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In December 1976, Elvis Presley took the stage in Las Vegas for the final time. The King was noticeably overweight and bloated. His hair was dyed jet black, a stark contrast to his white sequined jumpsuit. He ran through a series of hits, but appeared nearly immobile, standing statically at the front of the stage, only occasionally giving a half-hearted sway or a leg jiggle.
His heart didn’t appear to be in it. Elvis was simply going through the motions.
This unplanned farewell capped a troubling few years as the once-vibrant performer deteriorated before the public’s eyes.
A few months earlier, Elvis, so weak and overweight that he wasn’t able to walk from his dressing room to the theater’s elevator and often required a chair on stage, had to cancel several shows. At other performances, he rambled between songs, often about his love of karate or his 1973 divorce from his wife of six years, Priscilla.
He had been leaning on pills to get through a grueling schedule, playing two shows a night for weeks on end. Even though his dependency had worsened and now included injections of the liquid narcotic painkiller Demerol, Elvis railed against press reports that he was strung out, threatening from the stage, “If I find or hear an individual that has said that about me, I’m going to break their goddamn neck, you son of a bitch!”
The King wasn’t yet dead, but he was clearly on his way.
“As performances go,” The Hollywood Reporter wrote in the early ’70s, “Elvis Presley’s at the Las Vegas Hilton is sloppy, hurriedly rehearsed, mundanely lit, poorly amplified, occasionally monotonous, often silly and haphazardly coordinated.”
When most Americans think of the singer and Las Vegas, they think of this late-era Elvis — all tacky showmanship and puffy features.
But the author of a new book argues that it shouldn’t be that way. He says that early on, at least, Elvis’ years-long residency in the desert was actually among the high points of his career and a transformational moment for the city itself.
“Las Vegas revitalized his career, and he also revitalized Vegas,” Richard Zoglin, author of the new book “Elvis in Vegas: How the King Reinvented the Las Vegas Show (Simon & Schuster),” tells The Post.
Zoglin originally set out to write a book about the history of Vegas. But then he discovered that Elvis’ association with the town — beginning in 1956 and ending in 1976 — perfectly bookended an era.
Las Vegas had been associated with live entertainment before Presley, of course.
The city was “born in the 1940s, when the few hotels that had popped up along US Route 91, the highway leading south from downtown Las Vegas toward Los Angeles — soon to be known as the Strip — discovered that star entertainers were the key to attracting customers to their lucrative casinos,” Zoglin writes.
In the 1950s, the biggest names in the business flocked to play the town, and by the early 1960s, Vegas had entered a golden age, accorded an ageless cool by Frank Sinatra and his Rat Pack’s run of shows at The Sands.
But only a certain kind of entertainer was thriving in Vegas: older, established stars, such as Nat King Cole and Judy Garland.
Into this setting came Elvis, arriving to play Vegas for the first time in April 1956. He was just 21 and in the midst of his breakthrough year. His first single for RCA, “Heartbreak Hotel,” had been released in January and by April, it topped the charts. He was on his way to becoming the biggest star in the world. But first, his Svengali-like manager, Colonel Tom Parker, signed him up for a gig at Vegas’ New Frontier, a hotel and casino that had opened in 1942.
Presley was paid $15,000 for two weeks and was touted as “The Atomic-Powered Singer.” He performed as part of a triple bill alongside comedian Shecky Greene and a bandleader named Freddy Martin. Elvis and his backing band played four songs and were onstage for just 12 minutes. That might have been 11 minutes too long for the audience, which was made up largely of older gamblers.
Midway through one song, a high-roller got up and walked out, complaining, “What is all this yelling and noise?”
Elvis must not have taken the rejection too hard because over the next few years, Vegas became his favorite vacation destination. “He loved seeing the lounge shows. He loved staying up all night and partying, and he loved the showgirls,” Zoglin says. “It was all his fantasies come true.”
The women were probably the biggest draw. Presley and his friends would see a show and try to meet every showgirl in it.
“In those days, the dancers were required to stay in the hotel lounges between shows to mingle with guests,” a friend recalls in the book. “ ‘See those five girls over there?’ we’d say to the maître d’. ‘Ask them if they’d like to join us for a drink after the show.’ ”
Elvis took most of the 1960s off from live performing, instead focusing on making movies.
But a December 1968 televised NBC special that drew a whopping 42 percent of the national viewing audience brought revived attention to his singing career.
Two weeks after it aired, Parker inked a deal for Elvis to play a four-week engagement in Vegas for $100,000 a week — the rate Sinatra and other top performers got.
Elvis’ venue was to be the International, a brand-new, $60 million hotel that was, for a time, the biggest in the world.
His manager wanted to put on a more traditional show, with showgirls and “glitzy production numbers,” but Elvis had a dream one night envisioning a straight-ahead concert in which he was backed by a large band, back-up singers and a 40-piece orchestra.
Because the hotel was new, Elvis insisted he not be the first performer to play its ballroom, for fear of technical glitches. So Barbra Streisand was hired to open the room.
Finally, on July 31, 1969, Elvis launched his run. He was in good shape, down to 165 pounds, having trained with wrist and ankle weights.
He had several jumpsuits made of stretch gabardine by the same company that made costumes for the Ice Capades. The high collars, according to his ex-wife, were to cover his neck, which he thought was too long.
Stars, including Cary Grant and Sammy Davis Jr., packed the audience.
Elvis was all over the stage, blowing kisses to the audience and dropping to one knee. During a later show, he danced so much, he split his pants.
“Even though his career had been on the decline for years, he was still a powerful performer on stage,” Zoglin says. “Maybe the most powerful of all time.”
The show won rave reviews and sold out the entire four-week run, drawing an all-time record 101,500 fans.
The Colonel quickly inked a deal for Elvis to appear for two four-week runs a year for five years. Rumor has it that Elvis’ act was the first Vegas show to actually make money, as opposed to being a loss leader to attract gamblers. And it pointed a new way for Vegas in terms of entertainment.
“It was a big extravaganza show, as opposed to a more intimate nightclub show,” the author says. “It opened the door to big shows. All the modern residencies in Vegas, from Celine Dion to Lady Gaga — Elvis was the first of those kind of shows.”
The King performed 636 Vegas shows over the next seven years, every one sold out. The grueling schedule, however, which required Elvis to perform two shows a night for four weeks, began to take its toll.
He grew exhausted and bored and turned more to drugs. His show began to suffer.
In October 1973, while at home in Memphis, he was rushed to a hospital, semi-comatose. He took a few months off to rest and returned to Vegas the next year.
He died on Aug. 16, 1977. Zoglin says he doesn’t necessarily blame Vegas for Elvis’ death, as some fans do. The residency contributed to his decline, but “many factors” led to his death.
What is not in dispute is Elvis’ effect on Las Vegas.
As Zoglin writes, “After Elvis, everything [in Vegas] got bigger: higher salaries, gaudier productions, more musicians onstage, splashier publicity campaigns.”
And the “broad-based, Middle American audience” — not older gamblers — that Elvis attracted would become the target audience for Vegas’ reinvention in the 1980s and ’90s.
“You’ve got to look at what he achieved and how great he was at the outset,” the author says.
“I think his is a positive legacy.”
Originating Source - pagesix.com
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