Elvis Presley (1935–1977) was an American singer and actor. Regarded as one of the most significant cultural icons of the 20th century, he is often referred to as “the King of Rock and Roll”, or simply, “the King”. Elvis is revered by many with an almost religious fervor. His home in Graceland has become a virtual shrine. He is one of the most celebrated and influential musicians of the 20th century; and the best-selling solo artist in the history of recorded music. Elvis was nominated for 14 Grammys and won three, also receiving the Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award at age 36. Forbes named Elvis Presley as the 2nd top earning dead celebrity with $55 million.
Born in Tupelo, Mississippi, Presley was 13 years old when he and his family relocated to Memphis. His music career began in 1954. Presley was an early popularizer of rockabilly, an uptempo, backbeat-driven fusion of country and rhythm ‘n blues. RCA acquired his contract in a deal arranged by Colonel Tom Parker, who managed the singer for more than two decades. Presley’s first single, “Heartbreak Hotel”, was released in 1956 and became a number-one hit in the United States. He was regarded as the leading figure of rock ‘n roll after a series of successful TV appearances and chart-topping records. His energized interpretations of songs and sexually provocative performance style, combined with a singularly potent mix of influences across color lines, coincided with the dawn of the Civil Rights Movement. It made him enormously popular—and controversial.
In November 1956, he made his film debut in Love Me Tender. Then in 1958, he was drafted into military service. He resumed his recording career two years later, producing some of his most commercially successful work before devoting much of the 1960s to making Hollywood movies and their accompanying soundtrack albums, most of which were critically derided. Although personally I thought his performances were charming and effortless.
In 1968, following a seven-year break from live performances, he returned to the stage in the acclaimed televised comeback special Elvis, which led to an extended Las Vegas concert residency and a string of highly profitable tours. In 1973, Presley was featured in the first globally broadcast concert via satellite, Aloha from Hawaii. Several years of prescription drug abuse severely damaged his health, and he died in 1977 at the age of 42.
In the mid 70’s Elvis gave one of his final concerts in the city of Chicago. His managers thought it wise to keep him away from the salacious eye of the press, and chose instead to hole him up in a hotel in Arlington, just outside the city. Coincidentally, I was doing a production of THE MOUSETRAP at the very same hotel. (A hotel which happened to have a 500-seat theatre.) David McCallum (MAN FROM UNCLE and now NCIS), Katherine Houghton (GUESS WHO’S COMING TO DINNER) and Kurt Kaznar (an MGM character actor) where the stars. The rest of us were just a bunch of New York actors, glad to have a job.
Midway through the run, I returned from a day off in Chicago surprised to find the lobby buzzing with excitement. The Desk Clerk explained that Elvis was staying at the hotel. “But please don’t say anything! We don’t want any trouble.” In spite of all the secrecy, everyone at the hotel was enthralled with the idea that Elvis was in residence.
That same night, I took my usual route to the theatre: out through a fire exit off the main lobby, crossing a lawn to the stage entrance. When I opened the door, I was greeted by an ear-piercing roar, and was blinded by an explosion of flash bulbs. There were dozens of people screaming, “Elvis!” Some even held up their hysterical infants. They wanted their kids to be able to say, “I saw Elvis Presley!” Even though Elvis was a mess at this point in his life, dressed like a Rhinestone Cowboy, hopped up on drugs and wildly overweight, he was still The King! The terrible “Owww… of disappointment when they saw it was only me, was dispiriting to say the very least.
After the performance the cast usually went up to the Penthouse of the hotel for a drink at the bar. We all knew that Elvis was ensconced on the 5th floor. And after someone pressed the button to the Penthouse, I ‘accidentally” hit the button to the 5th floor. I thought we might see something scandalous: a glimpse of Elvis being dragged half-naked though the halls, or a prostitute or two passed out on drugs. Instead we saw two plainclothes men, whose folded arms and blank stares told us that getting off the elevator was not an option. “Who pressed the button to the 5th floor?” David McCallum snapped in fake outrage. “I thought the bar on the top floor,” added Katherine Houghton, in mock surprise. “Someone must have pushed the wrong button by mistake,” Kurt Kaznar apologized. Of course, none of this fooled Elvis’ bodyguards, who had witnessed it all before. They watched the elevator doors close on some of the worst acting they had ever witnessed. (by a troupe of paid professionals, I hasten to add.)
I may have missed seeing Elvis on the 5th floor, or even in the lobby of the Arlington Hotel. But at least I can say, I was there when Elvis was in the building.