Fledgling performer Elvis Presley arrived in Vegas in 1956—and turned the entertainment circuit on its head.
A 21-year-old rising star named Elvis Presley arrived in Las Vegas on April 23, 1956, for a two-week engagement at the New Frontier Hotel. Although the relative newcomer had seen substantial success with “Heartbreak Hotel,” released in January, locals didn’t quite know what to make of him. He was unusually young for a Vegas performer, and he had a certain quality that could “arouse mass hysteria,” wrote reporter Bud Lilly in the Las Vegas Sun. Still, the general reception to Presley’s act was lukewarm, making him little more than an opener for saxophonist Freddy Martin and comedian Shecky Greene.
“The brash, loud braying of his rhythm and blues catalog… which albeit rocketed him to the big time, is overbearing to a captive audience,” remarked Lilly’s fellow Sun reporter Bill Willard in his review. “His musical sound with a combo of three is uncouth, matching to a great extent the lyric content of his nonsensical songs.” The crowd, Willard posited, applauded for Presley only to be polite.
But one onlooker did appreciate the young musician’s no-holds-barred showmanship: Liberace, the piano virtuoso who had become a Vegas institution by the early 1950s. Archival photographs and video footage of the two depict them as friends, palling around after Liberace’s performance at the Riviera Hotel and swapping both musical instruments and jackets (picture Liberace in staid stripes and Presley in eye-catching lamé, presaging his ultraglamorous 1970s style).
During his run at the New Frontier, Presley inked a seven-year acting contract with Paramount Pictures, and later he embarked on a cross-country tour, leading up to his groundbreaking appearances on Milton Berle’s and Ed Sullivan’s TV variety shows and subsequent international stardom. Despite the early criticism he received in Vegas, Presley continued to love the city, returning for the filming of Viva Las Vegas in 1963, his impromptu wedding to Priscilla Wagner at the Aladdin Hotel in 1967, and a string of headlining appearances throughout the late 1960s and ’70s—proof positive that there’s no better training ground (or landing pad) for a performer than Vegas, baby.