From 1969 through 1975, Elvis Presley was the undisputed king of the Las Vegas Strip—14 engagements, record-breaking crowds, triumphant reviews. Presley was in his 30s then, and his flashy show was a perfect match with the showroom clientele of that era.
That was not the case in 1956, however, when the rising rock ’n’ roll star, then just barely 21, played a two-week stint at the New Frontier Hotel in Las Vegas. Presley biographers have generally assessed that engagement a failure—a “flop” in show biz jargon. “I don’t think the people there were ready for Elvis,” drummer D. J. Fontana would later say of the Vegas audiences. “We tried everything we knew. Usually Elvis could get them on his side. It didn’t work that time.”
Presley was booked into the New Frontier’s Venus Room for two shows a night from April 23 through May 6. He was on a bill with veteran Vegas acts Freddy Martin and his orchestra, comedian Shecky Greene, and the Venus starlets. The newcomer was promoted as an “extra added attraction” and “the atomic powered singer.”
In a Las Vegas Sun column, Bud Lilly, publicity director for the New Frontier Hotel, tried his best to prepare Vegas patrons for Presley’s act. “Here is a nonchalant phenomenon whom, as yet, no one has accurately described,” Lilly asserted. “Here is a young man who has an inherent ability to arouse mass hysteria (or should I say, ecstasy?) wherever he goes, yet is unassuming and completely untouched by the fabulous success he has achieved almost overnight.”
• Elvis “doing what comes naturally”
Lilly went on to portray Elvis as a unique talent, but also one comparable with other pop singers already known and acceptable to the typical showroom crowd. “Far be it from me to analyze this handsome, 21-year-old lad whose rock-n-roll rhythms bring forth squeals and cries not heard since way back when Frank Sinatra first came into his own. It has been suggested to me that Elvis Presley is a combination of Johnnie Ray and Billy Daniels—that he displays the magnetism of Sinatra and Como—that he posses the intangible attributes of almost any two or three popular male singers you might care to group. I’ll go so far as to say I don’t agree with this. In my opinion, this boy is one to himself—doing what comes naturally.”
Lilly’s promotional effort may have brought some curiosity seekers into the Venus Room on opening night, but it didn’t help Presley when he took the stage. Although Elvis was given the prime closing spot on the bill, it worked against him in the end. After over 60 performers worked the stage in Freddie Martin’s and Shecky Greene’s acts, Presley and his trio looked minuscule by comparison. The rock ’n’ roll act that had driven teenage audiences wild for months was met with tepid applause by the Vegas audience.
• Elvis got cool reception on opening night
As was the custom at the time, the official Sun review of the New Frontier’s latest show was delayed a few days to let the entertainers hit their stride. The paper’s only comment concerning Elvis’ opening night performance appeared in Forrest Duke’s “The Visiting Fireman” column. Duke tried to soften the inescapable conclusion that Elvis’ act didn’t play well with the showroom audience:
“The VF, no longer a teenager (for several years now) caught the lad’s act opening night at the New Frontier. Like Johnny Ray, the young singer is a great showman. He piles trick upon trick, gimmick upon gimmick, and it’s easy to see that the teenagers, especially of the female variety, will make him a top star. And soon. His combination hill-billy-rock ’n’ roll is at least different. With an audience of jaded adults, like he had at the NF opening night, he’s not quite in his element. But who needs jaded adults? Elvis Presley???”
The ax fell unmercifully on Elvis when the Sun published Bill Willard’s official review on April 28 . Variety published an edited version of Willard’s review in its May 2 issue.) Willard began by praising “Freddie Martin’s smooth music-making” and “Shecky Greene’s unbridled comedy.” Then the reviewer proceeded to carve up Presley’s act.
“Elvis Presley, arriving here on the wave of tremendous publicity, fails to hit the promised mark in a desert isle surfeited with rock and rollers who play in shifts atop every cocktail lounge on the Strip. The brash, loud braying of his rhythm and blues catalogue (and mind you, they are big hits everywhere it seems), which albeit rocketed him to the bigtime, is overbearing to a captive audience. In a lounge, one can up and go—fast. But in a dining room the table-sitter must stay, look, and listen the thing out. Which is perhaps why Presley received applause on his opening show edged with polite inference only. 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.” (In the Variety version of Willard’s review, the word “bore” was changed to “fizz.”)
However, there was another reviewer in Las Vegas that week, one with a more charitable attitude toward Elvis. Robert Johnson, a writer for Presley’s hometown Press-Scimitar, had come to the desert to report on the Vegas debut of Memphis’s favorite son. Even Johnson had to admit that Presley was out of his element on the showroom stage. “In the New Frontier’s plush salon, Elvis faced a different kind of audience,” Johnson observed in his May 4 Press-Scimitar exposé on Elvis, “super-critical, sophisticated, wondering boredly what this youngster had which is so hot. There were no screams, no frantic shouts to herald his entrance. Just cold silence, surmounted by the inevitable hum present wherever alcohol is used internally.”
• Elvis made no adjustment for adult audience
As Elvis broke into “Blue Suede Shoes,” Johnson noted that the singer obviously had made no changes in the act that had played so well to teenagers across the country. “Elvis’ legs went into stuttering, squirming movement, those dark-rimmed eyes were fixed on infinity, his long hair flopping over his forehead, his body almost rigid with emotional intensity, yet throbbing like a high-powered car with the gas wide open and the brake set tight.” Johnson reported that the cold audience offered only scattered applause.
Meanwhile, an article in Billboard reported that, “Presley—pulling down $12,500 for the New Frontier date—was switched from closing the show to opening it, after the first night audience—a highly sophisticated group in contrast to his teen-age following—indicated a preference for Freddie Martin and comedian Shecky Greene.”
As the engagement progressed, however, Johnson claimed that Elvis, who had faced tough audiences before, began to win over the showroom crowds. “The ice began to break … and the joint—if one may thus refer to a million dollar playground—began to rock. There was no screaming, no sobbing, no moaning, but some eyes were glazed and far away, and well-shod feet tapped, and there was finger snapping. He had ’em, even those who disapproved.”
Even if Elvis failed to wow them in the Venus Room, he was still the center of attraction in Las Vegas during his two-week stay there. “When he saunters, laughing and carefree, or intense, with his thoughts turned inward, thru the casino,” Johnson observed, “heads turn, and a rustle of conversation follows him, like the wake on a boat. At the bars, in the lounges, in the lines waiting to get in to see him perform, one hears his name: ‘Is this Presley kid really all that good …’ Or, ‘I just don’t understand what he’s got myself …’ Or, ‘ … just plain dynamite.’”
During his ’56 Vegas engagement, Elvis may have picked up a gift-giving technique he used often in later years. A photo of Elvis, Scotty, Bill, and D. J. lounging around the hotel pool accompanied Johnson’s Press-Scimitar article. In the photo’s caption, Johnson wrote, “Note watch Elvis is wearing. It’s an $800 watch with diamonds for numerals. Elvis noted it on wrist of Frank Williams of Osceola, Ark., who has interest in New Frontier, and admired it. Williams took it off, said: ‘It’s yours.’”
• Vegas teens provided usual response to Elvis
Finally, while Elvis received only mild response for his evening work at the New Frontier, a Saturday matinee performance on April 28 earned him not only the raucous reaction to which he had become accustomed, but also some positive feedback from the Vegas columnists. New Frontier president Maury Friedman offered the use of the Venus Room for Elvis to perform a special show to benefit the local baseball field federation. Paying just $1 admission, over a thousand teenagers crammed into the showroom to consume soft drinks and see Elvis’s full hour-and-a-half road show.
Although Elvis was of legal age to enjoy all that Las Vegas had to offer (he had turned 21 just 4 months earlier), he declined to do so. He spent his spare time taking in some of the musical acts in the hotel lounges, but stayed away from alcohol. “Never touched a drop of liquor in my life and don’t intend to,” he told Johnson. “I’m just having fun when I get the time. Like this afternoon. I’m going over and ride the little scooter cars in the amusement park.”
As his two-week stint in Las Vegas drew to a close, Elvis grew anxious to get out of town. He had been on the road almost continually since early February. Sitting back with a faraway look in his eyes, he told Johnson, “Sure will be nice to get home for a day or so.” Then over the hotel public address system came, “Paging Elvis Presley … ” He just looked up sighed, noted Johnson. “A young man riding on a cloud and reaching out for a star, hoping it won’t turn out to be a brass ring.” — Alan Hanson | © July 2011
Reader Comment: As a teen I lived in Henderson, Nevada, and I went with some other girls to see Elvis Presley’s show in Las Vegas in 1956. He did a good show, and some of us girls screamed and cried. After the show, some of us went up to his room and knocked on the door. He came to the door himself. He asked our names and signed the playbills they had given us with his picture on it. I was watching him as he signed the other girls’ papers, and there was a white glow around him. He was standing in the doorway, and the energy off his body was really strong. It could have been the lights behind him, but it was something to see. Elvis had a sadness to him that touched me at the time.
The girls and I ran downstairs to the pool lower level where you could look up and see people dive in the water. Later, when we went back up the stairs to the pool level, I felt someone watching me. I stopped and looked to the right; there was Elvis leaning forward with his elbows on his knees, watching me. To his right was a heavyset lady sitting in a chair next to him. He was so kind and respectful to her, though she was not a girl he would be with. — Arletta (January 2012)
“I don’t think the people there were ready for Elvis. We tried everything we knew. Usually Elvis could get them on his side. It didn’t work that time.”