In the early years of his career, Elvis performed in all sorts of venues: high school gymnasiums, amusement parks, VFW Halls, county fairs, honkytonks, you name it. But did you know he even gave one performance on a riverboat – one that the police declared was unsafe to sail? It happened on March 23, 1956 on the Potomac River in Washington, DC.
Steamboat excursions on the Potomac River became very popular social events after WW II. One of the prominent ships was the Wilson Line’s SS Mount Vernon. Each morning and afternoon, it carried primarily families to George Washington’s mansion and to the Marshall Hall Amusement Park.
But, it was in the evening that the SS Mount Vernon made its big impact. Each night, starting at 8:30, hundreds of Washington DC’s young lovers danced on the ships moonlit decks as the lights of the Potomac shore glided by. The SS Mount Vernon had its own house band and often put on floorshows and contests. Although there was a glass-enclosed cabin for use during inclement weather, most of the young couples preferred to dance on the open upper decks, with the breeze off the river cooling them in these pre-air-conditioned times.
SS Mount Vernon
The SS Mount Vernon itself contributed to this romantic setting. It had an art deco design, layer-cake color scheme, and gleaming chrome rails. However, it wasn’t always like that. The ship was originally built in 1916 as the City of Camden, and it sailed in the Delaware Bay. In 1939, the Wilson Line had it rebuilt from the hull up, a glamorous makeover to “the Potomac’s first steamliner.” Advertisements proclaimed that she could carry “1000 dancing couples on moonlight cruises.”
During the early 50s, a DJ and promoter originally from Lizard Lick, NC (no joke) named Connie B. Gay (also no joke) regularly booked Saturday afternoon country and western shows at Washington DC’s Constitution Hall. In March 1956, she learned about a young performer who had caused a stir with his first five appearances on the Dorsey Brothers’ TV program, Stage Show. He would be passing through Washington while traveling from New York to Richmond for a concert appearance at the Mosque Theater. She booked him for a Saturday night appearance on the SS Mount Vernon.
Ms. Gay made the right call. Elvis Presley was the new young talent, and he had created a buzz among teenagers that would explode just a few months later. His first national hit “Heartbreak Hotel” was ripping up the charts, and the teens of the DC area descended on the SS Mount Vernon in record numbers. When Elvis arrived at Pier 4, he found the riverboat overflowing with young people.
However, neither Elvis nor the fans had any idea that the riverboat had blown a steam pressure valve the previous afternoon and had to be towed back to the pier. Although pipe fitters worked steadily to restore engine power, repairs were incomplete as the mob of teenagers boarded the boat. For safety reasons, the police refused to let the overloaded and partially disabled riverboat sail, but they would allow the concert to proceed on the docked ship. I guess they figured everyone could get off the SS Mount Vernon if it started to sink at the dock, but they feared a disaster should it happen in the middle of the river downstream.
Connie B. Gay announced to the crowd that the show would go on. The riverboat would not cruise down the river, but they would get a special double-length concert. Elvis came through and performed for almost three hours. We can only image what Col. Parker extorted from Ms. Gay for that.
Apparently, some of the couples in attendance were there for the river excursion and didn’t care who was performing. Before the concert began, about one hundred chose to take their $4 refund and left the riverboat. I wonder how often those folks have regretted that stupid move.
Because the evening was cold and blustery, the remaining couples abandoned the decks for the glass-enclosed cabin. It was so crowded that they could not dance. So, they missed out on the ship’s two main attractions – cruising down the river and dancing – but they got to see Elvis perform for three hours.
Pretty good trade-off, if you ask me.
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