For a decade supposedly colorless and plastic, the '50s had an awfully rich pop-cultural iconography. If you wanted to boil the whole era down to two great, pivotal phenomena, however, that might not be too difficult.
Television and Elvis Presley.
Between them, they changed everything, and some of that changing they did together.
Elvis Presley was one of those few, fabled stars who redefine stardom. Elvis also redefined popular music, of course, and that contribution will be duly recognized in the days ahead, as America and the world commemorate the 10th anniversary of Presley's death on Aug. 16, 1977.
To each his own Elvis, and the anniversary will be marked in a variety of ways, some of them, naturally, grotesque. The supermarket tabloids are already filled with celebratory tales of Presley's ghost visiting Wayne Newton and with converse allegations that Elvis is in fact still alive, perhaps holed up in a Las Vegas hotel room to which large, extra-cheese pizza pies are regularly delivered.
A book has been published by a woman claiming to have been a long-time amour of Presley's and the mother of their love child, nominal heir to the throne. And the book has been lavishly debunked by no less a trashmonger than Geraldo Rivera in a definitively exhaustive series of reports on "Entertainment Tonight."
But here's something to make you feel old, as if you need such a thing. Asked this week if MTV, the music-video cable channel, were planning special commemorations of the 10th anniversary of Presley's departure, a spokeswoman said "No, nothing" and that the task had been relegated instead to VH-1, MTV's less widely circulated sister channel whose programming is aimed at viewers 25 to 54.
"They felt it was more for their audience," the spokeswoman said disdainfully. You'd think she'd been asked about a Rudy Vallee retrospective.
Honor-bound to do its part, NBC's "Late Night With David Letterman," which for a considerable spell featured visits from the spirit of "the King," as represented by a life-size Elvis cardboard cutout, has already begun its observance. Letterman gave viewers a quiz the other night. One question was: "Elvis Presley's movies would have won more Academy Awards if --
(a) The Hollywood Establishment paid more attention to light comedies.
(b) Elvis paid more attention to the Hollywood Establishment.
Or (c) All other movies had been destroyed by evil dogs."
To see the real Elvis, though, one doesn't go searching through his films, most of which were not only mediocre but encumbered with a hopelessly homogenized, all-but-neutered Robo-star. To see the real legend behind all the assorted attendant legends one should consult kinescopes of Presley's earliest TV appearances. There was raw energy for you; there was something electrifyingly original.
Difficult as it may be to believe that it's been 10 years since Presley died, it's a bit harder, and more painful, to realize that 31 years have passed since Presley made his national television debut on "Stage Show," a half-hour variety series starring Tommy and Jimmy Dorsey (those famous rocksters) and produced as a warm-up for "The Jackie Gleason Show."
Presley walked onto the Dorsey brothers' stage, and wriggled hip-deep into the American mainstream, on Jan. 28, 1956. He sang "Blue Suede Shoes" and "Heartbreak Hotel." In musical and cultural terms, it was like the splitting of the atom or the invention of the light bulb or the premiere of "Saturday Night Live." All hell broke loose. And all heaven.
Even though most of its members had yet to reach adolescence, it was a supreme instant of affirmation for the baby-boom generation. The teen-ager was born with Presley's ascendancy as much as it was with James Dean's demise. Television would subsequently supply a virtually ceaseless procession of role models, heroes, heroines, and Peck's Bad Persons. Elvis was Peck's baddest. He made the young girls cry, and he made them scream as they had never screamed before.
The bobby-soxers of the '40s who squealed for Sinatra were to be outdone. Elvis of the baby face and the impertinent gyrations -- so allegedly lust-inducing that he was photographed only from the waist up during one of his appearances on "The Ed Sullivan Show" -- spoke to and exploited something heretofore untapped.
Male sex symbolism was among the things that would never be the same. Certainly men's haircuts wouldn't. Elvis introduced plumage. Until him, it was absolutely unheard of that a man, a mere man, would cause an uproar on television by seeming too sexy. All the attention had been focused on Faye Emerson's cleavage, and on other celebrity bosoms. Elvis deflected the gaze elsewhere. He gave young America something gratifyingly and intimately scandalous with which to agonize parents.
Elvis and television used each other brilliantly. The provocative collaboration is strikingly recalled in "Elvis '56," a new documentary by Alan and Susan Raymond ("The Police Tapes") that premieres Sunday, Aug. 16, at 9 on Cinemax, the enterprising pay-cable network.
The Raymonds didn't interview hordes of people who knew, loved, once caught a glimpse of, or seem to recall ever having owned a record by, Elvis Presley. It's not another of those hearsay collages. Instead they assembled a portrait of Presley at his moment of emergence, and they bring that moment back so vividly that you begin to feel like maybe cars still have fins and Cokes cost a nickel.
Through rare, full-length reprises of Presley TV appearances, backstage and newsreel footage, and a collection of black-and-white photographs by Alfred Wertheimer, most of them not previously seen on television, the Raymonds invoke Elvis and his time. The narration, poorly spoken by musician Levon Helm, naturally overreaches. By ripping off Little Richard's "Tutti Frutti," it is claimed for example, Elvis "kicked down the door" for "black and white artists to follow."
But when Elvis speaks, sings and sways for himself, the program clarifies the appeal of the performer and the style he was helping to create -- and shows how alien this new creature was. There was an attempt in Las Vegas to pair him with Freddy Martin and his creamy ballroom dance tunes. There's film of Elvis clowning with another great '50s oddity, Liberace, and brother George. Then comes a clip that's still rivettingly raunchy today, even though we've now lived through such outrageous progeny of Elvis as Prince and Billy Idol. On "The Milton Berle Show," Elvis sings "Hound Dog" and, just when it seems the song is over, launches into a couple of lascivious bonus choruses. Good grief, what a display. One has to be at least slightly awestruck.
In the still pictures, contrastingly, Elvis looks like the all-American virgin. He's not just a white boy; he's practically alabaster. America is fascinated by the sight of corrupted innocence -- hence the current fixation on Marilyn Monroe as the anniversary of her death, too, is observed. In the "Elvis '56" photos, the innocence is poised for corruption but still has a minute or two of life left.
The juxtaposition, that's what we love. The living irony. Do we read too much into these old pictures because we know what would come later? We probably knew, or almost knew, what would come later even back at the beginning. It's the old story, but it suffers nothing from retelling. With Elvis it was retold in particularly heady, eventually wrenching terms.
In Elvis now we see a metaphor for Things Gone Wrong, and such public sacrificial displays as his offer a kind of solace from things gone wrong in one's own cosmos. Down at the end of lonely street, it's actually very crowded.
Elvis became terribly controversial after his Berle show appearance, and when it came time for a "Steve Allen Show" gig, Allen felt it necessary to assure the audience (and nervous sponsors), "We want to do a show the whole family can enjoy" and then introduce "the new Elvis Presley," virtually immobilized and dressed in black tie and tails.
He sang "Hound Dog" to a basset hound that wore a top hat. The Raymonds clearly see this as degrading, but it's hard to believe Elvis was grievously offended. He doesn't appear to have been pretentious and self-worshiping as rock stars are now. Even in the most seemingly carnal-minded of Presley's TV performances, there's a smile on his face, a sense of self-mockery, an infectious youthful cheer.
After the mid-'50s, Presley's television appearances were rare, but he never could have had the blinding instant impact he had without TV; it put him over as it has put over innumerable stars, fashions, habits, sayings, mouthwashes and washday miracles since. It is estimated in "Elvis '56" that a total of 1.5 billion people worldwide eventually saw Elvis' 1973 "Aloha From Hawaii" special during its several telecasts.
Television was there at the creation, and of course it was there at the conclusion. The day Elvis died is legendary in TV circles for reasons other than its musical and sociological significance. In a classic and notorious blunder, CBS editors and producers decided not to lead with the story of Presley's death on that night's edition of "The CBS Evening News With Walter Cronkite," choosing instead a Panama Canal report.
ABC led with Elvis on "ABC Evening News" with Harry Reasoner and Barbara Walters. NBC led with it on "NBC Nightly News" with David Brinkley and John Chancellor, and Brinkley anchored a late-night NBC News special as well.
CBS knew almost immediately that the judgment call had been a stupendous wrong-o. It was seen as a sign that those behind the broadcast were old-hat and out of touch, certainly unaware of the effect a pop phenom like Presley could have on uncountable millions of lives, as well as on the course of American culture.
Lane Venardos, now executive producer of CBS News special events, was then Washington producer for the "Evening News," and he recalls the gaffe with chagrin. "It caused no small amount of consternation, and in our drive to set things right, we gave considerable attention to the memorial service that was held in Memphis a few days later," Venardos says.
He was sent to Memphis himself to supervise the coverage, and remembers asking the cab driver at the airport to drive past Graceland on the way into town. "I saw people from every conceivable walk of life, huddled together outside the gates," Venardos recalls. "Men, women, young, old, everything. Some held candles. I saw women with tears streaming down their faces. Then it hit me how much this affected people."
For years afterward, CBS insiders say, whenever an important figure died, the word in-house was "Remember Elvis," a warning not to underestimate the story. Indeed, "The CBS Evening News" went overboard when John Lennon was shot and overplayed the story out of Elvis guilt. William O. Wheatley, executive producer of "NBC Nightly News," says CBS was alone two months after Presley's death in leading its newscast with the death of Bing Crosby, so mindful were the producers of the Elvis error.
Wheatley worked on "Segment Three" reports for "Nightly News" in 1977, and he recalls there was "a brief discussion" about whether to lead with Presley's death. "Somebody said, 'We never led the program with the death of a rock 'n' roll star,' and somebody else said, 'There's never been a rock 'n' roll star like Elvis Presley.' " Wheatley recalls. "So that was that."
Reminders of Elvis were never far from the television lens, whether it was Andy Kaufman's inspired impression on "Saturday Night Live," the much discussed army of Elvis impersonators at the 1986 "Liberty Weekend" pageant or, currently, a lavishly sideburned professional wrestler who bills himself as "Honky-Tonk Man." An icon is subjected to myriad permutations. Poor Elvis has gone through many.
In its most banal state, his life is interpreted as another fable about the wages of success and the toll taken by celebrity. Rock music fell under the control of producers and technicians, and the foundations laid by Presley and his fellow pioneers were buried under layers of digital gingerbread and chintzy glitz. What would Elvis think were he to behold a sight like Duran Duran? Probably what most rational adults think when beholding a sight like Duran Duran.
It's hard to contemplate the Presley story without drifting into the soap opera semantics favored by a persistent surviving contingent of his fans -- and, it would appear, their offspring. "Elvis '56" re-asserts the purity and poetry of true Presley. One of the last clips on the special is from his Jan. 6, 1957, appearance on "The Ed Sullivan Show." Although he sang a raucous "Don't Be Cruel," he also sang a movingly unaffected "Peace in the Valley," a spiritual from his youth.
His youth became our youth and his songs our songs, or so at least one generation feels about Elvis. Because he emerged just as television emerged, they both entered the consciousness when it was in a kind of dreamlike state -- unguarded, young, susceptible. It's doubtful that the planets will ever be lined up in just such a configuration again.
Television can only be invented once. And it, in turn, may be capable of inventing only one Elvis Presley