ELVIS: THAT’S THE WAY IT WAS – AND THIS IS HOW IT IS TODAY.
By Arjan Deelen
One of the highlights of visiting the States is obviously visiting the sites associated with Elvis. Only very few locations have a stronger Elvis connection than the Westgate, formerly known as the International, and from 1971 onwards, the Hilton. It was here that he performed 600+ shows; some of his greatest live performances, and in all fairness, also some of his worst.
Elvis at the Hilton entrance in 1974.
As you approach the huge building, it’s hard not to feel a buzz. It’s so familiar from numerous photos and documentaries. My first thought, as I approached the hotel, was that the spot where I was standing was approximately where Elvis signed the contract as the hotel was being built in the spring of ’69.
Left; Elvis' Stutz outside the Hilton entrance, right as it looks today.
My trusty guide and friend Richard Crofts led us to the entrance, which is still fairly similar to the way it looked in “Elvis – That’s The Way It Is” (MGM, 1970). As we went through the same revolving door, it was hard not to think of that movie. It all looked eerily similar, the main difference being that all the Elvis banners and posters are now obviously missing. Even the flashy lightning in the casino that you see in the movie is still there, Rick observed as he pointed at it.
Original chandelier at entrance Showroom Internationale
We went straight to the entrance of the Showroom Internationale. In the aforementioned movie, you can see fans and celebrities (a.o. Charo and Xavier Cugat) waiting here to get in. This area is also still easily recognizable, in fact, even the huge chandelier is still there. We took the steps up, went through another door, and we were now in the balcony area of the showroom. The angle where we stood looked a lot like the TTWII publicity photos taken from the balcony. Very cool!
We went back down, and thanks to a nice guard, we were able to enter the locked showroom. The seating has changed several times since the Elvis days, and the guard noted that the capacity was bigger back then. But overall, the room does not look all that different. The sound booth is in the same spot, and the lightning in the balcony also looks pretty much the same.
We got on the stage and boy, it was so cool to get the Elvis perspective, and to see the showroom through his eyes. It was hard not to be in awe; this is where it all happened.
That legendary opening show on July 31st, 1969 was on my mind a couple of times… what an amazing night that must have been.
But also the filming of TTWII, the recording of “In Person” and “On Stage”, that crazy show on September 3rd, 1973 (as detailed in my book “Elvis – Caught In A Trap”), the “Request Box” shows in August ’75… all so memorable. But also the darker moments: the death threats in late August ’70, the incident involving four South American men in early ’73, the infamous “Desert Storm” show in September ’74, that sad, final season in December ’76…. As the popular YouTuber Spa Guy often notes in his videos: “Right here, friends. In this spot. It happened right here”.
This is the spot where Elvis stands in TTWII right before he opens with "That's All Right, Mama".
1970 - Looking front of stage and back of stage during Elvis' rehearsal for the TTWII season.
Right behind the stage, you can see a small corner where they kept part of the original stage. We were told that this is where Elvis stood right before he went on stage. Looking at the angle, this is fairly close to the spot where Elvis stood in TTWII just before he opens with “That’s All Right, Mama”.
This part of the backstage area is also roughly where he stood together with the Sweets and the Imperials, in that same movie. However, it must be noted that Elvis entered the stage from both sides through the years, the other side being where the elevator is that he normally used. You can see photos of Elvis in this elevator in ’71, and it still looks essentially the same. When you see Elvis leaving the stage in TTWII, he is heading for that elevator.
Behind the stage area is a long hallway, and this is recognizable from photos of Elvis here together with a.o. Charlie, Joe and Lamar back in ’69. Again, this still looks pretty similar today, and even the red tiles are still the same.
Two more great photos of Elvis walking the corridors behind the International stage
We went back to the stage area, and took the elevator two floors down to the backstage rooms. The dressing room that Elvis used looks quite different today, having been remodeled a couple of times. It is now two rooms instead of one. The bar that they used has been split up in two, with one half in each room. It’s still the same bar though, used so many times by Elvis, Red, Sonny and the other Memphis Mafia guys.
This is where you see them hanging out in TTWII, just before the opening show (Elvis reading various telegrams, etc). This is reportedly also where Elvis’ famous argument with Colonel Parker took place on September 3rd, 1973, probably the only time that Elvis stood up to the old carny.
By the way, I met Colonel Parker in this hotel back in ’87, as part of a group of Dutch fans. He was kind to us, and even spoke a few words in Dutch!
GET ME OUTTA HERE!
Standing in the hallway, and looking at the lightning on the walls, it seemed to us that this is where the photos were taken of Elvis posing with a.o. the Imperials and the Stamps.
Across Elvis’ dressing room and next to the elevator, we noticed that the water dispenser that you can see in the photos of Elvis together with fan Virginia Coons in ‘73 is still there. However, there is now a wall right next to it, whereas back in the day, this was where the entrance to J.D. Sumner’s dressing room was.
A little further down the hall, we found the spot where Elvis posed together with several ladies, carrying a banner that says “The Lord is my shepherd” (early ’74). In that photo, you can see that the doors behind them are somewhat unusual and rather high. One of the people working backstage told us that this was one of the backstage make-up areas where the showgirls got ready before a show. It’s because of the high wigs and feathers that these doors have an extra, higher opening.
At the end of this hall there’s a room that is used for relaxation and after-show parties, the Green Room. Rick believes that this is where the backstage party took place that you can see at the end of the 2000 edition of “Elvis – That’s The Way It Is” (Elvis in black jacket), and the height of the ceiling and the columns do suggest that this is indeed the case.
Jerome ‘Stump’ Monroe with Arjan Deelen
However, we were not certain of all of our findings. We decided to return together with Jerome ‘Stump’ Monroe, who was The Sweet Inspirations’ drummer during Elvis’ Vegas years. He was here at all of the 600+ shows that Elvis had done here, so we felt that his memory would help us get more certainty about certain details. The Spa Guy joined us too, as well as Rick’s friends Andy, Sherry and Jeff.
The fact that some of the walls are now different seemed to confuse Stump, and he couldn’t really confirm anything for sure. Especially the changes in Elvis’ dressing room seemed too much for him to handle, and at one point he quickly exited the area, commenting: “Get me outta here!”.
We did locate the exact spot, a door opening, where Elvis posed in August ’70 together with Stump and the two other Sweet Inspirations musicians. This was said to be the original door opening to Elvis’ dressing room.
ELECTRICITY & EXCITEMENT
The guard, who had taken great interest in our search for “Elvis hotspots”, told us that we had to go now, since the area was normally off-limits. Naturally, we were pleased with our findings and thrilled at being in this strange time-warp, where we almost felt like we were transported back to 1970. Always nice to dream, I guess….
'837 consecutive sold-out performances'...
As we left the casino area, we noticed that butt-ugly statue from ’78. It still has the incorrect info, as it states that Elvis did 837 shows here… Well, not quite, old chap.
There’s also the bogus concert poster that is supposedly from July 31st, 1969 even though it contains a photo from August 1970! Most fans will recognize this as an obvious fake from the late 90s, that at one point was sold through Ebay, etc. A bit disappointing to see this fake hanging in the real location of the comeback.
Oh well… The powers-that-be were clueless back in the day, and they are clueless now… so what else is new?
But we were all on a high after all these cool discoveries, so it did not spoil our experience at all. While at the Westgate, we had all felt incredibly close to Elvis and all the important events that had taken place here in his life and career. With a little fantasy, you could almost fell the electricity & excitement of those early Vegas shows: “Suspicious Minds” in ’69, “Polk Salad Annie” in ’70, “American Trilogy” in ’72…. Magical moments. Elvis at his apex as a singer and performer.
And, I don’t mind repeating the point, it all happened right here.
The backstage elevator Elvis normally used, today - and Elvis in the elevator back in 1971
Since I was a bit unsure of a few of our findings, I showed the photos I had taken backstage to Bob Lanning in L.A. Bob, as some of you will know, played the drums for Elvis at 63 shows in ’70. He got excited as he looked at the photos, and he could confirm these locations with far greater certainty than Stump could.
Bob had great memories of the backstage hallway, because it was here that he met Carry Grant and his entourage after an Elvis concert. Grant made a point of introducing Bob to his group as “Elvis’ drummer”, adding how much he had enjoyed his playing: “I loved your drumming… A pleasure to meet you, Bob”.
As I looked at Bob’s eyes, I could tell that he was feeling the same buzz that I had felt while at the Westgate. In his mind, he was backstage at the International, just moments after yet another sensational Elvis concert. It was a real treat to see him relive those unforgettable moments. As the famous quote goes: "If you're an Elvis fan, no explanation is necessary; If you're not an Elvis fan, no explanation is possible."
Spotlight by EIN Contributor Arjan Deelen.
-Copyright EIN December 2017.
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