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When Elvis Presley shook up South Florida

One month after Elvis Presley turned 21, a bartender tossed the future King of Rock ‘n’ Roll out of a West Palm Beach saloon.

It was between his 2 and 5 p.m. shows at the defunct Palms Theatre, and Elvis needed a drink. He strolled into Dude Dodge’s Marine Show Bar on Clematis Street and ordered a beer. But when he failed to produce an ID, the barkeep ordered him out. He didn’t recognize the pelvis-shaking singer with the jet-black pompadour.

Presley, an avatar of cool on the cusp of breakout success, performed four shows on Feb. 20, 1956, three weeks after releasing his single, the moody “Heartbreak Hotel.”

South Florida became among the first to witness the dawn of Elvis-mania.

Between 1956 and 1977, Elvis curled his lips and swayed his hips on the stages of six of South Florida’s current and bygone venues: the Hollywood Sportatorium, the Palms Theatre, the Fontainebleau Miami Beach, the Olympia Theater, the West Palm Beach Auditorium and the Miami Beach Convention Center. This Aug. 19, two shows in Fort Lauderdale will celebrate the legacy of the King.

For the Presley-philes who recall swarming his South Florida concerts, time has not diminished the memories of one of the most commercially successful musicians in history, not even 40 years after his death on Aug. 16, 1977.

“He was such a beautiful man in person,” says Diane Cappillo, 73, of Miami Lakes, recalling the day in 1956 she stormed the Olympia Theater as a 12-year-old bobbysoxer. “I was bonkers. I was gone.”

The breakout year

The West Palm Beach bar incident is recounted in Bob Kealing’s recent book, “Elvis Ignited: The Rise of an Icon in Florida,” published in February.

Presley was zig-zagged around Florida with his no-nonsense manager, Col. Tom Parker, a former Tampa dogcatcher. RCA Records had signed Presley to his first record deal in December, and the Florida concerts came a month after he recorded the material for his debut album.

After the barkeep ejected Presley, Col. Parker dragged him back to a nearby hotel. “Col. Parker treats him like a petulant child and orders him back to the hotel room, and Elvis kowtows to him like a wayward son to an overbearing father,” says Kealing, a former Orlando broadcast journalist and Elvis historian.

To Kealing, Presley was the “Johnny Appleseed” of the state, spreading rock ‘n’ roll rebellion around Florida.

“1956 was [Presley’s] most transformative year,” Kealing says. “Floridians were lucky to have this up-close and intimate view of him as he’s becoming the biggest star in the country.”

South Floridians would catch another glimpse of Presley-mania that year when the singer returned for seven performances Aug. 3-4 at the Olympia Theater in Miami. The performance fell weeks before a Jacksonville judge warned Presley to keep his controversial hip-swinging in check onstage or face the possibility of jail. The Olympia dates were also a month before his infamous Sept. 9 appearance on “The Ed Sullivan Show,” whose host deemed Elvis the Pelvis too hot for family viewing and filmed him above the waist.

“People thought Elvis played the Devil’s music,” says Chris Macdonald, of Fort Lauderdale, who has performed in South Florida costumed as the King for a decade. “The more his hips moved, the bigger the frenzy. He was the first American idol, the prime time rebel rocker. He came at the perfect time. He had the perfect look. He sounded the perfect way.”

Arriving at the Olympia in an ecstatic daze on Aug. 4, Cappillo recalls pushing her way through hordes of screaming bobbysoxers all flanking a stage that carried a jaw-dropping spectacle. Presley, guitar in hand, was singing “Hound Dog” to an actual basset hound perched on a podium. Cappillo went to pieces.

“He’s standing on stage singing to a hound dog, and all these girls are going crazy. I was in seventh heaven,” recalls Cappillo, who lived near Brickell at the time. “He was gyrating his hips onstage. For its time, it was something [to behold]. These days, what he did was pretty modest.”

After the concert, Cappillo visited her aunt and uncle’s gift shop behind the Olympia Theater, where she was presented with her second-favorite memory of the night: Presley’s autograph on a card, with a strip of dark fabric attached.

“Somehow, [my aunt and uncle] got a piece of his trousers,” Cappillo recalls with a laugh. “Someone must have been cutting them up, giving them to fans. In my heart it’s real, and don’t anyone ever tell me differently. I kick myself that I didn’t go to the other concerts, but I still have that beautiful memory. I’ve got Elvis in his prime on my mind.”

The Chairman and the King

Presley’s stint in the U.S. Army from 1958 to 1960 had left fans ravenous for a glimpse of their idol. Col. Parker cooked up a star-studded television special to be held at the Fontainebleau Miami Beach. On March 22, 1960, Presley rattled down the Florida East Coast tracks in a railcar frequently mobbed by shrieking fans and news outlets feverishly tracking his movements.

Kealing says the ride to Miami became noteworthy for its zealous fans. Presley mostly kept hidden behind the railcar’s drawn shades, despite thousands of teenagers clamoring for a peek. During a scheduled stop in Hollywood, some 5,000 teenagers, journalists, railroad workers and courthouse secretaries – along with police holding them at bay – descended on Presley’s railcar. “Elvis, shorn of sideburns, but dazzling in black and silver togs, got a less enthusiastic greeting in Hollywood,” the Miami Herald wrote the next day, “where a barrage of eggs and tomatoes kept him inside his private car.”

The tomato-hurling, egg-chucking teenagers – Ronnie Sineone, John Delia and John Deleo – later apologized to Presley in Miami.

“The Hollywood mayor felt so bad about it, he sent an envoy to give Presley the key to the city,” Kealing says. “I have no idea why people threw that stuff. Maybe the kids were jealous that their girlfriends were screaming for another guy. There’s a funny story of a girl who pretended to be an elevator operator at the Fontainebleau just to sneak into Elvis’ room. He kept the door closed the whole time.”

In newsreel footage housed at Miami Dade College’s Wolfson Image Archives, rabid fans and reporters are shown swarming the arrival of his railcar in Miami. But the railcar was a ruse: Somewhere south of Hollywood, Presley had slipped into a car and quietly retreated to his eight-room Fontainebleau suite.

On March 26, Presley appeared onstage at the Fontainebleau for the taping of “The Frank Sinatra Timex Show: Welcome Home Elvis,” a homecoming special on ABC pairing Presley with other ‘50s heavyweights: Frank Sinatra, Sammy Davis, Jr., Joey Bishop and Peter Lawford.

Sporting a tuxedo to appeal to Sinatra die-hards, a nervous-looking Presley (it was his first TV appearance in three years) crooned new singles “Fame and Fortune” and “Stuck on You,” sang duet with Sinatra and even performed the Chairman’s classic, “Witchcraft.” In return, Sinatra sang “Love Me Tender.

“Maybe your yen is for tennis courts…”

Fewer hit singles and a slate of Hollywood movies, mostly mediocre musical comedies, chipped away at Presley’s luster in the 1960s. But Florida was hardly devoid of Elvis, who filmed the 1962 film “Follow That Dream” near Ocala.

For the 1965 film “Girl Happy,” Presley recorded a nearly forgotten single, a schmaltzy ode to bikini girls and South Florida sports titled “Fort Lauderdale Chamber of Commerce.” Serenading a bikini-clad woman lounging poolside at a hotel, Presley sings, “Girls on the beaches commit a sin / They don't show yards and yards of skin / Preceding message to you has been / Through the courtesy of the Fort Lauderdale Chamber of Commerce.”

“It’s kind of a little hokey to hear,” says Carolyn Michaels, the Fort Lauderdale chamber’s executive vice president. “But your ears perk up when he says ‘Fort Lauderdale’ and you think, ‘That’s kind of cool.’ ”

The song was actually filmed in Hollywood, Calif., and not a local hotel, but Michaels believes the single brought some notoriety to the city’s economic and tourism engine.

“I don’t think we ever used Elvis’ song as a tourism tool. But it reiterated all the fun, freewheeling times of Fort Lauderdale in the ‘60s,” she says.

Pandemonium at the Sporto

Presley visited South Florida three times in the ‘70s. A Sept. 12, 1970, show at the Miami Beach Convention Center packed in 12,000 Elvis worshippers. And in late January 1977, hundreds of chilly Elvis-philes hunkered in box office queues to buy tickets for a Feb. 13 stop at the West Palm Beach Auditorium.

But the first stop of Presley’s 1977 tour – the last one before his death – belonged to the Hollywood Sportatorium on Feb. 12, where a reported 14,700 fans stormed the concrete hangar on the western edge of an undeveloped stretch of Pines Boulevard.

“Packed tightly into a white, sequined jump suit,” writers Carl Hiaasen and Al Messerschmidt wrote in a Miami Herald review, “the paunchy, 42-year-old Presley climbed on stage, slung a guitar over his shoulder and belted out ‘C.C. Ryder’ as a galaxy of flashbulbs illuminated the huge auditorium.”

Accompanied that night by touring acts Sumner and the Stamps Quartet and the Sweet Inspirations, Presley’s concert at the Sporto rapidly descended into chaos. Before his 9:30 p.m. arrival, a helicopter touched down outside the Sportatorium, a diversionary tactic, according to a Presley bodyguard. (Presley actually arrived via Greyhound bus). Fans surged toward the stage at the outset, muscling concertgoers out of their seats. Fistfights broke out near the apron as Presley, while performing “Don’t Be Cruel” and “Jailhouse Rock,” tossed autographed scarves into the audience. “Sure is a warm reception,” Presley reportedly joked onstage.

A then-29-year-old Diana Eustice, of Oakland Park, was there that night. “He came out to the theme from ‘2001: A Space Odyssey,’ ” Eustice, now 69, recalls. “I tried running to the stage because he was throwing leis around. Cameras were flickering all over the place. The place was packed, packed, packed. It felt like a movie, and of course, when he sang the Hawaiian wedding song, everyone just died.”

Eustice says she was drawn to Presley’s jumpsuit – “Never in a million years did I think anything was wrong with him” – and confirms the bedlam in the Sportatorium.

“I know it was crazy and radical, but it wasn’t that way for me,” Eustice says. “It was a beautiful concert. It was a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it opportunity.”

On Saturday, Aug. 19, Chris Macdonald performs a “Memories of Elvis” concert at the Parker Playhouse, 707 NE Eighth St., Fort Lauderdale. On the same night, “Graceland Presents: Elvis Live in Concert” will take place at the Broward Center, 201 SW Fifth Ave., Fort Lauderdale. It will feature archival clips of Presley onstage, accompanied by a live orchestra.

pvalys@southflorida.com or 954-356-4364

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