VANCOUVER CELEBRATES THE 50TH ANNIVERSARY OF AN ELVIS RIOT

Elvis lore is filled with stories of fans freaking out at his concerts in the 50s, but the biggest ruckus didn’t happen in this country.  That honor goes to the Canadian city of Vancouver in British Columbia.   Elvis’ concert at Empire Stadium on August 31, 1957, turned into a real mess.  Reporter John Kirkwood wrote in the morning newspaper The Sun, “Vancouver teenagers…transformed into writhing, frenzied idiots of delight… The most disgusting exhibition of mass hysteria and lunacy this city has ever witnessed.”

 

So, you’d think the folks in Vancouver would let this bit of embarrassing history be quietly forgotten?  Oh, no.  Why not throw a party to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the event.  I love the crazy stuff that goes on in Elvisworld.

 

The celebration took place on the same date, and the man who hosted the first one, legendary Vancouver DJ, Red Robinson, did it again.  I hung out with Red some at Elvis Week, and he sure got a lot of calls from the media back home concerning the celebration.  He complained about all the demands on his time when he should have been enjoying himself, but I know he loves all the attention.

 

Here’s a little history leading up to the original concert.  Back in 1957, rock concerts were held in theaters, arenas, and auditoriums.  Nobody had performed outside in football or baseball stadiums.  So it was a big leap for the promoters in Vancouver to book Elvis into Empire Stadium.  The stage was set up in the north end zone, and the crowd was seated in the stadium’s stands on either side of the football field.  Portable steel fences were erected to keep the fans off the field, and local air cadets (college students?) were hired as security.

 

The seating configuration allowed a maximum attendance of 25,892 people, and every seat was sold.  Tickets cost $1.50, $2.50, and $3.50, and total revenues came to $61,099.  This number is interesting when compared to that spent on “security” – only $412.  In retrospect, it seems the promoters might have shelled out a few more bucks for professional security protection.

 

Elvis came into Vancouver riding on a string of eight straight #1 hits, and he created fan hysteria at every concert on his tour.  When Elvis hit the stage at Empire Stadium, a roar went up from the crowd unlike anything Vancouver had ever experienced.  Red Robinson remembers that Elvis sang “Hound Dog,” “Jailhouse Rock” and a few other songs, but it’s doubtful the fans could hear him because of the constant shrieking.

 

They also could hardly see him.  For most, he was just a tiny speck on the distant stage.  All the fans were on their feet and moving closer, and soon they overwhelmed the air cadets.   According to retired Vancouver Sun photographer Ralph Bower, “They knocked (the fence) over and… came like a herd of cattle.  I was standing there and they ran right over the top of me.”  John Kirkwood’s newspaper report the next day said, “It was like watching a demented army swarm down the hillside to do battle… when those frenzied teenagers stormed the field.”

 

Colonel Parker then pulled Elvis off stage and told him to tone down his act.  He also admonished the crowd to calm down or Elvis would not continue the concert.  Elvis came back and promptly ignored the Colonel’s words.  Likewise, the fans’ hysteria continued to rise until Elvis and the band had to run from the stage in fear for their own safety.  I love this quote from Elvis’ buddy George Kline, “The last thing we saw was the stage being turned over.”  The concert lasted only 22 minutes.

 

The next day, DJ Red Robinson was on the air and said, “Wasn’t that wonderful.  Elvis stayed at the Hotel Georgia, room 1226.”  Even though Elvis had already departed, the fans were apparently still psyched up.  Red continued, “The fans went up and ripped up the carpet and tore pieces out of the bed.”  Red’s employer, radio station CKWX, had to pay almost $5,000 to repair the damage.

 

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Red Robinson and Elvis before the concert.

 

Things were a lot calmer during the 50th anniversary celebration this week.  The party was held in Rogers Amphitheatre, and Joe Esposito, Elvis’ best friend, was guest of honor.  Award-winning Canadian tribute artists Steve Elliott and Wally Tierner provided the musical entertainment.  The promoters called it “one glorious night of stories, remembrances, and good old rock n’ roll.”

 

I wish I could have seen the celebration, but I really would have loved to be at the near-mythic event 50 years ago.  Red, you are so lucky to do both

 

©  2007   Philip R Arnold   All Rights Reserved   www.elvisblog.net.

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