On The Road in ’56 – Roll over Oakland
Compiled by Robert van Beek
“Elvis Presley appeared at Oakland’s Municipal Auditorium Arena.
His appearance thrilled teenagers and scared the bejeesus out of grown-ups”.
After a visit at the Memphis Overton Park Shell where he met some of his SUN record company buddies like Carl Perkins and Johnny Cash the Memphis Wiz, Mr. Presley, accompanied by his first cousin Gene, flew from Memphis Airport on Saturday night to California. The Arrival in Oakland is scheduled for the next morning at 04:00 a.m. There was not much time to rehearse for his first of two performances that afternoon at the Oakland Auditorium where more than 2500 frenzied teenagers were awaiting his arrival for his 3 p.m. appearance. The second was at eight ‘O clock and drew a crowd as much as in his afternoon show. The supporting acts were Benny Strong Orchestra and Paul Desmond. The box office reported a sale between 5500 and 6400 sold in total. Elvis must have been in a good mood that day … excited as he was for his big national television show at Milton Berle coming up. Scheduled only two days later in Los Angeles. As usual there was a press meeting before and in between shows. Elvis answered all (mostly the same) questions politely and in a Southern manner of speak. “How many cars do you own Mr. Presley?”. “Ah, have four now. Not able to drive them all. Ah’m too busy, the Colonel keeps me going”, he said. “But, Ah-ah like it”.
Jack Gould, reporter for the NY Times was not one of Elvis’ closest fans. His continuous criticism was like a downward spiral for Elvis while much of the tabloids and national newspapers took his column for real and were re-writing his entry. Is Elvis a burlesque, a sex driven animal with no taste for music? A decade before Elvis there was crooner Sinatra who brought teenagers into a frenzy, he was accepted and beloved. It was time for a change, a new direction in the peoples taste of modern music. When Elvis took the stage at Oakland for his twenty-minute performance it was like a thunderstorm which rolled over Oakland. He started off with “Heartbreak Hotel.” With his gyrating body movements and swiveling hips through the complete performance given the fans a pure rock-and-roll show he made sure that the warm Mediterranean climate Californians did not forget him coldly. “I don’t do bump and grinds,” Elvis said. “I just move around with the music, can’t stand still,” he reported earlier. And that was exactly what he did and all of the ticket holders, mostly teen-age girls, just went crazy over it. Elvis sang his repertoire like he did in most shows with “Hound Dog” as a show stopper. Before the song ended you could hear in emotional receptivity the announcement that was proclaimed by Horace Logan when Elvis was performing on the Louisiana Hayride later that year: “Ladies and Gentleman,” he blared into the microphone. “Elvis has left the building.” He was rushed off the stage and departed in a waiting limousine with the speed of light. The fans from the San Francisco Bay Area were lucky to see Mr. Presley in person this date in June. Elvis happened to be here for his TV appearance and this show just fits in his schedule. No frantic teenager bodies were buried afterwards in the Mojave desert! Following this page we read some highlights from the local and national newspapers as they appeared the next day and days after.
This is Elvis
The owner of this quiet face and artistic hand is rarely photographed in such repose. He usually is flailing a guitar and quivering all over his throbs his way through a program of hillbilly and rock and roll. He appeared twice in the Oakland Auditorium Arena and sent two crowds of teenagers into screaming hysteria.
All this fuss over “Rock ‘n’ Roll” music is silly. As a teen-age rite, the weird jive is no sillier than duck-cut hair styles or too-tight jeans. An adolescent is the world’s greatest conformist ─ in his own circle. If certain type of dress or a certain kind of music catches on, every youngster has got to adopt that style or develop a frustration.
The rock and roll performance is a perfect recreation of the sex act. Beginning with soft, fluttery tones from the saxophones, the volume increases until the vibrato has reached a fever pitch. And then, all at once, the music lapses into a handful of spasmodic sounds, and ceases. The teenage listener is affected sexually. The female mouth drops open, the eyes grow blank, the breathing grows heavy. In every generation, young people have some new kind of stimulus. Presley may well sicken many modern-day mothers but the chances are most of these mothers delighted in the offerings of Rudy Vallee. If any generation was cussed it was the group of youngsters who lived it up after the end of World War one. Bathrub gin, pocket flasks, knee-high skirts and rolled stockings were symptoms of a generation gone mad. And yet these wild-eyed flappers grew to womanhood and furnished the young men that served the nation in two great wars. A nation that has survived Johnny Ray and can take anything, Elvis Presley included.
The King Comes to Oakland
Elvis Presley’s first western swings included a big show in Oakland on June 3, 1956. Tickets cost just $2.50. A young man with a virile voice and twisting hips muscles supplied what was apparently a notable lack for a segment of Bay Area teenagers: an idol. Once he got there, they found Presley was everything they hoped for ─ and a lot more! He is a boy in a Kelly green tweed jacket with an unruly forelock, darkly lashed grey eyes and a pouting mouth. He is a kid with two diamond rings, a $700 diamond encrusted wristwatch (“They are useless but I’ve always wanted stuff like that”) four cars and a motorcycle. A lad who will make over $100,000 this year, and for whose record contract RCA-Victor paid $40,000 (this includes a $5000 bonus directly given to Elvis) the highest ever given. The reaction of the audience, which was mainly teen-age girls, is simply frightening.
At the afternoon performance, one of the ushers claimed an impromptu, voluntary panty raid disrupted proceedings for a while and at the evening show two young ladies collapsed with a mild case of hysteria and another fainted clear away at the mere prospect of owning an autograph from the Presley pen. More than 6,000 fans created pandemonium during appearance of the teen-agers’ newest idol.
14-year-old Sandra McCune President of the newly formed Oakland Elvis Fan Club got to meet Elvis Presley backstage at the Auditorium. He was impressed with her custom-made skirt. “It was worn, she explained breathlessly, only with a locket containing his picture, which by club rules must be placed over the heart.” Presley absently put his arm around her and confided to reporters that he wanted to be an actor. “But all this wild emotion in me,” he said. “I’ve got to sing, and I think I do it well.”
Below at the right we see Sandra McCune again now rocks back on her heels, her hands raised high in wild excitement, as she listens to Elvis Presley belt out a song on stage at the Oakland Auditorium Arena.
The Oakland Civic Auditorium (Now the Kaiser ─ an American industrialist ─ Convention Center) is a 1915 Beaux-Arts-style building. the Center is a historic, publicly owned multi-purpose arena with 5,492 seats as well as a large theater, and a large ballroom. These seats were quickly filled when tickets came available for the two shows at 3 and 8 p.m. at the box office, headlines screaming: “The Star of Stars in the Show of Shows”. Elvis was backed by a three-man combo of drums, guitar and bass and a male quartet The Jordanaires. This was their only of two appearances in the Bay Area. Fan Nina Carson got a peck on the cheek from the ‘star of the stars’ during intermission between the shows.
“Mr. Presley has no discernible singing ability. His specialty is an accented movement of the body, identified with the blonde bombshells of burlesque”.
Elvis Presley doesn’t wear blue suede shoes. He wears black pumps and when he goes on stage to sing he removes his cream-colored striped jacket with the black velvet collar and puts a blood-red one. Prior to his appearance on the stage, he chats quietly with former schoolmates, acquaintances and musicians in the dressing room. Sunday night in Oakland, he poked his head outside and occasionally yelled at the audience which earlier that afternoon had done its best to step on his black pumps. He is afraid of the crowd. Perhaps “afraid” is not exactly the right word ─ he says he loves them. But he wouldn’t pay a visit to the men’s room Sunday night without a police escort. The reaction of the audience, which was mainly teenage girls, is simply frightening. Presley’s reaction to the crowd is unusual. He plays to it constantly on stage with a performance that it is earthy and extremely direct and you won’t see it on the Milton Berle show tonight when he makes his appearance. It’s a bit rugged for TV. “ah thunk they’re wunnerful.” Presley says in a thick southern drawl, of the audience. “It makes muh want to live up to their opinion of muh.” After the show, Presley stayed in the dressing room for almost half an hour until a squad of Oakland police could safely escort him to his car. As it was, 50 assorted fans managed to grab him and shouted and screamed as he drove away. To the few who were able to crash the police line and actually get near to him. Presley was casual, friendly and seemed to make it a habit to give each a quick peck on the cheek. As to performance itself, there were several interesting things. He apparently doesn’t play the guitar at all, uses it merely as a prop. He is obviously either a trained showman or a natural one. His entire performance, grotesque as it may be, was deftly aimed at his own fans whom he deliberately raised to an emotional pitch that bears no little resemblance to the effect of Johnnie Ray, Frank Sinatra and, even, to those thousands who crowded the Sportpalast in Berlin to chant in unison during the Third Reich, his emotional power is frightening. But his musical performance is as elemental as the gyrations of an “exotic” dancer in a Tenderloin joint. The supporting acts were Benny Strong’s orchestra, tap dancer Vera Mason, and comedian Paul Desmond.
“Presley leaves you in a blue suede funk”.
The crowd was quiet as he sang, in lyrics verging on the unintelligible – until one of his black-denim-clad knees shot out. When the screams subsided, the right knee picked up where the other left off and gradually, as the movement spread upward, the famous voice was lost in bedlam. Presley, his ducktailed, tawny hair now hanging in his eyes, grabbed the microphone as if it were alive and dragged it around the stage, now petting it, now turning upon it the full vent of his manly wrath … Composed mostly of teenaged girls, the audience contained some oldsters and a sprinkling of weird-looking young men. As he left the stage after his 3 p.m. performance several hundreds of teenagers flocked the building exit as they were expected to see of glimpse of him.
“If he did the same stuff on the street, we’d lock him up”.
Cop off the beat
Police Officer 230 must have thought it was his lucky day on June 3, 1956, when he was part of a law enforcement contingent assigned to work Elvis Presley’s show at the Oakland Auditorium. While his fellow officers dealt with the noise and pandemonium in the arena during Presley’s performance, Officer 230 found himself posted all by himself in an empty hallway in the Auditorium’s dressing room area. He was going to earn his overtime pay in quiet contemplation far away from the maddening crowd. What Officer 230 didn’t realize was that Elvis had retired to his dressing room between shows, and thousands of teenage girls from the first show’s audience were looking for their idol. Suddenly the hallway doors at one end burst open and a tidal wave of screaming girls swept down upon the startled officer.
Said a disgusted Oakland cop, one of a dozen detailed to guard RCA-Victor’s new find from possible harm at the hands of autograph seekers: “If he did that same stuff on the streets, we’d locked him up.” “One doorway,” he later told a Oakland Tribune columnist, “and what must have been 3,000 girls come running through it, and they wedge tighter and tighter, and I am in the middle of them. It is a wonder somebody didn’t get hurt. It was awful. I’ve never seen anything like that before in my life, and I never want to again.”
Dubbed “Elvis the Pelvis” by some critics, Presley stalked glowering out onto the stage for a mere twenty minutes after other performers teased the audience for an hour and a half. The roar that met him subsided only when he launched his almost powerful baritone into “Heartbreak Hotel,” which under his handling has become the Nation’s top-selling record.
Colonel Parker, along with RCA Victor, authorized and produced a nowadays mega-rare piece of Elvis history that was part of the promotion for Elvis’ concerts at the Municipal Auditorium Arena in Oakland. Parker had this orange cardboard record produced by the same company that would also produce the famous “The Truth About Me” record from later that year, the Rainbo Record Company from Los Angeles. The announcers in this radio spot boast that Elvis will not be appearing in San Francisco and that his Oakland concerts will be his only appearances in the Bay area. Elvis can be heard performing “Heartbreak Hotel”, “Blue Suede Shoes”, and “I Want You, I Need You, I Love You”.
Listen to the rare radio spot here:
“Presley, 180 pounds of undeniably male characteristics built in a six-foot frame, appealed to something else”.
Many thanks to: writers for the Oakland Tribune and the San Francisco Chronicle newspapers. Elinor Hayes and William McPhillips
Photographers: Robert B. Stinnett and Bob Campbell.