PUTTING ELVIS’ VEGAS COMEBACK IN PERSPECTIVE
A new book makes a convincing case that Elvis Presley’s comeback 50 years ago not only reignited his career but elevated Las Vegas to iconic status.
“He brought his showmanship, his matchless voice, and the urgency of an artist on a mission to redeem himself,” wrote Richard Zoglin, in “Elvis in Las Vegas: How the King Reinvented the Las Vegas show.”
He added, “Las Vegas brought the crowds. Neither would be the same again.”
My neighbor at the Las Vegas Country Club, before he died in 2014 at the age of 91, maître d’ Emilio Muscelli, ran the showroom at The International (later the Hilton) during the Elvis years. It was pandemonium almost every night, he told me, “There was nothing like it – not even now. Long lines of women from all over the world.”
The New York Times offered this headline this week: “Elvis Presley needed a reboot in 1969. So did Las Vegas.”
The article in the Times by Zoglin began, “Elvis’ bona fides were in question when he returned to the stage after more than eight years. His 1969 show was a make-or-break gamble.”
C. Moon Reed of the Las Vegas Weekly wrote: “Elvis pointed the way for Vegas to reinvent itself, which it did. It took a couple decades but Vegas transitioned into the city we know today, and I think Elvis had a lot of influence on it.”
Zoglin, who covered entertainment for Time for two decades, wrote a 2014 biography of comedian Bob Hope.
Elvis had famously flopped here in the spring of 1956 when he opened for Shecky Greene at the New Frontier. Coming off big ratings on the Ed Sullivan Show, he was billed as the “Atomic Powered singer.” But he bombed. A Time magazine critic said his act went over “like a jug of corn liquor at the champagne party.” The only saving grace was that local high school kids, his base, were allowed to come in for after-school matinees. His confidence shaken, he spent more of the 1960s making movies.
The re-launch began on July 31, 1969, 11 days after astronaut Neil Armstrong became the first man to walk on the moon.
Presley’s manager, Dutch-born, gambling addict Colonel Tom Parker envisioned Las Vegas and the mammoth new hotel, The International, as the perfect place to launch the comeback. It featured a 2,000-seat showroom, largest in town for many decades to come and he sold it out for much of his seven-year run. His last show was on Dec. 12, 1976. Side note: It was Frank Sinatra’s 61st birthday.
In an interview with Tampa’s CBS affiliate, Zoglin said, “It was not only a show that revitalized his career but it changed Las Vegas.”
In a sign that the Elvis phenomena was fading, two ambitious Presley projects never got off the ground in recent years: Cirque du Soleil’s “Viva Elvis” at CityCenter and an Elvis exhibition at the Westgate on loan from Graceland.
Zoglin is marking the 50th anniversary with a presentation and book signing at 7 p.m. Friday (August 2) at the Clark County Library, 1401 E. Flamingo Road.
It is open to the public and free, with seating on a first-come, first-served basis. Information: 702-507-3459.
Many times over my last 20 years in Las Vegas, I often wondered what I was doing the week Elvis launched his comeback.
Curiosity got the best of me on the 50th anniversary of that epic week.
I found it in the archives of Newspapers.com.
As sports editor of the Billings (Mont.) Gazette, I was on my way to Minneapolis to cover hometown hero Dave McNally’s bid to make Major League Baseball History. Off to a 15-0 start, the Baltimore Orioles lefthander was trying to become first American League pitcher to win 16 consecutive decisions from the start of the season and the first to win 18 in a row over two or more seasons.
McNally, whose dad had died in World War II at the battle of Okinawa, was our Elvis.
Early in the game, held on a sunny afternoon of August 3, McNally’s American Legion coach Joe Pirtz and I held up a banner between innings. It read: “Hello NBC from Billings, Montana…Home of Dave McNally.” Game of the Week announcer Curt Gowdy spotted it and mentioned our names. Pirtz was attending his first major league game and McNally had joined us for breakfast, and brought along third baseman extraordinaire Brooks Robinson. We had met Gowdy before the game.
It was an unforgettable couple days for this small-town kid who had just started his journalism career, six years earlier, going from a grocery boy to a once-a-week sportswriter for my hometown paper, to the largest paper in the state.
McNally was leading 1-0 going into the bottom of the seventh, when he loaded the bases. Pinch hitter Rich Reese, who had never faced McNally, batted for Twins starter Jim Kaat. On a two-out, 3-2 pitch, Reese hit a grand slam that lifted the Twins to a 5-2 win.
It was the first big league game I covered and I was hooked. Four years later I was covering the Cincinnati Reds for the Associated Press. I was there on August 16, 1977 when I heard the news that Elvis had died in Graceland, his home in Memphis.