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Las Vegas: An Unconventional History | Primary Source

A Gross Top-Grosser

In a March 20, 1970 article, Life magazine described the Elvis Presley phenomenon. Nine months later, Elvis' popularity only increased with a four week engagement at the Las Vegas International Hotel. Fifty-seven shows later, he broke all Las Vegas attendance records.

A Gross Top-Grosser
Elvis Presley at Las Vegas
Gorgeous! -- or some equally effusive effeminate word -- is the only way to describe Elvis Presley's latest epiphany at Las Vegas. Not since Marlene Dietrich stunned the ringsiders with the sight of those legs encased from hip to ankle in a transparent gown has any performer so electrified this jaded town with a personal appearance. Without twanging a string, burbling a note or offering a hint of hip, Elvis transfixed a tough opening-night audience of flacks and entertainers simple by striding on-stage in the Costume of the Year.

What was he wearing? Nothing lavish, my dear, just a smashing white jump suit, slashed to the sternum and lovingly fitted around his broad shoulders, flat belly, narrow hips and...well, it's a nice fit. And then there are his pearls -- loads of lustrous pearls, not sewn on his costume but worn unabashedly as body ornaments. Pearls coiled in thick bunches around his neck, pearls girdled his tapered waist in a fabulous karate belt: rope of pearl alternating with rope of gold, the whole sash tied over one hip with the ends brushing his left knee. With his massive diamonds flashing pinks and purples from his fingers and his boyish smile flashing sheepishly through his huge shag of shiny, black hormone hair, Elvis looked like a heaping portion of male cheesecake ripe for the eyeteeth of the hundreds of women ogling him through opera glasses.

So dazzling is the superstar, so compelling is his immaculate narcissism, that you hardly notice the massive forces he has mustered to support him: the 38-piece orchestra stacked up like the Las Vegas Philharmonic, the front rank of black-clad Memphis Mafiosi armed with guitars and drums and the side-show chorus of eight integrated voices (the Sweet Inspirations and the Imperials). Elvis kicks off his show James Brown style by collaring the mike and shaking it to the beat of I'm All Shook Up, the kettledrumming orchestra shaking its huge body behind him. Coming to the guitar break, he strums the acoustic instrument slung white around his neck with the carelessness of a practiced faker. The number ends abruptly with Presley snapping into profile and thrusting his guitar bayonet-wise at the chorus.

The rest of the evening passes smoothly as the star glides through medleys of old tunes or lounges in elaborately upholstered arrangements of his new anthems. Every number ends with a classically struck profile -- Elvis as the Discus Hurler, Elvis as Sagittarius, Elvis as the Dying Gaul. Between poses, he offered glimpses of his wry humor: "My mouth's so dry, feels like Bob Dylan slept in it all night." Not quite the erotic politician that Jim Morrison proved to be when he disrobed on stage, Elvis manages very well with his constituency by occasionally grabbing a blue-haired lady at ringside and kissing her firmly on the mouth. Watching the women in the audience lunge toward the stage like salmon up a falls becomes the show's real comic relief.

The climax of Presley's monodrama is a tremendous Cecil B. DeMille tableau. The orchestra is silhouetted against a cerulean blue cyclorama while its members are transfigured by rich gold light pouring in from the wings. As the massed musicians sustain a mighty cathedral chord, the Great White Hope falls on one knee in the classic Jolson-gladiator pose, saluting the thousands in the house -- saluting, perhaps, the house, with its three-dimensional putti stringing yards of swagging chiffon between plastic classic columns.

Grander than the "Fontainblue," grosser than Grossinger's, the International Hotel, the ultimate motel, 1,500 rooms redolent more of Howard Johnson than Howard Hughes, has found itself an "attraction" magnetic enough to pull the shut-in generation over 30 out of their ranch houses onto nonstop jets and down into the Valley of Loose Gold where the King of the Oldy-Moldy-Goldys presides over his people with eternal youth and joy and jamboree.

Albert Goldman
Dr. Goldman teaches Greek and Roman classics at Columbia University.

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