Elvis and Las Vegas

Elvis' first engagement in Las Vegas was a two-week run in the Venus Room of the New Frontier Hotel. April 23 - May 6, 1956. Perhaps in deference to the atomic testing sites in the nearby desert, he received billing as "The Atomic Powered Singer". A cutout of Elvis standing 24 feet high greeted guests outside the casino.

On the first night of the engagement Elvis' set was the closing act after the headlining Freddy Martin Orchestra, which consisted of seventeen players and twenty-eight singers, dancers and ice skaters. The little four-piece group of Elvis, Scotty, Bill and DJ had become used to performing in front of hundreds of screaming teenagers and often being unable to even hear one another on stage. Suddenly they found themselves in a quiet showroom of older, more reserved listeners - no youth allowed. The audience didn't quite know what to make of the young singer and his musical style.

Elvis didn't let the less than enthusiastic crowd get the best of him. Memphis reporter Bob Johnson wrote, "Elvis, who has played hard audiences before, kept right in there busting guitar strings and shaking his legs and the rafters..... And the ice began to break."

Visitors to the shows included his friend Judy Spreckels, Hal Wallis (who had just signed Elvis to his first movie deal) and entertainers Ray Bolger, Phil Silvers and Liberace. Elvis and Liberace were photographed cuttting up with each other for the press.

Even if Las Vegas hadn't yet come to love Elvis Presley, Elvis loved Las Vegas. The city that never closes and the many lounge acts he could see there suited Elvis very well. He and his friends visited the local amusement park almost daily, went to movies and flirted with showgirls. One of the acts Elvis saw a number of times was Freddie Bell and the Bellboys. He was fascinated with their male-perspective performance of the Leiber and Stoller composition, "Hound Dog", which, with its original female-perspective lyrics, had been a hit for Big Mama Thornton. Elvis quickly added the song to his own act and, in July 1956, made his own recording of it.

Elvis' manager Colonel Tom Parker arranged for a Saturday matinee for teenagers at The New Frontier on April 28,1956, the very same day that Elvis' recording of "Heartbreak Hotel" hit #1 on the Billboard pop singles chart. The show was, of course, a "screaming" success and the $1.00 admission charge raised funds for lights in a youth baseball park. One of the casino owners gifted Elvis with a watch with diamonds.

His first engagement in Las Vegas brought mixed reviews. Although he didn't return to perform there again until 1969, Elvis enjoyed visiting Las Vegas in the years after his 1956 engagement. In the years following resounding triumph of his 1969 engagement, Elvis and Las Vegas became permanently linked in the public consciousness.

Elvis's first appearance in Las Vegas was was an engagement at the New Frontier Hotel in 1956. It was not until 1969 that he performed in the city again. Elvis was ready for a change by then. His movies had been less than fulfilling for him creatively. His TV special in December of 1968 had been successful and exciting, giving Elvis a needed energy recharge, a chance to refocus his career goals. His manager Colonel Parker worked out a deal for Elvis to perform at the International Hotel in Las Vegas. The hotel, which was still under construction, would become the biggest hotel-casino in Las Vegas in that era. It would have a 2,000-seat showroom as compared to the typical 1,200-seat showrooms at other properties in the city.

The Colonel asked $500,000 for four weeks, one show per night and two shows on the weekends with Mondays off. He also wanted to be able to record albums and TV specials using the hotel's facilities. The International countered with $400,000 for four weeks ($500,000 if Elvis would be the first star to play the showroom), two shows a night, suites for Elvis and the Colonel, and recording facilities. The Colonel declined the offer of having Elvis open the showroom, preferring that another act endure the working out of any bugs in the new sound and lighting systems. Not getting the extra $100,000 was not a worry because the Colonel felt he would be in a position to renegotiate their deal once Las Vegas saw Elvis perform.

Elvis auditioned musicians and put together a great band, including James Burton (lead guitar), Larry Muhoberac (piano), Jerry Scheff (bass), Ronnie Tutt (drums) and John Wilkinson (rhythm guitar). He also hired two of his favorite singing groups to provide backing vocals - The Imperials, a male gospel group, and The Sweet Inspirations, a female R&B group. For his costumes Elvis engaged designer Bill Belew, with whom he had worked on the 1968 TV special.

Elvis and the band planned and rehearsed. When they arrived early in Las Vegas to continue rehearsals, Barbra Streisand, who was the showroom's first headliner, was still playing her engagement there. Elvis spent time visiting the other shows on the Strip, watching the acts and gauging the audiences. Meanwhile, the Colonel was plastering posters and banners all over Las Vegas. He had radio, TV and print ads running daily. In reference to his promotional blitz the Colonel told Elvis, "......the gophers in the desert [will] know you're here!"

Elvis began his 4-week, 57-show engagement on July 31, 1969. Opening night attendance was by invitation only and the room was full of celebrities and music critics. It has been said that, from the moment that Elvis appeared on the stage to the strains of "Blue Suede Shoes", the room "exploded". This engagement broke all attendance records in Las Vegas. The International gave Elvis a special gold award belt in commemoration of this feat.

In the hotel coffee shop after the opening night concert, Colonel Parker and International Hotel president Alex Shoofey renegotiated Elvis's contract, writing the new deal on the tablecloth that covered the table where they sat, effectively raising Elvis's salary to $1 million a year for two four-week engagements each year through 1974. Between 1969 and his final Vegas engagement in 1976, Elvis played approximately 641 shows at The International Hotel (renamed The Hilton in the early 1970s) with great success, including breaking his 1969 attendance record again and again.

RCA recorded a number of his Las Vegas shows over the years. A particular performance in one of the shows of 1969 has gotten a lot of attention over the years. During his midnight show on August 26, 1969, shortly after beginning to sing "Are You Lonesome Tonight", Elvis became amused by the antics of a man in the audience. Once Elvis started laughing about the guy, he just couldn't stop. He continued to laugh his way through to the end of the song while Cissy Houston of The Sweet Inspirations continued to sing her soprano obligato. RCA has, to date, released this much-requested recording on three albums: the "Elvis Aron Presley" silver box set, "Elvis: A Legendary Performer, Volume 4" and the "Collectors Gold" box set. Certainly, there are more important recorded moments, but we can't resist including information about this one because there's a non-stop flow of inquiry about it. Once in a while, a disc jockey somewhere will play it on the radio and we'll get messages!
from people who want to know how to find it. To answer a typical second question - no, unfortunately, the performance can't be found on video. The only formal filming of any of Elvis's Las Vegas engagements took place in the summer of 1970 when MGM shot several shows to include in that year's theatrically released documentary "Elvis, That's the Way It Is".