Wednesday, August 12, 2009

Viva Las Vegas

I was eight years old. The Ritz Theater in Barnesville was in its (my) heyday. I could go see a movie, have popcorn and a Coke, talk Mr. Richard Wilson (Dicky's dad, who also owned a go-kart track out Highway 36 toward The Rock, Georgia) out of a candy bar, all for less than $2.00.

It was a weeknight--a school night, I think--when I met Gaines Abernathy and Tim Keadle at the Ritz to see Elvis in "Viva Las Vegas."

I'll never forget that night for at least two reasons.

One, I didn't really go to meet Gaines and Tim. I couldn't have cared less if they were at the movie or even in the same universe. I was meeting Diane Steinback, the Queen of the Third Grade. She was wonderful, I was stupid. It was great for about the first twenty minutes of the movie. Which leads me to the second reason.

I saw Ann Margret for the first time that night. She made, shall we say, an indelible impression on me. Red hair, sultry voice, large...hands. She had it all.

I fell in love. I was Elvis and she was my girl. I drove a race car in the Las Vegas Grand Prix and she was waiting at the finish line. My eight-year-old imagination went wild.

Looking back now it's apparent that Elvis met his equal in Ann-Margret. I didn't understand why they didn't get married. Of course, in fairness to me, I also didn't know that Elvis had Priscilla stowed away at Graceland the whole time either. I never liked Priscilla. I think Ann-Margret spoiled me.

I wanted to dress like Elvis after Viva Las Vegas. Mama went to Rich's and bought me a double-breasted burnt orange jacket like he wore in the movie. When I put it on my left leg started to quiver, my lip curled up on one side and I uttered "Ah thank Ah'm gunna sang me uh song and have me uh fight."

Of course there was no Las Vegas Grand Prix. And the last time the King had played Vegas back in the late '50s he was hooted out of town. But his time was coming.

After a truckload of formulaic movies through the '60s (all of which I saw), many people thought Elvis was a joke, a result of what rock'n'roll would do to a person. It wasn't cool at my school to be an Elvis fan. Beatles? Great. Creedence Clearwater Revival? Cool. Elvis? You gotta be kidding.

John Lennon once said, "Before Elvis, there was nothing." In 1968, Elvis decided to restore the cool and filmed what is now known as "the '68 comeback special" (more on that tomorrow). But in the back of his mind he had something to prove that could only play out in Sin City.

So, in early 1969, he signed a contract with Kirk Kervorkian to be the second-scheduled performer at the newly-opened International Hotel (later the Hilton) on the Vegas strip. Barbra Streisand opened the hotel for two weeks and then Elvis came to town.

It wasn't the '50s anymore.

"Elvis Summer Festival" played in Vegas for the next eight years, setting attendance and gate records, never to be equalled by any performer in the same venue. Vegas set the stage for Elvis to tour again for the first time since 1957, and his concerts became legendary. The only thing missing was Ann-Margret by his side.

And me in my burnt-orange double-breasted jacket.

1 comment:

Michael Ruffin said...

I don't remember Diane Steinback.