Downtown office workers looked on with curiosity as hordes of teens crammed the sidewalk on Central Avenue on a sweaty August day in 1956.
Elvis was coming.
It was a month before he made his historic first appearance on the Ed Sullivan Show. But in St. Petersburg, a sold-out crowd of 6,500 saw Elvis Presley perform three shows that day at 3:30, 7 and 9 p.m. It would be one of the last times fans could see the King of Rock 'n' Roll in such a small venue and one of the last times he would even be on a tour like this, before he left for the Army and his movie career took off.
At a recent “Happy Hour with the Historian” at the St. Petersburg Museum of History, almost a dozen hands shot up when author and journalist Bob Kealing asked who in the audience had been to that show or his earlier ones the year before at Tampa’s Fort Homer Hesterly Armory (now the site of the Tampa Jewish Community Center). Like so many young people who have caught an artist on the rise, they have a fondness for the artist and the memory. They saw him just as the rocket really took off.
Tickets were $1.25, $1.50 for the big spenders. A half dozen girls fainted that day, according to then St. Petersburg Times photographer Bob Moreland, and officers stopped 14 teenagers who tried to climb the fire escape to Presley’s dressing room.
Nelah Parker was a 13-year-old freshman at the recently opened Boca Ciega High School. She got her parents to drop her off early to join the throng in front of the Florida Theatre before she caught the matinee performance.
“I couldn’t talk for four days,” she said last week after the museum talk by author and journalist Bob Kealing. “I had his little 45s (records) pasted all over my walls. I was hysterical, screaming my head off.”
Presley’s recent single Hound Dog had been released the month before and Don’t Be Cruel had sold more than a million copies in two weeks. He already had four gold records including his debut album Elvis Presley, which had come out in March of that year.
Wearing black pants, a green jacket, his trademark white “bucks” shoes and his famous curled-lip smile, he stepped on stage. The girls screamed. Six fainted.
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Marsha Starkey was in the front row of a picture snapped by Moreland during the evening show, her eyes glancing up behind Presley’s knee as one of her best friends, Jacquelyn Piper, was smiling right behind her, smashed together in the tight crowd.
“We weren’t the screamers,” Starkey said, “but they were there.”
Piper, a retired archaeologist, remembers how the screams would escalate with every pelvic thrust.
“It seems tame compared to today but it was pretty wild,” Piper said.
Kealing, who wrote Elvis Ignited: The Rise of an Icon in Florida, describes a young and hungry Elvis as he toured Florida more than any other state in 1956, just as he was bursting onto the pop culture scene. Young, sexy, controversial, brimming with talent and ambition, Elvis’ lightning-hot year of 1956 in Florida fueled his rise from novelty act to headlining megastar, Kealing said in his talk.
Fans lined up before sunrise that day, waiting for Elvis to appear at the Florida Theatre, the first air-conditioned theater in St. Petersburg. It was one of those beautiful classic buildings with tapestries and sweeping staircases that led to five balconies, demolished in 1968. One mother called the theater to demand that Elvis would “behave” before she’d allow her daughter to attend a performance, according to Times reports at the time. The singer arrived in a white Lincoln Continental, and the theater hired six off-duty policemen to handle the crowd and another dozen were assigned to patrol the streets.
Minutes before the matinee, the King admitted he couldn’t tie a necktie so drummer D.J. Fontana obligingly knotted the cravat that matched Elvis’s white bucks, according to Moreland’s pictures.
“He hit St. Petersburg with the effect of a small H-bomb, sending fans in mass hysteria end receiving an ovation rarely seen on the Suncoast,” wrote Anne Rowe and Arlene Fillinger of the St. Petersburg Times on Aug. 8, 1956.
An editorial the next day noted, “Police had their hands full with hysterical teenagers who ran weeping from the theater after Presley had concluded his show. ‘I can’t stand it, I can‘t stand it,’ screamed a girl, about 15, to Patrolman Jim Krupp. ‘I can‘t stand it either, but I‘m not crying about it,’ said Krupp.”
The concert was an unusual one for St. Petersburg at the time.
“In their seats, Presley’s fans were pacified by tape recordings of current hit records. Only occasionally did they clap in unison or shout for Presley,” the Times reported. “Loud shrieks arose from the audience when a local announcer stuck his head out of the curtain and was mistaken for Elvis. At the slightest motion backstage the shrieks were heard again. Sitting front row center was an elderly woman who had feigned illness while waiting in line in order to gain early entrance to the theater. She went wild during the show. She was one of a surprising number of adults present.”
The first sight of Presley was the sleeve of his green sport coat, “and the walls came tumbling down!” the Times reported. “The audience immediately rose en masse to its feet, screamed its welcome and then went wild! The girls tore their hair, the boys looked more awed than impressed, hysteria reigned supreme . . . as did Elvis.”
Theater manager Walter Tremor was amazed that so many older folks bought tickets, “feigning concern about who would attend the dance at the Senior Citizens Center,” Moreland noted in his photo captions.
It’s not surprising that Elvis spent more time in Florida than any other state, Kealing said in his talk. Col. Tom Parker, his infamous manager, worked sideshows and carnivals around Tampa and in 1940 he landed a job as a “field agent” — i.e., dogcatcher — for Tampa’s Humane Society.
He opened Tampa’s first pet cemetery, which, as Kealing put it, “was totally a scam” overcharging for tombstones and plots and keeping a large percentage of the $100 burial fee for himself. It was as his role as the dogcatcher that he organized a fundraising concert for the Humane Society starring country music star Roy Acuff and Minnie Pearl. This is what Kealing says led him to the concert promotion business and eventually, Elvis.
A photo from Presley’s 1955 concert at the Homer Hesterly Armory in Tampa became the iconic image on the cover of his debut album.
Ginny and Wally Guthrie were on a date that night in 1956 when Elvis came to town. The two were seniors at Northeast High School and were part of the school’s second graduating class.
“We knew this was going to be big,” Wally Guthrie said, and his wife said she can still remember the electricity in the air during the show.
“This show I think put him on the map,” Ginny Guthrie said, “because I saw him in Tampa in 1955 and he wasn’t even the headliner for that.”
Some parents were chided for letting their children attend such scandalous concerts, and a Miami Herald columnist even called their fans “stupid” and urged parents to put a stop to the mania.
The column irritated Presley, who soon after gave a radio interview. Kealing played it during his museum talk, summarizing the King and his fans:
“Kids pay good money to come and see a show and have a good time" Presley, then 21, said. "These are somebody’s kids. Somebody’s decent kids. He doesn’t got any right to call them idiots. If they want to pay their money to come out and jump around and scream and yell and have a good time, let them. They’ll grow up some day and grow out of it. But while they are young let them have their fun.”