On the second day of a 15-city tour through the heart of the Midwest, the Elvis Presley Show rolled into La Crosse, Wisconsin, on Monday, May 14, 1956, for two evening shows at the Mary E. Sawyer Auditorium. It was an extraordinary event for the town of some 47,000 citizens. A sellout crowd of 4,000 attended the 7 p.m. show, while hundreds of other La Crosse teenagers milled around outside hoping to get a look at Presley.
David Lee’s review of the show in the La Crosse Tribune the next morning contained a blow-by-blow account of events in the arena without praising or condemning Elvis. He also covered Presley’s press conference after the 9 p.m. show.
As did most local newspapers wherever Elvis appeared in mid to late 1956, the Tribune printed some letters-to-editor in the days following Presley’s show in La Crosse. Elsewhere, such letters usually were printed for a few days, after which the paper’s letter column would move on to other issues. In La Crosse, though, it was different. No newspaper in 1956 dedicated as much space to reader comments about Elvis as did the local Tribune. From May 18 through June 3, the newspaper published 14 letters from readers venting one way or the other about Elvis Presley. Furthermore, some of the letters were extremely lengthy for such newspaper content.
Below are 10 of those letters. I have done what the Tribune obviously didn’t do, which is to edit them gently. Still, through Lee’s review and its readers’ letters, the La Crosse Tribune provided as good an all-around and balanced account of Elvis Presley’s appearance as any town newspaper during 1956.
May 18, 1956
In regard to a man called Elvis Presley, I would like to point out that a large number of citizens in this city would not agree with the Tribune’s favorable comments as to the antics of Mr. Presley.
In a recent news magazine giving a review of his performance before a night club crowd in Las Vegas, the report stated that his movements were so vulgar that the patrons were embarrassed. This was an entirely adult audience. He was also tagged in the article as the “male queen of burlesque.”
I think it is a sad commentary on the moral consciousness of a people when the dance of the “wiggle, squirm, and shake,” once relegated to dives and clubs where decent people wouldn’t be seen, has come to be applauded in civic auditoriums.
We can bewail the juvenile delinquency problem, but unless the adult population, to whom the teenagers look for endorsement and guidance, has a revival of moral indignation against sin, we may as well stop talking about delinquency.
Jesus said, “It is impossible but that offenses will come: but woe unto him through whom they come! It were better for him that a millstone were hanged about his neck, and he were cast into the sea, than that he offend one of these little ones. — Rev. Carl B. Zimmerman, Pastor 7th Street Baptist Church
May 22, 1956
In this community as in many others across the nation, there exists a state of alarm over sex in all forms and descriptions. There seems to be an overabundance of crimes listed in the sex category and near-crimes, too. The recent appearance of Elvis Presley, in the opinion of many, comes under the latter classification.
One of our local disc jockeys has banned this performer’s work because of “sexual contortions” which he displays while singing. If that is the reason for so much objection to him, I deeply admire his intestinal fortitude (guts) for stating his reasons instead of all this dope addict propaganda about Presley, which has been circulated with wild abandon. Other fantastic accounts of the man are too numerous, hardly worthy of mention because of their absurdity. One would think that the federal narcotics agents would let Mr. Presley do as he pleases. Common sense must tell us different. The gullibility of some people borders on the idiotic, not to mention adolescent and inane.
It is truly ironic and deeply humiliating to me as a woman, that so much hullaballoo has been raised about this young kid, who is under the advice of some pretty shrewd agents and managers to peddle musical sex to our populace of future voters. At this rate the President of 1970 will have to rock and roll or else.
Maybe all these people screaming, crazy teenagers, etc., better get down to business and offer these youngsters some good practical examples of decency. My folks never told a dirty story, and they were mighty handy with the razor strap too. Lack of discipline in the home breeds crime, report after report tells us. Maybe some of these worried and serious parents could do well to get down on their prayer bones at night, ask the Almighty for a little Divine assistance in the rearing of the children. We tried it; it works. — A TRIBUNE READER
May 23, 1956
In answer to the Rev. Mr. Zimmerman: What could Elvis Presley donate to juvenile delinquency? He was “here today and gone tomorrow.” As for the teenagers that went to see him, I am sure the parents knew where they were. It was an outlet for their pent-up emotions and a good one. Elvis is not a dope peddler or a sex fiend. He is a bewildered youngster also with fame heaped on him.
The Tribune reporter must be a young person, for he saw the funny side of it all and his writeup was good. As for the Las Vegas report, since when are the patrons of night clubs becoming so refined? Our Tribune reports he had a coke in each hand, not a cigarette, beer or cocktail, and also he was soft-spoken, not cocky or a wise guy.
I did not see the performance, and do not enjoy that kind of entertainment on TV (old age), but I am willing to bet it hasn’t harmed one teenager up to date. So far it is all in the way you look at it. The good book also states, “Cast the beam out of your own eye.” We must try and understand what makes our youngsters act as they do; they have problems. School is work and free time is restricted. It is a hard age, as you and I know. Let’s ride along with them just so far. This constant condemning of their acts. What did we do before we became adults? — A MOTHER, Galesville, Wis.
May 25, 1956
Referring to May 14 and the Elvis Presley appearance here, I wish to state that in view of all the “against” issues we, the president and members of the E.P. Fan Club, are stating a counterattack.
Many of you say that Elvis is immoral, obscene, and stupid. If that is so, a great many other people are, too. What about the movies, for instance, or the magazines on the newsstand? In our opinion there is immorainess at its greatest. Some of those magazines and “prize” movies are shameful!
Being prexy of the club, I had the honor of meeting Elvis in person, and found him to be warm, sincere, and gracious—not at all the way people had built him up to be.
In all fairness, if you want to yell about him, go to his manager, or the people who are backing him and telling him what to do, rather than to blame him.
As far as rioting was concerned, the local officers did nothing to stop it. If the crowd would have been told to go back to their seats or the show would have been discontinued, this would not have been so bad. It worked in San Diego, but no attempt was even made here.
I could go on and on but will stop here for now. I do wish to say to adults, “Look back. You weren’t so sensible acting when you were teenagers either. You had your idols; the teeners of today have theirs. — SHIRLEY HART, Prexy—E.P.F.C. and fan club members
May 27, 1956
When I hear “some” people making ridiculous degrading remarks about our recent singing star, Elvis Presley, I can’t help but see red! What’s the matter with you? Is jealousy the word?
Do you mean to tell me a young man standing, fully clothed in front of an audience, including moms and dads, teenagers and adults, singing his heart out can be called immoral? I think you better get out your dictionaries and read the definition of that word. Only those who have no real interest in music and uneducated in that field could possibly make such a rash remark.
Elvis Presley reacts strongly and deeply to rhythm and it makes him take it out in a different way—a way in which we’re not accustomed to seeing. He dared to be different and what thanks does he receive?
He deserves credit for being such a fine, outstanding performer, and with it goes a modest personality with a touch of boyish shyness so ardent when you hear him speak and, last but not least, for his clean habits of not smoking or drinking. How many of us can say that about our own sons and daughters? — A MOTHER
May 27, 1956
After reading the many articles that have appeared in this column about the new singing sensation Elvis Presley, I must admit I am a bit disgusted. As a fan of Elvis Presley, even I will admit that he will not be popular very long. I just want to know what the big fuss is about.
In answer to the woman who had crime on her mind, I would like to point out that the biggest crime wave this country has ever seen was in the 20s and the Charleston age. This was the period when the elders, who are yelling about Presley now, were young.
The local disk jockey who banned Elvis Presley’s records from his program has his show in the afternoon when the so-called “crazy teenagers” are in school. Isn’t it a bit nonsensical to say that he banned the records because of the sexy contortions of Presley? Actually, how much can you see on radio or even records?
In our mother’s day Rudolph Valentino was very popular. I don’t know how anyone can honestly say that they liked Valentino because of his acting ability. Elvis is going to have a chance to prove himself because he starts filming his first movie June 15.
Elvis Presley is new, different, and exciting. The Dorsey brothers are well established in the show business world. I suppose they know a new sensation when they see one. Hal Wallis is outstanding in the movie industry. If these top names are willing to give him a chance, who are we to criticize and make the slanderous statements that have been made by the people of La Crosse?
I was one of the high school reporters who interviewed Elvis, and I found him very congenial, friendly, and a man with a very favorable personality. — A SO-CALLED “CRAZY TEENAGER”
May 29, 1956
Three cheers for the Galesville mother who has a broad viewpoint on all teen-age emotions.
I don’t myself believe any of what I hear concerning Elvis Presley and shall say he cannot be as sinful as they try to portray him. As to my knowledge he was without female companionship from his last show until plane time, where a group of you folks saw him off. He spoke of his trips, a clean normal discussion to my estimation. Also he even refused an invitation to a large house party that same evening from news of correct source.
Now you are making a big issue of this one individual who perhaps has no more evil thoughts than you or I. I’ve seen him on TV and it seems it is just a new way of doing the shimmy or the Charleston that was popular in our day. — A MOTHER
May 31, 1956
I attended both Elvis Presley performances at the Mary Sawyer Auditorium and strange as it may seem (to some people’s radical way of thinking) I have had no inclination to commit any crime or make any change in my way of living since then. To me it was a great performance!! Sure, the crowd went a little crazy over him, but did that harm anyone? No one got hurt and I haven’t heard of any heart attacks arising from it.
In my opinion, a crowd of young kids applauding and cheering a singer is a far point from the juvenile delinquency point some people insist on connecting with it. Before some parents condemn a show of this type for their children, they better check into the source of all the auto thefts, parking meter raids, and all other types of vandalism the children of the La Crosse area are constantly committing.
As for his actions being referred a “strip tease act,” I’m sure I wouldn’t know, as I’ve never seen that type of show (undoubtedly many of these ardent opposers have). The fact is he just kept time to his rhythm and style by keeping his body in motion. Hardly a movement he made would be irregular to a high school kid dancing to jazz.
As for his music, maybe it isn’t “long-haired” or “old time.” It’s new and strictly different. Actually this type is a relief from the usual “hill-billy” vocalists who do their singing through their nose (so it sounds). His style is what really makes him and that’s what the kids go for. Perhaps his popularity will dissolve in a short time, as all fads do, but with Presley gone there’ll be someone new rising to this stand. The partisan individuals who are so opposed to Mr. Presley can then pass judgment on whoever or whatever they may be. Why not let Presley fans enjoy him, and those who don’t can be a fan of the entertainer of their choice. — PATRICIA L. JOHNSON, Cashton, Wis.
June 1, 1956
As long as the Elvis Presley war is still raging, I would like to present my side. I’d always imagined Southerners as languid and lacking in energy. But seeing him makes me wonder why the South needed slaves. What a one-man cotton picking machine he would have made.
As for us older generation, we had fads like the Charleston and Valentino, etc., and the well-adjusted person took all these in stride, too, preferring old-time dances and Westerns to the crazy fads. There always were, and will be, those who go off the deep end on these things.
But what burns me up the most, is that I have the same talent as Elvis, as I can twang a “geetar,” and whoop and wallow just as good as he. But even in adolescence, everytime my parents saw me wasting energy needlessly, they made me jump into the air vertically a few times, and would force a dishcloth, broom, mop, or even an ax, for chopping some wood, into my unwilling hand. Alas, what a waste of rhythm and talent were wasted in the woodshed!
But no matter, as I now have the courage to see about getting booking at the auditorium and earning me some good money, for a change. What stopped me before, was the fear that there would be a psychoanalyst in the audience and that I would be quietly pinioned and forced to reside in a little upholstered room to be cross-examined about why I hated my great-aunt Hepzibah. But now that that obstacle has been hurtled by Elvis, I’m going to be modest and say that maybe half of La Crosse may have this latent talent.
Shucks, I’ll bet if given a “gee-tar” and a lesson or two, even the little citizens of Myrick Park could give us quite an uninhibited performance. — ANTI-PRESLEY
June 3, 1956
I was very sorry to see the PTA Board has protested Elvis Presley’s reappearance here. I can imagine the bedlam the teachers heard the next day. But was it any worse than the day the annuals come out? True, there were a lot of crazy rumors, but you have a small group of bad youngsters, even in church and Sunday school. Is that a good reason to condemn the majority? I wonder how many of the PTA Board were really at the performance of Presley. I was, and enjoyed it thoroughly. I went for my 1o-year-old, and because I wanted to see the audience reaction we hear so much about. So I spent much of my time watching those who were watching Presley, and out of all those near and far, I only saw one couple (girls) who whispered and giggled. As Elvis came in, I saw one woman wiping her eyes, and I knew she felt like I did—like a band going by.
After watching the teenagers around me, I’m sure the screaming wasn’t entirely because of his “squirming,” which I much prefer to call a dance, or a terrific sense of rhythm that just has to make itself felt in some way. I remember on high school excursions Herman Day and his girl (Negroes) used to dance like that. We all watched delightedly from the sidelines, as he seemed to take four steps to one beat of the music. It was beautiful rhythm and as no one pointed out that it was lewd, immoral, or sexual, we weren’t made to feel ashamed to watch them. I think it’s wrong to call to the attention of the teenagers the sexual side of Presley. Most of them were never conscious of it before.
The kids had as much fun screaming as at a basketball game, and for the same reason, excitement, and because everyone else was screaming. Incidentally, seems like a good scream would be good mental therapy. How long is it since you’ve had a good scream? Just because we oldsters hold in our emotions and can’t understand the screaming, doesn’t mean the teenagers are going to the devil because of Presley.
I’d like to see him come back. —ANOTHER MOTHER
Elvis Presley never returned to La Crosse. — Alan Hanson (© November 2019)
"Elvis Presley reacts strongly and deeply to rhythm and it makes him take it out in a different way—a way in which we’re not accustomed to seeing. He dared to be different and what thanks does he receive?"