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Elvis Presley’s Miami Connection

May 12, 2010 By Bill Cooke in Miami: Local News  | 11 Comments

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On the surface, 1950’s Miami appeared to be a small-town friendly place. Day-to-day life was simple, uncomplicated. Former Florida governor and U.S. senator Bob Graham, a 19 year-old college freshman in 1956, remembers the time fondly: “There wasn’t a better time and place to grow up. Miami was a relatively small and neighborly place; quiet and laid back.”

My-am-uh - as many locals called it - was as Southern, conservative and deeply religious as any comparably sized town in Alabama, Georgia or Mississippi.

The city’s afternoon newspaper, the Miami Daily News, printed a Bible verse daily on its editorial page. On Saturdays the Miami Herald carried two pages of church news.

But for those who cared to look, an undercurrent of unfairness was visible just below Miami’s placid facade.

White males dominated the city’s political power structure, businesses and newspapers and the word “change” was not in their vocabulary. They made the rules and inequality was the rule of the day. Blacks were barred from restaurants, theaters and beaches frequented by whites. Miami’s schools - like the rest of the South - were also segregated.

In August 1956, a lavender Lincoln Premiere speeding south on US1 was bringing change to Miami - whether it wanted it or not. One of the car’s occupants was a 21 year-old Memphis truck driver-turned-singer named Elvis Presley.

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In 1956, Presley’s popularity with teens and young adults exploded after almost two years of live concerts throughout the South. And by the summer of ‘56 a succession of national television appearances not only boosted his record sales among teens but also caused a stir as Eisenhower’s middle America got a look at his on-stage gyrations and an earful of his style of “rock ‘n roll” music.

With the filming of his first movie set to start in late August, Presley’s days as a live performer were numbered. His manager, Col. Tom Parker, had scheduled one more series of live concerts in seven Florida cities.

The tour’s first stop was Miami, where Presley and his three back-up musicians had been booked for seven shows on Aug. 3rd and 4th at the ornate Olympia Theater on Flagler Street.

It was perhaps fitting that Presley’s last tour would include a visit to Miami.

In April, his haunting and eerie single, “Heartbreak Hotel,” hit number one on the pop charts. The song’s composers, Mae Axton and Tommy Durden, were inspired by a 1955 Miami Herald article about a man who had committed suicide in a downtown Miami hotel leaving only a one-line farewell note that read, “I walk a lonely street.”

On Friday, Aug. 3, as Presley rolled into Miami in his Lincoln, frenzied fans were already beginning to gather outside the Olympia.

Presley checked into the downtown Robert Clay Hotel, a few blocks from the theater; his first show scheduled for 3:30 Friday afternoon,

But even before his arrival, some in town had worked themselves into a different kind of frenzy over his visit.

Herb Rau, the Miami Daily News show biz columnist wrote on August 1st, “So that the Olympia theater won’t be the scene of a two day riot, the management’s taking every precaution to guard Elvis Presley against teen-age trouble this weekend. Every delinquent kid in town - plus many who aren’t delinquents but are fascinated by a duck-tailed hair-do playing the guitar and squirming his hips - will be on hand Friday and Saturday.” Rau went on to say the theater had hired a dozen off-duty cops to keep order.

Rau also reported that Col. Parker had turned down an invitation for Presley to stay at the swanky Fontainebleau Hotel in Miami Beach because he feared hordes of fans might damage the place. Parker also nixed any other Miami appearances for Presley. According to Rau: “he’s afraid to take him outside the theater because the kids would tear him apart.”

Early Friday morning, an enterprising Miami Daily News reporter showed up at Presley’s hotel and scored the first interview with “The Pelvis” - as the paper’s headline writers had dubbed him.

Reporter Bella Kelly informed her readers that Presley never wears blue suede shoes. “Ah don’t wear ‘em ‘cause there’s too many people wantin’ to stomp all over ‘em.” But Presley told Kelly, “I like black. I never wear any other color but black pants.”

Kelly asked Presley about his singing style. Presley replied, “I’m not trying to look sexy. I move around because that’s the way I feel when I sing. It has nothing to do with sex.”

Shortly after 4pm on Friday, Presley bounded out on the stage of the Olympia wearing a pink jacket, black pants and white shoes.

A bemused Denne Petitclerc documented the scene for the Miami Herald: “Elvis Presley, a big shouldered kid in a pink coat and long black pants, staggered onto the stage at the Olympia Theater Friday like a drunken Brando. And the mob, which stretched way up into the darkness of the theater, stood up and shrieked.

“Oh, go man, go!’ one girl in shorts screamed, her frantic hands at her black hair, eyes stunned and face contorted. And how they screamed. Presley jogged around the mike, and opened his mouth, and the mob drowned the sound away. He loosened his white tie and licked his lips and tried again, but the jam of teenage girls wouldn’t let his voice go.

“The mob of girls surged to the stage, where they knelt, arms upraised. A band of policemen, who were shaking their heads in disbelief, rushed in and pried the kids from the stage. Presley smiled, his shaggy brown hair began to fall like a horse’s mane, and even that brought a thundering of delighted squeals.”

But Miami Daily News reporter Damon Runyon Jr. - the son of legendary American newspaperman Damon Runyon - made no attempt to disguise his disdain for Presley, his music or his fans.

In his review, Runyon sneeringly called the show “contrived” and “obscene”:

Young girls (many less than teen age), not a few youths, and even a number of elderly deserters from Liberace’s ranks, witnessed their ‘lover boy,’ as they call him do the most obscene burlesque dance this reporter has seen in more than 20 years of getting around.

From the theater wings it was possible to see that the 21 year old Presley’s ribald routine is not of the emotions, as he’s been telling the press around the country—his pelvic performance is clearly contrived.

Also far from fervor of the uncontrolled type are his other million dollar stage mannerisms—the slack jawed gibberish, the glassy gape of a hypnotized hillbilly, the unmannered gesture of wiping the nose, the staggering and shaking as if he’d had a bad fit.”

Runyon also reported that after fans spotted Presley at the back door of the theater following the first show, “about 2,000 almost broke a police line to rush the stage door.”

Along with Runyon’s review, the News ran photos of Presley performing on stage Friday night. Most of them were shot by staff photographer Charles Trainor, a 29 year-old Korean War veteran. Also assigned to work with Trainor was a young photographer named Don Wright.

Trainor was admired by his fellow photographers as a guy who always got “the shot.”

Using a cumbersome 4x5 Speed Graphic camera, he preserved a single moment from the concert that endures to this day.

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Rolling Stone Magazine - The 100 Greatest Singers of All Time

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In the photo, Presley leans backwards, teetering on the tips of his toes as he pulls the mike stand towards him. The camera’s flash captures his open mouth in the middle of a lyric. His guitar hangs from his neck like an over-sized piece of jewelry.

The editors at the News thought the photo was okay, but apparently not good enough for the front page of Saturday’s paper. Instead, they chose Trainor’s shot of the girls in the alley.

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They relegated the shot of Presley on stage to an inside page of the paper.

Trainor died in 1987 after 33 years with the News, but Don Wright, the other News photographer at the concert that night now lives in West Palm Beach and has vivid memories of covering Presley.

Wright had been given a chance to be a photographer after starting at the News as a copy boy. Assigned to work with the more experienced Trainor, Wright remembers that night at the Olympia as being “slightly overwhelming.”

Wright admits he wasn’t much of an Elvis fan. “I thought he was a passing phenomenon and the excitement [surrounding him] would all eventually die,” adding, “but of course none of that would have occurred to a young photographer at the time just trying to get the shot.”

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Wright told me his most lasting memory of the concert was that any time Presley moved his body it “created waves of ecstasy among the girls [in the audience].”

Several times during the Friday shows, Col. Parker’s fears for Presley’s safety were realized. Wright shot a photo that shows a hysterical fan grabbing at Presley’s pants leg. At least one fan managed to tear the singer’s pink jacket to shreds.

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And when fans couldn’t get to Presley himself, they settled for anything he owned.

Following Friday’s last show, Presley made his way to his lavender Lincoln parked nearby. He found it covered with hundreds of love notes and phone numbers written in lipstick. The car was less than two weeks old. On Saturday, Presley visited nearby Miami Lincoln Mercury and traded in the lipsticked Lincoln for a brand new, white Lincoln Continental Mark II; sticker price $10,688.

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Presley did four shows on Saturday; the last one at 9pm. He left town shortly after. He was due in Tampa the next day.

Following Presley’s 1956 Florida tour, he cut back sharply on live appearances to concentrate on the second phase of his career; making movies and recording.

Post scripts:

It’s still possible to find some who saw Elvis perform at the Olympia in 1956.

  • Nineteen year-old Bob Graham was one of those in attendance at Presley’s Olympia performance. He told me recently that most lasting memory of the concert was Presley’s “mystique.” And he says, to this day “when one of his songs comes on the radio I stop and listen. Graham went on to win election as Florida governor in 1978 and was elected to the United States Senate in 1986.
  • Damon Runyon Jr., the acerbic Miami News writer who covered Presley’s visit, jumped to his death from a bridge in Washington DC in 1968. When his body was recovered, his press card was found tied around his neck.
  • Photographer Charles Trainor died in 1987. His son Charles Jr., a Miami Herald photographer, found his father’s Elvis negatives after his death and preserved them. In the 54 years since Trainor took the photo, it’s been published hundreds of times in magazines world-wide. A few weeks after the Miami concert, Trainor’s photo ran in LIFE magazine.
  • Don Wright become an editorial cartoonist at the Miami News in 1963 and worked there until the paper folded in 1989. Wright then worked for the Palm Beach Post until he retired in 2008. He has won numerous awards including two Pulitzer Prizes. Wright continues to cartton and his work is syndicated by Tribune Media Services.
  • It would be a stretch to say that Trainor and Wright photographed the birth of rock and roll on those two days in August 1956. It might be more accurate to say they documented the first baby steps of a uniquely American genre of music.

Related Categories: Miami: Local News,

About the Author: Bill Cooke is a professional photojournalist and life-long Miami resident. He also runs the wildly popular Random Pixels blog, covering local and national issues.

See more articles by Bill Cooke.

See more articles by Bill Cooke

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11 Comments on

"Elvis Presley’s Miami Connection"

Craig Pittman says:

This is great! Thanks for posting it, Bill. Love the details, especially how the iconic photo ran inside the paper, and the Miami inspiration for “Heartbreak Hotel.”

Posted on 05/18/2010 at 9:45 AM

Bill says:

Thanks for taking the time to comment Craig. It means a lot to me coming from someone like you. But as know, I’m all about the detail!

Posted on 05/18/2010 at 7:22 PM

South Florida Lawyers says:

Great stuff, Bill.  Is the Robert Clay hotel building still around?

Posted on 06/15/2010 at 11:32 AM

Bill says:

The Robert Clay Hotel which was at 129 SE 4th Street, was torn down in 1968

http://news.google.com/newspapers?id=bggtAAAAIBAJ&sjid=rtUFAAAAIBAJ&dq=robert clay hotel&pg=4374,5482872

Posted on 06/15/2010 at 4:48 PM

steve says:

Great Bill, I’m steve Rino I made a book called teenagers’ hero about Elvis’ live activity on the first six months of the 1956..now I’m working on the last six months of the same year..I’m working in this moment on the Florida
August tour..so I’d interested in any news or help about the tour..overall in contact with people who attended the show….do you think you can help??

Posted on 08/01/2011 at 6:45 AM

jake says:

My grandmother still has the PINK SLEEVE she ripped off of Elvis in the 1956 concert. I was just wondering how much would that be worth today? I want to frame it and make it look nice for her but I’m still looking for the picture of her with her foot on stage ripping it off of him.

Posted on 04/09/2012 at 10:16 AM

Janette Brown says:

The photo of the woman grabbing Elvis Presley’s pants leg is my mother, you’d think it was me for my mother look alot alike. My mother went to Elvis 6 months after my birth and told him she had gotten pregnant. Manchino on SCETV said a woman worked her way from the back of the crowd to the front got a kiss and said she had gotten pregnant. Elvis was my father took me 32 years to find out the two alias names she gave me was him. My son looks like him, I have two government spy names,and two photos of mom with Elvis and many photos of son and Elvis that looks like each other.

Posted on 10/20/2012 at 1:48 PM

Janet Brown says:

Elvis’s children are more than Lisa. My mother is Agnes(Jackson-Robinson), she was a hillbilly cat too, her family was land owners of the coal mines and alot of my hillbilly relatives were cheated out of profits of the coal and methane gas by all being put in escrow, some recieve only 25 dollars and for those who died in the caves some got just enough to bury their kin. Found out who were stock holders and one I found was Richard(Dick) Donovan the man my mother said was my father AKA Elvis Presley.

Posted on 10/20/2012 at 1:58 PM

Janet Robinson Jackson McGlothlin Donovan Brown says:

Hi, since I last was on here I gained more info, Bobby(Robert) elvis’s step brother is with the westminster,S.C. Masonic Lodge. This is what mother told me about my father he used two ALIAS names Freddy McDonovan and Richard(Dick) Donovan who served with Colonel Keesler. Their in the 2010 Life Magazine together it’s on the internet as hysterical fan grabbing Elvis Presley’s pants leg then click onto Miami Beach Miami Connection. My son is identical to his grand father as the blonde curly haired child and at 25 they still look alike. Now my mother being a nobody could not have known his FEDERAL agent names if he himself had not told her. She was hurt all her life physically to not tell me and before she died she was run over at the adult assisted living home she was living at she lived that after her death I was given documents that I later found my father was a part of. It’s Christmas 2012 what has happened to truth why did my mother have to suffer so and I also. I always prayed as a little girl Daddy please come find me, all of us foster children were abused, not by my Papa he was an angle to us all, after Papa died Wayne his grandson told me Papa was a Mason. I can’t underson even if my father became a christian why such a horror has been done to my life that I’d have to grt the FBI involved thats when I met Tony Deautre FBI he put a stop to the hell that began in 1980 when I started my search, up to 2006, there are some of the ugly people around me that I now Know who they are, as long as they bring me no harm I won’t have to report to the FBI. I’ve always been good to those who want God in their lives and to tell the truth. Let no human suffer at the hands of crooked people who desire money over a human life.

Posted on 12/08/2012 at 4:48 PM

Janet says:

Hi haven’t been on in awhile been working 2 shifts, this is Elvis’s 1st born Janet, Yes this site has been helpful, I now have a singing talent agent. I wasn’t sure that was what I want to do but I feel someone is pushing me in that direction, this I can say my father wanted his privacy because I todate have not found him, two people has guided me in the direction Due West telling me about Frank Baggett living on Frank Pressly Rd in Due West, outside of Anderson,S.C. well I find it odd also that John (Buck) Fulp is Elvis’s friend and is one of the contributers of money to the New Springs Church in Anderson,S.C., I believe that my father settled some where close to where I live and thats why the attack from the Newtons have been easy for they use to live in Clemson. I am not Richard (Fig) Newton’s daughter, Richard (Dick) Donovan .

Posted on 08/11/2013 at 4:27 PM

Janet says:

Can U imagine how I felt when I found out who my father at first I was happy, then I was angry for the people he has let hurt me. Janet in Anderson,S.C.

Posted on 08/11/2013 at 4:31 PM

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