Elvis Presley’s Miami Connection
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.
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”:
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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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.
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.”
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.
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.
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.
It’s still possible to find some who saw Elvis perform at the Olympia in 1956.
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