By Maria Columbus & Jeannie Tessum

(Attended the July 31 opening show as well as the press conference that followed)

marquee-mcIt was hot on the morning of July 31st,1969 when we arrive in Las Vegas, Nevada. We didn’t have show reservations until the next day, August 1st, when the general public could get to see Elvis. The opening show was by ‘invitation only’ and Las Vegas was packed with celebrities, press, photographers, high rollers and fans. The eyes of the entire world and every fan were on the International Hotel. Las Vegas is a flat city, and the International was visible for miles around. We kept our eyes glued to the hotel during the brief taxi ride from McCarran Airport.

We had written to the publicity director, Nicholas Naff, several weeks earlier asking about a possible press conference. He actually answered with a brief letter advising us that credentials would be arranged IF we were in town. His letter arrived a day before we were to leave for Las Vegas. We had all but memorized that letter by the time our plane touched down.

After we reached the hotel and settled in our room on the 26th floor (by throwing our suitcases on the beds), we gave the publicity office a call. Six tries later, we figured out that we were being given the runaround. During our last and seventh call, the exasperated secretary told us we would find Mr. Naff by the Showroom Internationale. We asked how we would know him and were told he had dark hair and was wearing a grey suit. We rushed downstairs then screeched to a halt. What kind of a description was that? A security guard at the entrance to the showroom said he would give us the high sign when Mr. Naff walked by.

gallery_21960_25_183935Time passes and no sign of him. Just as we were about to give up hope, Colonel Parker walked by us. Now HIM we recognize! We would talk to Colonel right? A small army descended on Colonel in seconds. We kept our distance waiting quietly for our chance. Soon the crowds dispersed and Colonel turned to disappear through the doors. Jeannie gave me a shove saying, “Now’s your chance.” I panicked as I found myself propelled in Colonel’s direction – alone. “Oh great” I thought. Colonel looked down at me and I gulped. I explained writing to Mr. Naff and the reply we had received (luckily I was still clutching it). Colonel told me to read the letter to him, as he didn’t have his reading glasses with him. I was halfway through the letter when he stopped me. He patted me on my head and leaned down to whisper, “I’ll handle it. Show up after midnight and you can attend the conference. Just don’t tell anyone.” He took the letter, and wrote on it “OK Col Parker 12.30 AM Convention Hall.”

Colonel started to turn away when i panicked again. “Colonel, my friend and her daughter are with me. Can they come too?” I held onto Colonel’s arm in a brave moment. “Sure, no problem.” Colonel said. “Just remember, don’t tell anyone else. I don’t want a huge crowd at the doors.”
I thanked Colonel, after reassuring him and FLEW over to Jeannie. We did IT!
Back to our room and we collapsed. I fell onto a chair by the large picture window. Leaning on the table I kept repeating, “We did it, we did it, we’re going to Elvis’ press conference. I can’t believe it.” Jeannie wasn’t in any better shape. After a few wasted minutes trying to unpack her suitcase, she joined me at the table. “It’s sure hard to think around here.” Jeannie mumbled. Someone in the room above us was pounding on their table. “Boom, boom, boom” This went for what seemed like ages. “Either that guy is very nervous or he is practising drums to try out for Elvis’ band,” I said. “Should we pound on the ceiling? I’m beginning to get a headache, Jeannie said, looking up at the shaking chandelier. “WAIT a minute. Isn’t Elvis on the 27th floor??!” “How could he be right above us?” I argued. “Well, why not? His room has to be over someones room, doesn’t it?”

About this time the pounding stopped. A Minute later it started up again.
“He must be really nervous. I sure wouldn’t want to be in his place. There must be a million people in this hotel. But how are we going to find out if it really is Elvis?” asked Jeannie. “Maybe we could ask him at the conference.” I said. “Are you CRAZY???”. All this was whispered, just in case Elvis could hear us. “Let’s go eat. Elvis needs some privacy.” “Okay.”

Minutes later, we were seated in the Cafe Continental glancing at a menu. Looking around us we spotted Priscilla and her girlfriends at a table nearby. Karen, Jeannie’s 9 year-old daughter, wanted to see Priscilla close-up so she sauntered over to their table for an autograph. Jeannie gave Karen a color snapshot taken when Lisa Marie was just 10 days old to give to Priscilla for Elvis. Karen came rushing back, “Priscilla liked the picture and promised to give it to Elvis today. But she wouldn’t give me an autograph.”

With hours yet to kill before midnight, we decided to walk over to the Showroom Internationale and watch all the lucky people. This time the whole area was cordoned off for the invited guests. We found a place at the ropes by the Host, Jerry Baum, and three heads swung back and forth as we watched celebrity after celebrity walk past us. A little later Kerry came over to us and whispered, “Hi, are you girls going to the show tonight?”
“Hi, no tomorrow night.” we replied.
“Well, would you like to get in tonight? A booth is open, someone cancelled.”
“WHAT?! Yes-s-s!” We nearly screamed. Minutes later we found ourselves inside the showroom seated in our own booth!


What’s on the menu today…

The dinner menues were long and black with gold lettering and an embossed robbin on the front. A cut-out circle on the cover showed a color photo of Elvis on the inside. Dinner started at $15 per person and sounded delicious. And what a deal – a great meal and Elvis. What more could anyone want?

We were in the second tier of booths and could see the celebrities seated down by the stage area. They even looked like normal people. Karen saw several people walking around asking for autographs and suddenly I found myself walking around with my menu, too. Jeannie sat guard at our booth. The first table we stoped at was the Presley booth. Vernon, Dee and the boys were there but no sign of Priscilla. We moved to the stage area and talked with Wayne Newton and Carol Channing who were at the same table. Angie Dickinson asked us if we didn’t want her husbands autograph, too (but who was Burt Bacharach?). Paul Anka, Ed Ames and Dick Clark were in a group talking and all were gracious except Clark who scowled at everyone. On our way back to our table we ran into George Hamilton. We sat down as our meal was being served.

And then the show began. The Sweet Inspirations came on first, then Sammy Shore, a comedian. The gold curtains closed and the stage was bare.

There he was! Elvis wore a dark blue variation on a karate suit, tapered and belled. He went right into Blue Suede Shoes without a word. You could tell that he was a little scared. Then he did I Got A Woman , followed by That’s All Right Mama, Love Me Tender, Jailhouse Rock, Don’t Be Cruel, Heartbreak Hotel, All Shook Up and Hound Dog.

Elvis said, “It’s the first time I’ve worked in front of people in nine years, and it may be my last… I don’t know.” Elvis also did Memories, My Babe, I Can’t Stop Loving You, In The Ghetto, and his new one called Suspicious minds. He did Yesterday, and went into sixteen bars of Hey Jude. After that followed Johnny B Goode, Mystery Train and Tiger Man. The final song was What’d I Say. Almost before the song had completely finished Elvis walked off the stage to a standing ovation. He returned in a few seconds and asked for the house lights to be turned up so that he could see the audience. His encore number was Can’t Help Falling In Love.

Elvis had been on for over an hour!

Karen sat on her knees completely mesmerized the whole time without moving or uttering a word. We clapped our hands until they ached. It was the best show Las Vegas had ever seen.
Other showrooms were preparing for their midnight shows. And Elvis was holding a press conference at precisely the same time the other shows were on. Few had critics in their audiences for who wanted to miss out on chance of a lifetime? We had no idea where the convention hall was located. After being directed to the wrong area, we arrived at the convention hall out of breath and just minutes before 12:30 am.

There were several security guards at the entrance. They folded their burly arms, scowled at us and said, “WHERE do YOU think youre going?!” We were in the midst of explaining that Colonel had invited us when he came over to us. Colonel took us by the arms, said “These ladies are my guests” and escorted us into the conference room! Left behind were several very flustered and bewildered security guards.

Once inside Colonel told us to make ourselves comfortable then he left us. We sank into the nearest chairs. And decided that the best seats to collapse onto were not in the last row. We managed to find three empty seats in the 7th row by the right wall. The front rows were crammed with press and photographers.

The array of cameras was unbelievable – every type imaginable. I had a Minolta 35mm, but jeannie had only an instamatic. It was the first time I had handled a telephoto lens though, and was it ever so topheavy. Was I nervous? Nope, except one of my photos shows a perfectly shot view of Elvis’ hand and several faces! Was Jeannie nervous? Nope, except out of whole rolls of film only one photo came out. Just one flash went off but that didn’t stop her as she clicked happily away!

We stared at the front tables and wondered who were going to sit in the seven seats. There was a pitcher of water and glasses and several stacks of manila evelopes on the tables.. On each end of the tables stood two stand-up posters announcing Elvis at the International Hotel. The tables spanned the width of the room while the audience, which was divided into two sections, faced them.

Colonel Parker, resplendent in a white coat stamped with ‘Elvis – International – In Person’, announced that the conference was about to begin. Everyones attention was riveted to the door behind Colonel. The door swung open and Elvis walked in, followed by Vernon, Joe Esposito, Charlie Hodge, Lamar Fike And Sonny West. The entire audience, hard-nosed reporters and photographers, jumped to their collective feet and gave Elvis a standing ovation. After five minutes we all sat down and Elvis took a deep breath and said a soft “Thank you”. Elvis next words were “I’m really beat. That was the fourth time I did that show today” He had done three full dress rehearsals before opening.

Colonel told everyone they could ask their questions now and afterwards anyone with a camera could come to the front and have their picture taken with Elvis, free! We got so excited during the conference that we used all our film while Elvis answered questions. Its just as well too, can you imagine us standing inches away from Elvis with a telephoto lens?
Elvis stood during the questions occasionally rested his foot or his knee on the table.

Colonel Parker ended the conference by announcing that we all could be photographed with Elvis now, but if it took a long time he’d charge us over overtime! Everyone surged forward.
The press photographers were getting frustrated. We had planted ourselves a fraction to the right of Elvis and were slowly inching ourselves toward Elvis. We stopped once we were directly in front of him. And we refused to budge. They had to shoot their photos over our heads and through our shoulders. By this time we were smashed against the table and couldn’t move.
I told Elvis that his opening show was absolutely fantastic. Elvis smiled at me and whispered “Thank you, honey.” Jeannie asked Elvis if he had received the photo we had sent up to him. Elvis looked puzzled and asked “What picture?”

“We gave the photo to Priscilla while she was in the cafe, a photo of you with Lisa and Priscilla, to give to you. She promised she’d give it to you today, Elvis” Jeannie answered. “Honey I haven’t seen Priscilla at all today,” Elvis answered wistfully. We were shocked. We thought that Priscilla had been backstage with Elvis on this important night, especially since she hadn’t come into the showroom until after the house lights had gone down.

One blond gal with voluptuous assets and a carnation in her hair went up to Elvis then. He took a long look at her picked the flower from her hair and promptly put it down her l-o-w cleavage. Everyone laughed while their photo was taken.

Elvis was asked what he thought of Fats Domino. Elvis beamed and said, “I love him, he’s the greatest!” He heard this chuckle, turned around and was face to face with Fats himself! Elvis’ mouth dropped but he recovered quickly and they posed for pictures.

We spotted a smiling May Mann rushing towards Elvis. I nudged Jeannie to catch her performance. May had refused to be civil to the fans before the show. Rodney Dangerfield came up to Elvis, too. Elvis was polite to every person who talked to him and treated each with respect regardless of how they looked, talked or acted. Everyone got Elvis’ full attention. This was not easy considering how he was surrounded by people on all sides. Elvis even managed to sneak little peaks at us the whole time we stood there, his eyes sliding over to us while facing the well wishers.

While we stood there near Elvis I recalled a previous conversation regarding the hair on Elvis’ chest. In some publicity photos Elvis had little hair while in others he had a normal amount. The question was, did he or didn’t he? After staring at  Elvis’ chest for a few minutes, I turned to Jeannie and whispered, “You know, he DOES have hair on his chest!” “Yeah baby, I sure do.” Elvis, who was in deep conversation with some reporters, smiled at me as he said this. I was mortified. He had heard me! I thought of hiding under the table or passing out. I did neither as I didn’t want to miss anything. Instead, I pulled out my menu and asked Elvis to autograph it.

After he signed it, Jeannie handed Elvis a publicity photo from 1961 and asked Elvis to sign that. He looked at it, frowned and said, “Where the hell did you get this?” And he proceeded to tear it! Jeannie screamed “No!” Elvis stopped tearing it a quarter way down and with a smirk said “If you insist. But who do I sign this to?” “To Jeannie” “Deannie?” “No – Jeannie” By this time Jeannie yelled it out and Elvis blinked and laughed. With a twinkle in his eye he turned the photo over and wrote on the back. It was now Jeannie’s turn to be mortified. She had yelled at Elvis. Elvis got us back though, he toyed with our pen (a blue and white striped one) through many photos until we got it back later.

Colonel stopped the photo session saying, “That’s it folks. Thanks for coming.” And everyone left.