Believe it or not, the judgmental sentiment above came from a Newsweek magazine review of Elvis’ shows in Las Vegas. How could this be? Elvis was synonymous with Las Vegas and performed to sold-out crowds at more than 700 shows there in the 70s.
The explanation for this incongruity is that Newsweek was actually reviewing Elvis’ 1956 performances at the New Frontier Hotel.
Newsweek wasn’t alone in its ridicule of Elvis’ New Frontier shows. Bill Willard of the Las Vegas Sun ended his review of the show with this:
“His musical sound… is uncouth, matching to a great extent the lyric content of his nonsensical songs.”
Elvis bashing was a popular pursuit among entertainment critics in 1956, but there is more to this story. Although Elvis was a huge success everywhere else that year, he actually bombed in his first appearance in Las Vegas.
It’s my opinion that Col. Parker made one of his few mistakes managing Elvis’ career when he set up the shows. Instead of booking Elvis as the headliner in a smaller venue, Parker booked him to be the “extra added attraction” at a long-running show featuring Freddy Martin and his orchestra. The venue was the Venus Room, holding almost 1,000 people.
Also on the bill were comedian Shecky Green, the Venus Starlets and a cast of 60 performers who made up a typical Vegas entertainment package.
Freddy Martin was a popular name in big-band music, and his shows regularly drew large crowds of middle-aged fans. For some reason, Col. Parker must have thought Elvis would appeal to these folks. Unfortunately, the older crowd didn’t like Elvis at all. Another disparaging quote from Bill Willard’s review sums it up perfectly.
“For Teenagers, the long tall Memphis lad is a whiz; for the average Vegas spender or show-goer, a bore.”
Elvis was well aware that the audiences ‘didn’t’ get it.’ Three years later, he recalled:
“After that first night I went outside and just walked around in the dark. It was awful…. I wasn’t getting across to the audience.”
After causing near-riots everywhere else he performed, it must have been a hard thing for him to handle.
Other Las Vegas Sun reviewers were able to say some nice things about Elvis. Bud Lilly wrote,
“Here is a young man who has an inherent ability to arouse mass hysteria wherever he goes, yet is unassuming and completely untouched by the fabulous success he has achieved almost overnight… His avid fans have elevated him to a plane reached only by a few singers of our time.”
Ralph Dent called Elvis The Shake and Shiver Kid, and then made a totally stupid statement.
“Here stands Elvis Presley, who has probably has yet to blow out his 21st birthday candle, drink his first beer or kiss his first girl.”
Dent might be right about the beer, but how stupid is it to say Elvis had never kissed a girl. Come on, he had girls falling all over him at every stop.
As Scotty Moore and DJ Fontana’s books revealed about life on the road with Elvis, he did a lot more than just kissing.
The New Frontier Hotel had an interesting history. When first built in 1942, the Old Frontier Hotel had a Western theme and only 105 rooms. It was renamed the New Frontier in 1955 and remodeled with a space travel/celestial theme.
By the mid-seventies, it had become an old, rather seedy relic of the past, and the New Frontier Hotel closed for good on July 16, 2007. At the time of its closing, the sign out front advertised Bikini Mechanical Bull Riding and Mud Wrestling, and it promised Cold Beer and Dirty Girls.
However, the old hotel sat on 34 acres, so it sold for $1.2 billion. The New Frontier was razed and the property developed into a $5 billion complex, including a 3,500-room luxury hotel, private residences, a casino, and upscale shopping.
There is a footnote to this story. The common narrative about Elvis’ first shot at Vegas is that he bombed. However, he did have one concert there with no adults in the audience, and it was a huge success. He also came back to Memphis with memories of many big-fun off-stage experiences. Elvis adapted quite well to the Las Vegas nightlife and had a ball. This was all covered in the 2011 ElvisBlog article titled Elvis’ First Trip to Las Vegas Was a Blast.
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