With the opening of “Elvis,” Aussie director Baz Luhrmann’s opulent and operatic retelling of the life of Elvis Presley, the late King of Rock ‘n’ Roll returns to Hollywood, where his first local stage performance took place 65 years this October, in the form of a grandly ambitious biopic. It’s a movie that “prints the myth” on at least one key count … but so did Variety, back in the day.
If you watch closely, you’ll catch a reference to Elvis’ purported trouble with at least one local police department, supposedly vigilantly monitoring EP’s provocative stage moves in case the King’s 1957 gyrations proved “too much,” as deemed by the self-appointed arbiters of decency and militant opponents of juvenile delinquency.
“L A. Police Order Presley ‘Clean Up’ His Pan-Pac Show” screamed the Variety headline on October 30, 1957, the day after the second of two shows. The prose gets more purple from there.
“’Clean it up and tone it down.’ That was the crisp order issued by L.A. police last night prior to the second and last Elvis Presley performance at the Pan Pacific Auditorium. Ukase came on the heels of the opening night performance which provided a chilling picture of Presley’s impact on adolescent minds.”
How chilling was it? Variety continues:
“Deputy Chief Richard Simmons ordered his vice squad to give Presley strict orders that the alleged sexy stuff be cut.”
It’s quite a story, a humdinger of an example of how Elvis made the world of adults “all shook up,” just by the mighty power of his swiveling hips and pouting lips.
The larger hysteria might be true, but according to legendary Hollywood publicist Gene Schwam, this particular story is, to quote our president, “malarkey.” As in complete and 100%. But the truth has never been told until now.
“Who would think that 65 years later I would get caught being a press agent!” laughs Schwam from his Beverly Hills home.
Schwam’s past client list, along with his partner, the late Adeline Hanson, includes “press agenting” for Julie Andrews, Blake Edwards, Nancy Wilson, Ann-Margret, Ray Charles, Barbara Eden, Lenny Bruce, Henry Mancini and dozens more. Having started in the mid-’50s in Los Angeles by representing local restaurants and supper clubs, doing PR for Elvis Presley put Schwam and his partner on the public relations map in a huge way. Shortly after serving as the praisery for Elvis’ Hollywood stage debut, Hanson and Schwam nabbed the Coconut Grove as a client for the next 14 spectacular years.
“When Hanson and Schwam got the Coconut Grove, for 14 years, every night we got the calls: ‘Can you get me a table’ for whoever was playing: Nat King Cole, Barbra Streisand, Harry Belafonte, Lena Horne. Everyone was our friend.”
But back to the King.
The PR gig appeared one day when a friend gave Schwam’s name to Elvis’ tour promoter, Lee Gordon.
“I got a call from Lee Gordon,” recalls Schwam. “‘I have an act coming in October.’ I asked him, ‘Who’s the act?’ ‘Elvis Presley.’ We’d been in business two years! Elvis Presley!”
There was another hurdle for Schwam to leap if he wanted to help promote the hottest singing talent in the world at that moment. If you’ve seen Luhrmann’s “Elvis,” you’ll know the hurdle well, as Tom Hanks plays Elvis’ manager, Colonel Tom Parker, as half-gargoyle, half-Satanic huckster.
Schwam’s first meeting with the Dutch-born, faux-Southern “Colonel” took place in Parker’s suite at the Beverly Hilton and it set the tone for the partnership.
“I extended my hand and said, ‘Hello Mister Parker,’” and, recalls Schwam, Parker instantly bellowed back at him, “COLONEL!”
“So, we start the meeting about the two Elvis shows. The Colonel was chewing on an unlit cigar and laying out the assignment. He said, ‘This is the press kit. It’s pretty good. It will tell you which ads will be running in which newspapers. What I need you to do is check in with the box office and keep an eye on it for me.’ And he asked me, ‘Do you have any suggestions?’
“I told him, ‘Radio spots would be important. It’s a city on wheels. Everyone has their radio on. And you need to do something to make an impression on the industry here. You should put up a billboard.’
“‘Where?’ I told him ‘Sunset and Vine’ and he picked up the phone and said, ‘Tell RCA the Colonel wants a billboard at Sunset and Vine.’”
Schwam recalls his second gaffe with the powerful impresario.
“The plan was to do a press conference on the day of the first show while Elvis was rehearsing. I asked the Colonel, ‘Is there anything I should know?’ The Colonel said, ‘He handles the press well.’ So, I told him, ‘This will be fun.’ And he scowled and shot back at me, ‘Gene, this is not a game to me! Have fun on your own dollar!’”
The real “fun,” or certainly the most historically significant aspect of Schwam’s involvement, was about to begin.
“The first show was doing well,” Schwam vividly recalls, “but the second show was not selling well. The numbers looked slight. I told the Colonel. He asked me, ‘Should we increase the advertising?’ I said, ‘We need an idea to get some real attention,’ and he nodded in agreement and said, ‘Let me know.’
“So, I got the idea to call the police and tell them I was hearing people saying the Elvis show was getting too risqué for the kids. And then call the press and tell them what the police said. Remember, at that time, Elvis was a very provocative thing. Some people didn’t like the way he rocked and rolled. I told Parker my idea. He said, ‘Don’t do it for the first show, do it for the second show.’ And it worked. I made the air flow in our direction. Elvis sold out the second show.”
As for the show itself and how Elvis went over in his Hollywood concert debut, another industry legend — producer and ’50s-era William Morris agent Sandy Lieberson — can help with that part of the story.
Recounting his experience of the Pan Pacific Elvis show from his home in London, Lieberson recalls “I had just started working at William Morris Agency, which is how I got a ticket. [Elvis was with the agency.] I remember ‘Hound Dog’ and Elvis looking amazing in a silver jacket. I remember a full house and the crowd went wild. He had the RCA dog on stage. And there were girls, yes, plenty of girls. The audience was up for it, and it was mayhem throughout. Girls screaming even when he wasn’t singing! I saw Ricky Nelson there watching the show. There were lots of celebs in the audience. A lot of people were shocked at seeing Elvis live. Seeing him live was a whole other experience. It was mesmerizing, to say the least.”