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‘Don’t You Go Winnin’ Elvis No Oscars’

Las Vegas prepares for the King

Elvis Presley

Elvis PRESLEY from 'That's The Way It Is', playing Gibson J-200 acoustic guitar rehearsing songs at MGM studios, 1970.

RB/Redferns/Getty

Las Vegas — The morning of the day Elvis Presley opened his third month-long appearance at the International Hotel, his manager, Colonel Tom Parker, was supervising the decoration of the building’s entrance, watching half a dozen men climb ladders and hang hundreds of little colored flags on strings. The flags said it was an “Elvis Festival” and they gave the entrance to the huge hotel the look of a used car lot.

Inside, on the carpeted steps leading to the casino dripping crystal stood a pretty blonde hawking Elvis Presley photographs ($1) and picture books ($1.50) and beyond her every dealer and pit boss was wearing an Elvis Presley scarf ($3.50, available at the hotel’s gift shops) and a white styrofoam skimmer with a colorful band that once again proclaimed the month an “Elvis Summer Festival.”

Elsewhere in the hotel  in the six restaurants, by the bay-sized pool (largest man-made body of water in Nevada, aside from Lake Mead), in the half-dozen bars, in the youth (baby-sitting) hostel — were pasted posters and autographed pictures and scarves and banners and flags. Outside the 2,000-seat Showroom Internationale the hotel’s professional decorator was stapling this stuff to everything that wasn’t moving.

At the reservation desk there was a line 30 feet long and an attractive redhead was telling the day’s 300th caller (her estimate) that no, there wasn’t any room in the inn — every one of the hotel’s 1,519 rooms was full. (Herb Alpert was told he could bunk in with Lou Adler or go somewhere else.) The showroom itself was reported sold out two shows a night, seven nights a week for more than half the engagement, unprecedented on opening day.

Why? Nick Naff, the short, dapper hotel publicist, says, “Elvis changes the entire metabolism of the hotel. And he is singularly significant in one regard: there is constant occupancy. Tom Jones, they fly in, see the show, fly out again. Elvis has such a following, so many fans, for him they fly in, check in and stay the month.”

The fans . . . the incredible Elvis fans, who make it clear once and for all that the word’s origin is in “fanatical.” Bob and Nancy were here to get married in a chapel near the hotel. Sue and Cricket were here, too, but wherever Elvis is, they are  literally, most hours of every day, 365 days each year  so that was expected. The girl from Chicago, the one who’d bitten Elvis on the neck in February, was back. On the elevators were dozens more, trying to get past the guards on the 30th floor, where Elvis was staying in the incredibly luxurious Crown Suite. While still more wandered aimlessly through the casino, wearing I LIKE ELVIS buttons, seeking a familiar face – a fan from England or Australia met here the last time Elvis was in Las Vegas; one of Elvis’ hired hands; or, prize of prizes, Elvis’ dad Vernon, who likes to play the slot machines, or Colonel Tom, whose favorite game is roulette.

Giving the scene a final, bizarre touch was a 40-man camera crew from MGM, here to make a feature-length documentary for national distribution in time for the Thanksgiving school holidays. So regularly were they in the casino  interviewing the bell captains, the dealers, the maitre d’, the bartenders, the change girls, the chefs, the fans  the gamblers paid them no mind, even if they were hauling and shoving huge Panavision cameras between the rows of slot machines.

“What’s all that?” said a woman with pendulous breasts, dressed in a halter and Bermuda shorts.

“They’re makin’ a TV about Elvis,” said her husband.

“Oh,” said the woman. “Gimme another five, will ya, hon? I wanna play the quarter machines.”

* * *

It had begun a week earlier, as Eddy Arnold approached his final week in the showroom. It was then the film crew arrived with the Colonel and some of his staff, followed by Elvis and his “Memphis Mafia” and the five-man backup band. Each day thereafter you heard the name Elvis more and more.

Already the filming had begun, back in Los Angeles, as Elvis started rehearsals with his band and the documentary’s Oscar-winning director, Denis Sanders, visited some of southern California’s top Elvis fans.

“What we’re trying to do,” said Denis, once arriving in Vegas, “is capture Elvis the entertainer, from the point of view of the fans, the hotel, the city, the audience.”

He explained that about half the film — 50 minutes to an hour — would be edited from Elvis’ first five performances in the showroom, the rest would be in scene and interview. Scenes like Bob and Nancy Neal’s wedding  in three takes, incidentally  and interviews like those with members of the Hair cast.

(Those filmed with the cast appearing at the hotel’s theater were deemed too “far-out” for inclusion in the film: they began with someone mentioning one of Elvis’ MGM films, Harum Scarum, and saying what a horror it was, building to where a black actor improvised a scene, playing Elvis as an illiterate learning how to talk.)

“What I’m shooting is a musical documentary,” says Denis, “and I’m not just talking about the concert segments. Everything in the film will be musical. Just as Elvis, or any other performer, alternates fast numbers with slower numbers, say, or creates moods, so will I. We’ll have a sad scene, a happy scene, another sad scene, and so on. Other elements will be constructed like, in a ballad when you hit the instrumental break, we’ll maybe cut to a face in the audience and from that cut to the same face getting married.”

If this sounds not at all like the predictable Elvis Presley flick, it is because Denis Sanders is not the predictable Elvis Presley director. He comes to the project with an astonishing — for Elvis — background. His six-hour documentary for National Educational Television, Trial: City and County of Denver vs. Lauron R. Watson, won the 1970 Saturday Review TV award and the 1970 Cannes Film Festival prize for best news film. He wrote the 90-minute TV special, The Day Lincoln Was Shot; directed episodes of TV’s Naked City, Route 66, Alcoa Premiere and The Defenders, as well as several features, including Shock Treatment and One Man’s Way; wrote the screen adaptation of Norman Mailer’s The Naked and the Dead. And his Czechoslovakia, 1968 won the Academy Award for best documentary last year.

Denis says he does not know why he was called to direct the Elvis film. He’d never even met the Colonel or Elvis and the only contact he’d had with MGM was in 1955 when he was kicked off the lot after working just two weeks as director of The Subterraneans. At that time, he says today, MGM accused him of trying to turn Jack Kerouac’s novelette into an “immoral film.”

However mismatched Denis may seem to be, on the surface, probably he is the perfect choice. Elvis’s films haven’t been making the fortunes claimed in recent years and it is logical that with his return to personal appearances there should be a concurrent shift in film direction. Making a documentary — as opposed to another creampuff musical — is a means of realizing this shift. Making a good documentary cinches it.

Says Denis, not immodestly: “The film will make a fortune. The money will come in buckets, which is something Hollywood understands. But it also will change things stylistically. I think it will make it much easier for other documentarians.

“There is a greater demand for reality today. We can televise an event, say, and if we do it ‘live,’ that is reality. If we run it on tape delay, that’s a documentary, isn’t it? And if we start editing, we’re rearranging reality – but maybe that’s the way we get closest to reality. Maybe that’s the way we capture the essence.

“This is what I am trying to do with Elvis. I know what my elements are and although I’m still not certain of the construction, I have the basic tinker-toy going. All I have to do now is build it. It’s not like in ‘story’ films, where all the elements are dependent upon those preceeding them. I can move modules in an out and introduce totally different elements, and still make my overall point.”

Pretty heady talk for the man in charge of an Elvis Presley flick. But it probably will be an unusual film, if for no other reason because no documentary has ever been made in Metrocolor and Panavision and none has had a budget of more than a million dollars – surprisingly little of which goes to Elvis. Denis gets no more specific than to say half the budget covers all the “above-the-line,” or creative, costs. Normally Elvis gets a million dollars in salary, plus 50 percent of the profits, so this apparently means Elvis has taken a cut.

It has been an unusual week for Elvis in many ways.

When the Colonel arrived, trailing a staff of attendants from RCA Victor, MGM and the William Morris Agency, he took an entire wing on the fourth floor, posting a 24-hour guard who was permitted to allow no one admission, but was instructed to give all visitors an Elvis Presley post card and an Elvis Presley calendar. The Colonel then had his staff decorate the hallway – covering one wall with a gigantic Elvis movie poster, the others with banners and flags, stacking the styrofoam “straw” hats outside the doors.

Meetings were held almost daily, during which minions were given orders for each day, or perhaps did little more than chat with the Colonel’s wife (back in Palm Springs) on the phone.

“Say hello to Stan,” the Colonel’d say to his wife, Marie.

“Hello, how are you feeling today?” Stan would say. “How are Chrissie and Midnight? [The Parker cats] Yes, ma’am, everything sure is going OK. Yes, ma’am. Here’s the Colonel now.”

And the Colonel, who called his wife two or three times daily, would tell her what he had for breakfast.

“Parker was here ten days ahead and he created tremendous excitement,” says Nick Naff, who insists Elvis is worth anything the Colonel asks. “The first time he was booked in here, some of us had our doubts. I mean, we opened July Fourth with Barbra Streisand, who’d just won an Oscar, had three pictures going. She was one of the hottest entertainment properties in the world, the name was fantastic. We knew we had something. Elvis was an unknown stage property. He hadn’t appeared anywhere in eight years. We knew he’d be something of a draw, but my God! Elvis was, and is, a blockbuster. He makes Streisand seem like … well, let’s say that Elvis is extremely appealing, that I’ve never seen anything like it before.”

A few months ago, Nick says, all the Las Vegas kitchen help walked out, causing all the hotels to shut down. Suddenly the town was dead. Nick says the hotel owners had a meeting to decide what to do when the strike ended, because there had to be something to pull the people back again, fast.

“We knew there would be no immediate occupancy afterward unless we had an incredible draw, so all the hotel owners agreed: the best thing for Vegas was Elvis. If we could get him for a week, we knew everybody would do OK.”

(The Colonel agreed to have Elvis return for ten days, but according to Nick, the strike ended before Elvis could get his band together and rehearse properly, so the International went ahead with an earlier booking, the Gene Kelly Show. Others say Kelly refused to be bumped for the week.)

“Look,” Glenn D. Hardin, the pianist in Elvis’s backup band, said to some musician friends in Los Angeles, “if you’re with Elvis, they take care of you in Vegas, no matter what hotel you’re at. Business picks up all over. Ever’ hotel we went to, they said employment was up, tips was up. It’s the magic word. So if you guys are up there, say, ‘I’m with Elvis … he’s waitin’ in the car.’ They’ll take real good care of you.

“The hotel opened July 4th with Streisand,” says Glenn D., “and they couldn’t keep the sumbitch full. But with Elvis it was full full full. Had ’em sittin’ in the aisles and the fire marshal was there sayin’ you gotta get these tables outa the aisles. And they’re sayin’ shut up and we’ll get you a seat in the front next week.”

So popular was Elvis in February, the maitre d’ and head waiters reportedly split $300,000 in “tips” (grease) for the month. That’s $10,000 a night.

* * *

As the days passed, the activity increased. The Colonel was in a room the hotel had converted into a paneled office – unprecedented for a manager everywhere: now the Colonel has a permanent “Las Vegas office.” Across the street the Landmark Hotel had been booked solid with the overflow from the International. In the gift shops there were no more scarves or “Elvis Summer Festival” hats. (Someone said this was planned by the Colonel, who knew if there weren’t enough to go around, the demand would be greater than ever.) The hotel’s security force had been augmented by 50 percent – to provide Elvis and the Colonel with round-the-clock guards, give Elvis two guards to walk him from the dressing room to the showroom, and post one guard outside every door leading backstage. Whenever anyone ordered something from room service, with their order came an RCA Victor catalog of all Elvis’s records, two 8-by-10 black-and-white photographs, two color 8-by-10s, and an Elvis Presley pocket calendar.

In the casino bars could be seen the people from Elvis’s past, coming to pay semi-annual homage to the man they knew in the old days. George Klein, who was president of Elvis’ senior class at Hume High in Memphis in 1957, was there, talking with the mountainous Lamar Fike, who’d been one of Elvis’ “bodyguards” for so many years, before Elvis got him a job running Hill and Range Songs in Nashville, who was buying a drink for Jim Kingsley, a Memphis newspaperman who’d grown up in Tupelo, Mississippi, about the same time Elvis did and since has prided himself on being “the newspaperman closest to Elvis.”

And Emilio, the maitre d’, was checking the celebrity reservations: Dwayne Hickman, Juliet Prowse, Sid Caesar, Xavier Cugat, Slappy White, Herb Alpert, Dale Robertson, George Hamilton, Jack Benny, Jane Morgan, Jackie Cooper, Sammy Davis, Jr., Sonny Liston, Cary Grant.

And Denis Sanders was giving his 40-man crew final instructions before taking eight cameras into the showroom, five of which were to remain rolling throughout the hour-long show.

And the Colonel was giving Denis his last-minute instructions. “Now don’t you go winning no Oscar with this pitcha,” he said, “because we don’t have no tuxedos to wear to the celebration.”

Upstairs on the 30th floor, where he would remain the rest of the month except to sing twice nightly, Elvis was taking a nap. 

In This Article: Coverwall, Elvis Presley

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