Elvis Presley, Lifting Off
He seems to live forever. A network television movie about his life is scheduled for 2005.Three years ago,in 2002, the month of August was set aside for him. He was everywhere, as if he never died twenty-five years earlier. The old records reappeared as freshly minted CD's, he was seen shaking his hips on TV "news" clips and one CBS news piece revealed that an astounding forty two percent of the US population consider themselves to be Elvis Presley fans. His short life was looked at anew, re-examined and pontificated upon. Every day was accounted for, except that one day in January 1956 when he shot to stardom. Who could have known what would happen on that day? The biographers could not have been there but a handful of people did see what happened on that unusual and fascinating day. As a college student working as a weekend gofer in the CBS- TV studio, I was one of them. To fill in that gap in the Elvis Presley story, this is what happened on that remarkable day, January 26, 1956.
The green 1952 slope-backed Pontiac crawled off of Broadway onto West Fifty-Third Street, gasped, then rolled to a stop. Four men slowly emerged, heads shaking, hands gesturing as the freezing wet January wind stole their words. Three of the men got behind the car, the dark leather encased bass fiddle strapped to its roof glistened with frost. Suddenly one of them, wearing a light blue parka broke away, bent his hooded head into the bitter wind and pushed on down the street stopping midway at a black door indented in a red brick wall. He opened the door, entered a small gray vestibule and tapped on a little square window. I was standing next to Charlie Burgess, the paunchy security guard, who turned at the clank-clank-clank on the glass and slid the window open.
"What can I do for you, fella'? Charlie said, the eyes in his round, gray face squinting beneath an overhang of silver hair.
"'Ah'm on the Show tonight sir..an' we got some car trouble outside. 'Ah think we need some help."
"O.K., and who are you?"
"My name is Elvis Presley, sir?'an like 'Ah said sir, our car broke down on the way over here. Can we can get some help, sir?"
And so he had arrived, not only for his first scheduled appearance in New York City, but to appear for the first time on network television before the entire nation on Stage Show starring Tommy and Jimmy Dorsey. Prime time. Live. Saturday night. The eight p.m. lead-in to The Honeymooners. But his appearance on network television would not be his New York debut. That would be something, unscheduled and unexpected And something small, like the spark in the ignition of a Saturn rocket.
Elvis Presley, a wild card, was signed for one appearance on Stage Show for January 28,1956. Although he was gaining some "notoriety" in three southern states and had connected with a local Louisiana television show, he did have one try at the county music "big time" on the Grand Ole' Oprey and was told "never to come back." On Stage Show he would be one of three guests that night and he would be the least guest of all. Sarah Vaughan would headline and comedian Gene Sheldon, would be second on the bill.
It would be Elvis' first opportunity at the "really big time". In a cultural world governed by tastes developed over the decades, the big eastern cities, New York especially, were the epicenters of what was considered to be popular music. Country music was held at a distance. Not one radio station in New York played country music. Elvis, the country boy, just turned twenty one years of age, not only knew this but had to have apprehensions about being in the biggest and most alien of all cities for his chance at the "real" big time. If he was told "never to come back," by Stage Show where else could he go, after the whole country had seen him? He was understandably nervous when he arrived.
His face in the window was a smooth, hairless, oval outline, framed in a tightly drawn blue hood. The soft skin on the face glowed red from the cold. Checking the show roster, Charlie Burgess nodded " Yep, there you are." and opened the inner door. As he did, the three car pushers opened the outer door and squeezed in, shivering and shaking their fingers from the cold. All four shuffled into the warm interior corridor that led to the small dressing room elevator which was my theater of operations. As a gofer I not only got the coffee but I drove the dressing room elevator.. After warming up, Elvis's companions, his back- up musicians and driver, had gone out to bring in the instruments. When they returned, a rumbling of pounding feet and the prattle of voices arose as a crowd of young women in leotards turned the corner from the backstage wing. The June Taylor Dancers just off rehearsal, their feet clicking on the gray tiled floor, swarmed past Elvis and his manager, the short, pudgy, Colonel Parker,whom he had just met, and past the three companions bringing smiles of wonderment and a thaw to their frozen faces. Then Elvis and his back-up team went up to their dressing rooms on the fifth floor, the area they were scheduled to share with ventriloquist Jimmy Nelson, his dummy Danny O'Day and actor Jimmy Blaine who did the show's commercials. Used by The Ed Sullivan Show, airing from the same studio on Sundays to house the acrobats, jugglers and animal acts usually booked, it was the floor customarily used for the lesser acts.
When he returned to the backstage, the hooded parka was gone and he was there in all his hair. His pompadour crested backward like a dark wave into currents of hair that flowed across the top of his head then channeled downward on a wild run past both his ears and there was an oil slick to it all. People tried not to notice but in a post-war, military- influenced world of crew cuts and close -cut hairstyles, people did notice. The DA of the grease- minded Happy Days crowd, carefully modeled after a duck's after body, was the accepted form of hirsute rebellion. This was hitting the cultural beach with a shock assault. I could feel the bristles of my crewcut standing tall. Surely,I thought, he was defying the gods.
In a few moments Col. Parker, dark suited and hands in his pockets, joined Elvis who was talking to Jimmy Dorsey. Tommy Dorsey, trombone in hand, the overhead lights a glint on his gold-rimmed glasses, and Executive Producer Jack Philbin, lean and fortyish in a dark pinstriped suit, closed in a moment later. " We've got an idea!." Philbin said.
It was a two minute buzz of conversation alive with staccato phrases and clauses:... let's get the studio reaction?the warm-up? he's gotta do it, the kid's got a wild act? let's see how the audience reacts, this is New York, for petessake.? maybe tone it down a bit , it's national TV..?do a test run you mean,?hmmm, but no one does the warm-up ?. It's just not done. Do you mind, Elvis? No sir, don't mind?Let's do it. You'll do it then? You don't mind? No sir, yes sir, I'll do it."
So he would do the studio warmup, something a featured performer simply did not do because ego always stood in the way. But it was something that would become the highlight of the evening. Like a shooting star on a summer night.It was noted by Charley Burgess that Elvis Presley, used the word "sir" a lot and had a desire to please. Perhaps the latter trait was why he agreed to do something that other featured performers would never do. Something that was, perhaps, the explosive charge that got him off the launching pad.
Elvis wanted to go up to his dressing room and as he walked toward the elevator his head started to nod. Suddenly, like a plane vibrating with restrained energy before take-off, he stopped walking and started bobbing his head. Then his arms reached out and pumped back and forth and he started slashing the air with his fists leading with his left, whipping in with his right. Then, suddenly, as if hearing the bell, he straightened up, and went to his corner in the far side of the elevator. I watched him with curiosity as we went up in the elevator. We were the same age, the same six feet in height and the same weight but he was definitely different.
The nervous energy was building up and the choke was still on. Upon returning from the dinner break, while riding the elevator again to the sixth floor, he vibrated into round two, crouching and punching the air with a fury, the little elevator car shaking against the shaft. Then, when the little car reached his floor he stopped as quickly as he started, straightened his shoulders and walked off, his head still bobbing.
Elvis was the first to answer the ten- minute show time alert that I customarily called out. Guitar in hand, dressed in a mustard plaid sport jacket that had a second-hand store look and with abundant and oily hair locked in place, his eyes, now, were peering out from a deep, dark ring of eye shadow. My eyes were transfixed as we descended.
Sixteen June Taylor Dancers, wearing black and white harlequin outfits and scheduled to open the show were falling into place behind the closed curtain. Announcer Jack Lescoulie who always did the studio warm-up by telling stories to loosen up the audience was standing in the wing, staring out at the stage. Prop men, stagehands and electricians were clustered around Lescoulie and staring past him at Elvis as he, guitar in hand, was walking out on the stage. He was about to do something scheduled performers had never done before nor would ever think of doing: the studio warm-up, a task usually assigned to a production aid or the announcer, certainly not a billed performer. More, it was to be a test run.
"What's he doing out there?" someone said. "I can't believe it," another added. "I think he's actually going to do the warm-up."
Suddenly there was a loud, sharp strumming of guitar and with equal suddenness Elvis Presley, standing in front of the shimmering gold curtain, catapulted forward. One two three o'clock,four o'clock rock! Five six seven o'clock,eight o'clock rock!?
The words and the music swirled around the studio and his body followed. We're gonna rock around the clock tonight! As he plunged into the rhythm a fever picked up backstage. June Taylor Dancers, in their thigh-high black and white outfits, flashed their legs as they twirled in an impromptu lindy hop with stagehands. Prop men and more stagehands gyrated in tempo as the words gave way to wild rhythm. On stage, Elvis, one with the beat, swung his shoulders, spread his legs apart, vibrated his hips with frenzy. Backstage, mouths dropped halfway stopping to laugh incredulously then appreciatively. I felt a wild surge of excitement, and wanted to connect with the music, to dance, but all the girls were taken. I joined the chorus.
" Yeah, yeah!""Wow!" "Holy Cow, I can't believe it. Go, go, go." "My God, do you see that! Go man, go."
And so it went, his New York debut. A studio warm-up and a test run. It was also lift-off time. Returning backstage he was showered with kudos. The normally taciturn backstage crowd that had worked with the greatest of the great on The Ed Sullivan Show were electric, "You were great man!." "Wonderful, wonderful." "Terrific, just terrific."
Further backstage more kudos but Elvis hadn't smiled through any of them. He had a blank look as though he was afraid to give away his thoughts or feelings. He moved to a corner of the wing, his guitar diagonally across his mustard plaid jacket. Only his eyes moved, shifting laterally to different angles like a visitor to a strange new land.
Then the curtain parted to the blaring rush of the Dorsey Orchestra. The June Taylors stepped off flying into their number. Seconds after their finish, Elvis Presley stepped on stage. He was in full color, his mustard jacket in its greatest glory. But he was not. It wasn't the same. His frenetic energy was held back by the Dorsey music. It didn't mix. The excitement and beat of the warm-up was lost. But the body language wasn't and that came across on the black and white telecasts across America.
Then the phones started ringing but no kudos from Mr. and Mrs. America that night. Charges of moral turpitude and obscenity filled the wires from parents concerned for their children's virtue.
But destiny could not be denied. Fate had intervened. He was now off the pad and heading downrange. The reaction backstage was positive. The Producers knew what he could do with the right music. Elvis was signed for another week then four more after that. I estimated that during those five weeks, Elvis went the full fifteen rounds. I noticed too, that his dressing room assignment gradually descended to the lower floors. When he returned to the studio several months later to do The Ed Sullivan Show and the famous "show no pelvis,Elvis" show when the cameramen were instructed to shoot only above the waist, he not only arrived in a fully powered limousine but he moved down to share Ed Sullivan's dressing room on the second floor.
He was heading for the stars.
Don Bracken is the Senior Editor of the History Publishing Company and the author of the forthcoming book, Times of the Civil War, a study of the New York Times and the Charleston Mecury's coverage of the American Civil War.He also co-edited the Historyscope Series, a computerized study of the American Civil War that has been widely hailed by educators and Civil War experts.When a college student in New York, he worked for CBS television in what is now known as The Ed Sullivan Theater on week-ends and was there when Elvis Presley showed up. http://www.historyscope.com
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