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Larry Harnisch reflects on Los Angeles history

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Elvis live!

 

1957_1029_elvis_wally_hed

Oct. 29, 1957
Los Angeles

1957_0108_elvis He came out of nowhere, barely a blip on the nation's radar in 1955 (according to Proquest, he wasn't mentioned even once in The Times that year). But by 1957, he was an unstoppable sensation.

So when Elvis Presley performed his first live concert in Los Angeles at the Pan-Pacific Auditorium, The Times carried two reviews, perhaps sensing a pivotal moment in American pop music.

Then again, maybe not. One review was by Hollywood gossip columnist Hedda Hopper, by then (Lord help me) 67 years old and accustomed to dealing with pliant movie stars hungry for good press.* The other review was by (Lord help me) George Walter Pearch, a.k.a. Wally George, 25, whose column, titled "Strictly off the Record" and then "Court of Records," appeared in The Times from 1957 to 1961 and heavily favored 1940s big band music.

The Times clips from the 1950s are a feast of Elvis trivia (What famous movie star was booted off the university track team because he refused to trim his Elvis-like sideburns? What famous Presley movie was briefly titled "Treat Me Nice"?).

The 1957 stories are especially illuminating as to how unaware people were that Presley's career was merely beginning. He was compared to faded singers like Frankie Laine and frequently came out second best to singers promoted as his rivals: Pat Boone and Ricky Nelson.

But all those citations (including ads, news stories and TV listings, Presley's name appeared in the paper 163 times in 1956 and 286 times in 1957, according to Proquest) are far beyond the limits of this blog. So I'll stick to the concert.

Unfortunately, The Times apparently didn't send a photographer, so we have no pictures of what went on.

Before the performance, Presley conducted a news conference before a fairly hostile group of reporters in a back room of the Pan-Pacific. He was wearing a black shirt, gold evening jacket and a rhinestone belt, according to George.

Hopper and George noted that Presley was polite. Hopper called him "young, likable, wanting to please."

"He was a pleasant, mild-mannered person who might have been any other 22-year-old young man," George wrote. "He was quiet, polite, somewhat shy and made sure to sprinkle in plenty of 'sirs' when he answered newsmen."

Here's the Q&A, reconstructed from George's articles:

Q:
Unknown.
A: "I don't sing. I yell."

Q: Do you intend to change your presentation due to national criticism?
A: "I can't. It's all I can do."

Q: When will you write more songs?
A: "That's all a hoax. I can't even read music."

1957_0114_elvisQ: What about your guitar?
A: "Can't play it--use it as a brace."

Q: "What's your emotional power over women?" (Asked by a female reporter).
A: "Gosh..." replied Elvis, whispering something inaudible into a mike provided for the occasion.

Q: "Read this!" snapped another reporter, shoving a magazine article into Elvis' hands. It was an article written supposedly by Frank Sinatra attacking the institution of rock 'n' roll music.
A: "I admire the man, he has a right to his own opinions," carefully replied the blackshirted Elvis.
Q: "That's all you have to say?"
A: "You can't knock success."

Q: Are you considering marriage?
A: No, he's enjoying playing the field too much.

Q: How long do you intend to wear your 2-inch sideburns?
A: Until Uncle Sam makes him shave them off, perhaps soon. He's 1-A.

Q: How much money are you making?
A: Over $1 million a year, he's not sure of the exact figures.

Q: What do you think of rock 'n' roll?
A: "It's the greatest ever, mainly because it's all I can do!"

For the statisticians among the Daily Mirror readers, Presley performed for 50 minutes and sang 18 "of his biggest hits," including "Heartbreak Hotel" and "Jailhouse Rock." The audience was estimated at 9,000.

Unfortunately, not a note could be heard because of the shrieking audience, according to Hopper as well as George, who also blamed a "frightfully poor audio system."

"The screams came in a sort of rhythm like a great storm at sea so you couldn't hear a word he was singing," Hopper wrote.

"It wasn't an audience of just kids; whole families were there, nice people. Dozens of policemen surrounded the stage but turned their backs on Elvis to watch the audience and see that no one moved. They were told if they got up or walked down the aisle toward Elvis the show would be over."

"He smiled and the crowd screamed," George wrote. "He nodded his head and they made as if to overrun the stage. The musical group behind him struck a chord and Elvis opened his mouth as if to sing--nothing was heard."

"Elvis rolled over and over on the floor, still clutching the mike," Hopper said. "but his performance isn't sickness. He knew what he was doing.... You felt he was mentally saying to himself: 'Do you know an easier way of making a million a year?' "

She added: "In former days police would have been looking at the performance [instead of watching the crowd]. I've seen performers dragged off to jail for less."

And after it was all said and done, it sounds as if Hopper and George may have warmed to Presley:

Hopper wrote: "Elvis' audience got the emotional workout of their lives and screamed their undying love for the greatest phenomenon I've seen in this century."

After coming to Presley's defense against enraged critics, George said: "Well, we don't particularly like his style either. But after observing him closely at a press conference we feel that, as a person, he's not too bad a kid."

 

1957_0307_elvis

I would like to salute the first Elvis impersonator apparently recorded in The Times: A student dressed up like Elvis caused a riot at Corona High School on March 6, 1957, during the school's weekly assembly. Students began shrieking "We want Elvis!" The Times said, forcing Dean of Boys Wayne Taylor to recruit every male teacher to quiet the crowd.

The student's name? Tony Colosimo. Wherever you are, Tony, here's to you!

Email me

*California death records list her date of birth as June 2, 1890.

You're wondering about those trivia questions. Surely there are Elvis fans out there who know the answers.

1957_1029_elvis_wally

 
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Comments (4)

Elvis Presley, an emerging American cultural phenomenon, makes his first(?) L.A. appearance and the Los Angeles Times sends out Hedda Hopper and Wally George to cover the event for what looks like inside page stories. That pretty much says it all.

The Times might have been the highest circulating newspaper in the West and fairly decent at covering the news of the day in 1957, but when it came to cultural matters, the paper clearly left a lot to be desired. Perhaps a reflection of the cultural values of the Los Angeles urban area in general in those years.

Elitist East Coast Media Snobs like Henry Luce and his Time Magazine may not have been that far off the mark with the TIme cover portrait of Norman Chandler holding a copy of the TImes folded up like a child's paper hat.

I am the writer/producer/director of the Warner Bros feature documentary, THIS IS ELVIS. I was a student at North Hollywood Jr. High School in 1957 and attended both shows of the Elvis Presley Concerts at The Pan Pacific Auditorium. Years later when we were making THIS IS ELVIS I came across the footage referred to in The Daily Mirror: Los Angeles Times: Elvis live! -- and used it in the film along with LAPD footage of Elvis in the legendary gold suit (He only wore the gold suit in the first concert) and also used that footage in THIS IS ELVIS. Seeing Elvis live in '57 changed my life and attitude about everything... I've done a number of music related films: THE BEACH BOYS AN AMERICAN BAND and HEROES OF ROCK N ROLL. I blame it gladly all on Elvis.

Currently I'm preparing a film on the recently uncovered 11 hours of Screen Tests for GONE WITH THE WIND and researching a film on the life of Jerry Garcia. Interestingly, just prior to seeing Elvis at the Pan Pacific I had paper routes delivering the morning LA Daily News and the LA Mirror.

Thank you,
Malcolm Leo

--Awesome! Thanks for sharing!

--Larry

Thanks so Much, Great Site

Note that the segment in "This Is Elvis" where Elvis is seen in his famous gold lamé suit is not police footage, despite what the documentary claims. It is taken from a newsreel made in Chicago on March 28, 1957 -- Presley's first show of the year. In LA that October 28th he wore a gold lamé jacket with black slacks for the first night, and a light-colored suit the second evening (October 29th). Presley is only known to have worn the full gold suit three times:

Chicago = March 28, 1957
St. Louis = March 29, 1957
Toronto = April 2, 1957 (afternoon show)


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