Believe it or not, the disparaging sentiment above came from a Newsweek magazine review of an Elvis show 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. Elvis 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. 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. Parker couldn’t have been counting on filling the venue with Elvis’ fan base of screaming teenagers, because they were in short supply in Las Vegas in 1956. Unfortunately, the older crowd didn’t like Elvis at all. Another 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.”
Elvis on Stage at the New Frontier Hotel
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 was right about the beer, but how naïve to think 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. Dent also stated, “My wife seemed pretty much interested in Presley’s gymnastics on stage,” and then he admits this caused a cold sweat to pop out on his forehead. I’ll bet he didn’t take his wife backstage to meet Elvis after the show.
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A footnote to this story is that the New Frontier Hotel closed for good on July 16 of this year. It will be razed at 2:30 tomorrow morning (Monday, November 13) to make way for a $5 billion complex, including a 3,500-room luxury hotel, private residences, a casino, and upscale shopping. 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. Elvis performed in the Venus Room which held almost 1000 people. Various owners expanded the New Frontier Hotel over the years. Howard Hughes bought it for $14 million in 1967. Kansas-based businessman Phil Ruffin paid $167 million for the property in 1997. He investment was in the land, not the hotel. He sold the 34-acre property in May 2007 for $1.2 billion.
Knowing that the New Frontier’s days were numbered, Ruffin put no money into the hotel, and it had grown rather seedy over the past few years. At the time of it’s closing, the sign out front advertised Bikini Mechanical Bull Riding and Mud Wrestling, and it promised Cold Beer and Dirty Women. I wonder what the Las Vegas Sun entertainment critics had to say about that.
© 2007 Philip R Arnold All Rights Reserved www.elvisblog.net