Encore

Heartbreak Hotel

1956: Elvis bombs in Las Vegas -- We look back at The King's first Vegas gig, where the crowd was less-than-impressed

He curled his lips, swiveled his hips, and howled like a hounddog-but the crowd in the Venus Room at Las Vegas' New Frontier Hotel on April 23, 1956, couldn't have been less shook up.

It was Elvis Presley's very first Vegas gig — a two-week stand for a measly $17,000, with the man who would be King wedged in between the velvet-toned Freddie Martin Orchestra and borscht-belt shtickman Shecky Greene — and he bombed royally. The audience of mostly middle-aged marrieds from Middle America stared in slack-jawed silence as Elvis wailed such tunes as ''Blue Suede Shoes.'' Newsweek described his performance as ''a jug of corn liquor at a champagne party'' and reported that the crowd ''sat through Presley as if he were a clinical experiment.''

Fortunately, Elvis the Pelvis was having better luck with younger listeners off the Strip. His ''Heartbreak Hotel'' single was No. 1 on the charts when he appeared at the Venus Room; his recently released first album, Elvis Presley, had sold more than 362,000 copies in two months (it would eventually go on to sell more than a million); and the singer, then only 21, had just weeks earlier signed a seven-year movie contract with producer Hal Wallis and Paramount Pictures. And a few months before, Presley had made his national TV debut on CBS' Stage Show (he followed the June Taylor Dancers).

Still, flopping in Vegas had Elvis singing the blues. ''I don't want no more nightclubs,'' he fumed to the press after one performance. ''An audience like this don't show their appreciation the same way. They're eating when I come on.'' As if that weren't humiliating enough, after a few days Elvis' name on the hotel's marquee was dropped from first to third billing — beneath the comedian and orchestra leader.

Elvis tasted revenge, of course. By the mid-1970s, toward the end of his life, the pop potentate had become one of Vegas' biggest, most expensive acts, earning a million dollars a month for squeezing into white jumpsuits and making a new crop of ladies swoon. That's somewhat better than Freddie Martin and Shecky Greene ever did.

TIME CAPSULE: April 23, 1956
George Gobel and Mitzi Gaynor were flying high in movie theaters with The Birds and the Bees, TV viewers were lapping up Lassie, and Edwin O'Connor's political novel The Last Hurrah had the last laugh on the best-seller list.

Originally posted Apr 23, 1993 Published in issue #167 Apr 23, 1993 Order article reprints
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