A regular feature in many newspapers during the latter half of the 1950s was a “teen” column. It reflected the concern most communities had for their adolescent children in those socially turbulent years. The presentation of the “teen” column varied from paper to paper, but one common format was a teen panel discussion. A newspaper writer would moderate as a group of teenagers discussed a relevant topic, and the results would be printed in the space the paper weekly devoted to teen concerns.
Of course, the controversy surrounding Elvis Presley eventually came up in most of these teen panel discussions, usually around the time the singer brought his show to town. That’s what happened on October 14,1956, when Elvis played San Antonio, Texas. That same day the headline over the “Teen Sounding Board” column in the San Antonio Express read, “Elvis Presley: Ugh! Say Boys, But S.A. Girls Like Him!” A few days earlierExpress Teen Editor Connie Cullum had gathered together six city teens and listened to their opinions about the rock ’n’ roll phenom.
• Boys attack Elvis while girls defend him
“The Elvis Spell has not caught all teen-agers,” Miss Cullum noted in introducing the six Express-News Teen Sounding Board panel of three boys (Lawson, Gary, and Marty) and three girls (Pat, Fran, and Jan). She noted that, in general, “the young men dislike the rock and roll king as much as their girlfriends worship him. Still, their table pounding demonstrated he inspires strong feelings, whether for or against.”
A running account of the teen discussion follows:
The boys weighed in first. “He stinks,” summarized Lawson. “If the girls didn’t go so ape I could enjoy him.” Marty admitted that part of the reason boys didn’t like Elvis was jealousy. “He’s good-looking and has a lot of money,” he explained, “and he’s pretty much taken the girls.” Gary also admitted that it wasn’t so much Elvis that irritated him, but rather how the girls reacted to Elvis. “When his new record came out—Love Me Tender—they played it on the radio 10 minutes straight,” recalled Gary. “We were having a paper drive, and these girls made me stop the truck I was driving so they could listen … I don’t mind listening to him, but when you’re with a girl on a date and he comes on the radio … (he imitates a girlish squeal) … Makes me sick.”
• "His singing is the destruction of one of the most beautiful arts …”
Marty then pulled out a prepared written statement. “He’s ruining or lowering the standards of many decent teen-agers today,” he read. “His singing is the destruction of one of the most beautiful arts given humans by God.” Lawson, however, didn’t believe Elvis was harming young people. “A person will be either low or not,” he said. Marty argued, “Any upper class person that goes for something low is lowered. He does influence a lot of teens. He could be of harm just while he’s in his big flair, because people will do things they wouldn’t do otherwise. But that will go when Elvis goes.”
Why do some teens go for Elvis? Lawson explained it was because those who like Elvis “haven’t had many kicks and want attention.” As for the girls, “Mostly they like him because of lack of male companionship,” added Marty.
• Girls say boys are just jealous of Elvis
That caused the girls to jump to Elvis’s defense. “The boys are just jealous,” said Jan. “They think it’s their duty NOT to like him.” Pat added, “And that the other boys will make fun of them if they do.”
The girls had trouble putting into words just why they liked Elvis. “But I heard him when he was a Western singer, before I ever saw him, and I thought he was different and fascinating,” Pat said. “It’s his voice and him and everything.” Fran added, “He puts everything into his songs, and they have so much feeling. I don’t think he has anything to do with lowering standards. He’d go out of fad if people would let people who like him listen to him.” Jan noted, “He has the basic quality that should be in an entertainer. He transmits his feeling to you. He came at the right time, because I just idolized James Dean.”
The boys and girls then entered into a back-and-forth exchange:
Pat: “He’s a very humble person. On TV, he says thank you and everything.”
Lawson: “You’ll have to admit when he first started he was vulgar as heck.”
Pat: “But he doesn’t do that anymore and we still like him.”
Jan: “He feels the music, that’s all.”
Lawson: “You girls eat that up and you know it.”
• All teens on panel disliked fans “going ape” over Elvis
Continuing their defense of Elvis, Jan pointed to the odd behavior of their parents’ generation. “When our mothers were young they had idols, too,” Jan said. “How about during the 20’s? The Elvis craze is no worse than swallowing goldfish.” None of the girls, though, thought they’d like to meet Elvis. “I’d be disappointed,” Jan explained.
When it came to Elvis, there seemed to be just one thing the whole panel could agree upon. They all disliked fans who “go ape” when Elvis sings. All panelists concurred that such teenagers were either following the crowd or were seeking personal attention.
There was no follow-up article after Elvis appeared in San Antonio, but I would have liked to have asked those kids a couple of questions afterwards. First, if any of the girls went to Elvis’s concert, could they honestly say they didn’t “go ape” a little bit? Second, after seeing Elvis perform, would Pat still believe he no longer used what she characterized as “vulgar” movements on stage?
In her review of Elvis’s San Antonio show, Connie Collum wrote in the Express, “Elvis … stood straddle legged, wiggling his hips, as fans fell to their knees before him and beat their palms and heads against the floor.” That sounds like an example of what the teen panel referred to as "going ape" for Elvis. — Alan Hanson (March 2009)
"I don’t mind listening to him, but when you’re with a girl on a date and he comes on the radio … (he imitates a girlish squeal) … Makes me sick."