale.

22 — Opening night’s audience reportedly included Fats Domino, Sammy Davis Jr., Tom Jones, Ann-Margret, George Hamilton, Paul Anka, Pat Boone, Carol Channing, Juliet Prowse (who co-starred with Elvis in “G.I. Blues”) and Henry Mancini.

23 — VIPs even got a “welcome gift box,” which included two Elvis albums, a 1969 pocket calendar, two 8-by-10 Elvis photos, a color photo of Elvis, a brochure of Elvis records and tapes, a press release and a stat sheet.

24 —Sammy Davis Jr. got an extra souvenir. According to Graceland’s blog, Davis, who sat in the front row, was given one of Elvis’ rings, right from the stage, by Elvis.

25 —The opening night set list included “Blue Suede Shoes,” “All Shook Up,” “Love Me Tender,” “Jailhouse Rock,” “Don’t Be Cruel,” “Heartbreak Hotel” and “Hound Dog.”

26 — In retrospect, it’s surprising that the list didn’t include “Viva Las Vegas,” the title song from the movie, which still is the closest thing Las Vegas has to a theme song.

27 — The premiere show ran about an hour and 15 minutes.

28 — Elvis was a hit, and the reviews were great. According to Zoglin, Billboard’s review was headlined “Elvis Retains Touch in Return to Stage.” Variety called Elvis “very much in command.” And The New York Times’ rock critic enthused that Elvis “still knows how to sing rock ‘n’ roll.”

29 — The opening-night show was such a hit that Parker and International president Alex Shoofey quickly negotiated another contract on a tablecloth in the hotel’s coffee shop.

30 —During that first engagement, which ended Aug. 28, 1969, Elvis performed 57 shows, all of which sold out.

31 —Elvis drew 101,500 people over the that run — a Las Vegas record — and gross ticket receipts totaled $1.5 million, according to Zoglin.

32 —At the time, Las Vegas shows typically were considered loss leaders. Zoglin writes that Elvis’ reportedly were the first shows to make money, ushering in a new Las Vegas business model.

33 —The tablecloth deal called for Elvis to appear at the International for two four-week engagements a year over the next five years. For that, Elvis would be paid $125,000 a week.

34 — When Elvis performed here, he lived in a 5,000-square-foot suite on the International’s 30th floor. It has been altered in the years since, and no longer looks the same.

35 — During shows, Elvis would wipe his brow with silk scarves that he’d kiss and give to female fans. Those scarves were designed and painted at Opportunity Village, the Las Vegas nonprofit, which provided Elvis’ scarves until the day he died.

36 — In October 1969, RCA released a live recording of the Las Vegas show, “In Person at the International Hotel, Las Vegas, Nevada,” as part of a double-album set called “From Memphis to Vegas/From Vegas to Memphis.”

37 — It was Elvis’ first live recording, and Las Vegans could get it at the local Woolco for $5.49 (“a $9.98 value”).

38 — Fans who felt particularly inspired by Elvis also could visit Woolco to buy a “folk guitar outfit” for $8.97, reduced from the regular price of $12.97.

39 — Zoglin said the International shows created a new customer base for Las Vegas, not the sort of high rollers and table game players that the Rat Pack drew, but of middle-Americans and those who otherwise might not have come here.

40 — Elvis’ second engagement at the International began on Jan. 26, 1970, and it was as popular as the first. The third was in August 1970. An August 1970 show was filmed and became the documentary “Elvis: That’s the Way It Is.” Released in November of that year, the film features Elvis singing several numbers and records a rehearsal session.

41 — Elvis is recognizable by a single name, but the hotel he played changed its name several times over the years. Opening as the International, it became the Las Vegas Hilton and then the LVH before becoming the Westgate in 2014.

42 — Elvis performed his last show at the then-Las Vegas Hilton on Dec. 12, 1976. Elvis was found dead in a bathroom of his home at Graceland on Aug. 16, 1977, at age 42.

43 — Exactly how many shows Elvis performed here is, surprisingly, debatable. According to the Hilton, he performed 837 shows between July 31, 1969, and Dec. 12, 1976, all of them sellouts, to an estimated audience of 2.5 million people.

44 — After a review several years ago, Graceland revised the total to 636.

45 — Whatever the number, the Hilton honored the record-breaking streak with the installation in September 1978 of a statue that now sits near the Westgate’s front desk. Hilton President Barron Hilton, Priscilla Presley and Vernon Presley, Elvis’ father, attended the ceremony.

46 — About 2,000 fans also attended, the RJ reported, and Priscilla described the statue as looking “very much like” Elvis.

47 — Elvis’ relationship with Las Vegas continues. In 2016, a portion of Riviera Boulevard was renamed Elvis Presley Boulevard, and Southern Nevada also is home to Elvis Presley Court and Elvis Alive Drive.

48 — Elvis also received a star on the Las Vegas Walk of Stars in 2008.

49 — Elvis was a Las Vegas game-changer. Zoglin writes that Elvis at the International “established a new template for the Las Vegas show: No longer an intimate, sophisticated, Sinatra-style nightclub act, but a big rock-concert-like spectacle.”

50 — Elvis’ shows also altered the way Las Vegas entertainment is consumed, Zoglin says, as “people began to schedule their trips to Vegas around Elvis shows, rather than coming to town and then choosing from available shows.


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