Of Hound Dogs and Teddy Bears and Even a Showboat or Two
It was a stunning announcement. At 2:30 p.m. on August 16, 1977, radio and television broadcasters interrupted their regular programing to announce that Elvis Presley was dead. He was only 42 years old. But the show must go on, and that night Muny audiences attended the acclaimed Houston Grand Opera production of Porgy and Bess, the 1935 opera by George and Ira Gershwin and DuBose Heyward.
Perhaps it’s a stretch to try to connect Elvis with the Muny. But the sheer permanence of this 99-year-old theater is an intriguing reminder that no matter what events large and small occurred over the past century, if they happened during the summer, they played out as generations of audiences were attending musical theater in Forest Park.
Here are a few dates from Elvis’ brief life that match up against summers at the Muny:
**On June 18, 1953, the day that 18-year-old Elvis Aaron Presley graduated from a Memphis high school, the Municipal Opera was staging its second and final production of the 1944 Broadway musical Bloomer Girl, with music and lyrics by Harold Arlen and E.Y. Harburg. St. Louis Post-Dispatch reviewer Myles Standish praised the production as “sprightly, gay and infectious.”
**The following year, the same night that 19-year-old Presley was performing his first paid gig in Memphis’ Overton Park on July 30, 1954, Munygoers were attending the theater’s only production of Panama Hattie, the 1940 Broadway musical with songs by Cole Porter.
**Elvis’ first number one single, “Heartbreak Hotel,” hit the top of the Billboard chart in April 1956. His next chart topper (and one of only two of Elvis’ 17 number one Billboard hits to reign for only one week) was “I Want You, I Need You, I Love You,” which broke through to the top of the chart three months later, on July 28. That same week, Muny audiences were attending the first of three productions of Wish You Were Here, with music by Harold Rome. (Eddie Fisher’s version of the title song was a number-one Billboard hit in 1952.)
**Three months later, Elvis’ recording of “Don’t Be Cruel” and “Hound Dog” sat at the top of the Billboard chart for a whopping 11 weeks, longer than any other record in the rock and roll era. When those two songs reached the top of the chart on August 18, 1956, Muny audiences were delighting to the first staging of Peter Pan, which would become a Forest Park tradition.
**By 1957, Elvis was a bona fide star. He made his film debut in 1956 in a supporting role in Love Me Tender, but the test of whether or not Elvis could carry a movie came with Loving You, his first starring role. He passed the test with flying colors. Here in St. Louis the film opened at the Fox on July 23. While teen-agers were flocking to Grand Boulevard, their parents were attending the last of nine Muny stagings of Victor Herbert’s 1910 operetta, Naughty Marietta. The score’s most popular song, “Ah! Sweet Mystery of Life,” would find renewed popularity when Mel Brooks used it as a running gag in Young Frankenstein. But the Number-One jukebox hit that week was “(Let Me Be Your) Teddy Bear” from Loving You.
**“Hard Headed Woman” was plucked from Elvis’ fourth movie, King Creole. When that song hit the top of the chart on July 21, 1958, the Muny was staging the old Johann Strauss opus Die Fledermaus under a new title, Rosalinda. Post-Dispatch reviewer Myles Standish praised the evening as “a night of enchantment.” By the time King Creole was released, Elvis had been drafted into the U. S. Army and was doing basic training in Fort Hood, Texas.
**Elvis’ military duty led was spoofed in the Broadway musical, Bye Bye Birdie, which opened in New York in April 1960 and debuted at the Muny in July 1962. (The number one hit that week? No, not Elvis. Bobby Vinton’s recording of “Roses Are Red.”)
**Elvis was always known for his generosity. On Sunday, July 27, 1975, on the afternoon of the closing performance of the Muny’s second of four stagings of Funny Girl, this one starring Carol Lawrence and Harve Presnell, Elvis went to a Memphis auto dealership and spent $140,000 on 13 Cadillacs for friends. A bank teller named Mennie Person, who happened to be walking past the showroom, spotted Presley’s custom limo on the street. She peered through the front bay window to see if she could spot the King. Elvis saw her and came out to talk. “That one’s mine,” he said, pointing to his car, “but I’ll buy you one.” Mennie went home that afternoon with a new Lincoln and a sizable check, because Elvis thought she should have some sporty clothes to wear while driving her plush car.
**Two years later, in August 1977, Elvis was found dead at Graceland. Over the next two days, 80,000 mourners gathered in Memphis. Celebrity visitors ranged from Viva Las Vegas co-star Ann-Margret to 19-year-old Caroline Kennedy. Two days after his death, Elvis joined his beloved mother Gladys at Forest Hill Cemetery, four miles from his famed Colonial stone home. Gladys had died 21 years earlier at age 46.
Eleven days after the funeral, in the early hours of Sunday, August 29, 1977, four men were caught trying to steal Presley’s body from Forest Hill. At that same hour in Forest Park, Sweet Charity with Carol Lawrence having ended its seven-night run earlier in the evening, the set for the Broadway transfer of Chicago starring Jerry Orbach and Ann Reinking was being erected.
The remains of Elvis and his mother were returned to Graceland for safekeeping. There they remain today, in the company of Elvis’ father Vernon and his grandmother, Minnie Mae Hood Presley.
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FINALLY, A SLENDER CONNECTIVE BETWEEN ALL SHOOK UP AND THE MUNY. All Shook Up premiered in May 2004 at the storied Goodspeed Opera House in East Haddam, Connecticut, where such musicals as Man of La Mancha and Annie were first nurtured. All Shook Up first came to light at the Goodspeed’s 200-seat experimental space, the Norma Terris Theater, which opened in 1984.
Norma Terris will always have a niche in musical theater history for her performance as Magnolia in the original Broadway production of the epic Jerome Kern-Oscar Hammerstein II musical, Show Boat. But Terris also was a great favorite with Muny audiences. During the 15 years between 1936-1950, she appeared at the Municipal Theater in ten different productions of six different shows. Terris repeated her Broadway role in Show Boat twice. She played the lead in Noel Coward’s Bitter Sweet three times, and she acted in Ivor Novello’s Glamorous Night twice. Terris also played the title roles in the German operetta Madame Pompadour and the Kurt Weill-Ira Gershwin-Moss Hart musical, Lady in the Dark. In 1940 she starred opposite Vincent Price in the Kaufman and Hart play, The American Way, which was the first nonmusical ever to be staged at the Muny.
Terris spaced her St. Louis appearances carefully, never wore out her welcome. Eventually she married and moved to Connecticut, where she became actively involved with the Goodspeed as both a patron and a trustee. It is there in East Haddam, in view of the scenic Connecticut River, that Norma Terris’ name continues to live, as the implicit hostess to a wide array of young artists who desire to make new musicals, including those who would celebrate the songs of Elvis Presley.
Dennis Brown (Biography)
Dennis Brown was a theater critic for The Riverfront Times newspaper from 2001-2014. His articles and interviews have appeared in The New York Times,Los Angeles Times, Hollywood Reporter and, most recently, the Village Voice, among many others.
His book, Actors Talk: Profiles and Stories from the Acting Trade, was praised by Playbill magazine as “one of the finest interview collections ever published.” A companion volume, Shoptalk: Conversations about Theater and Film with Twelve Writers, One Producer—and Tennessee Williams’ Mother, also was well-received.
His stage adaptation of William Inge’s novel, My Son is a Splendid Driver, starring Mary Beth Hurt, William Atherton, Conchata Ferrell and Lane Smith, was performed to great acclaim at the prestigious William Inge Festival in Independence, Ks. He is also the author of the stage adaptation of the biography The Fabulous Lunts, about theater legends Alfred Lunt and Lynn Fontanne, which was performed in New York City in both 2009 and 2010.
He assisted Gregory Peck in developing his one-man show A Conversation with Gregory Peck. During the mid-1990s, he toured with Peck to 55 engagements throughout the United States and Canada.
He wrote the award-winning television-movie The Perfect Tribute, which starred Jason Robards as Abraham Lincoln. While on staff at CBS Entertainment, Brown was Angela Lansbury’s publicist for the final seasons of Murder, She Wrote.
Since returning to his hometown of St. Louis, in 2001, he has been an adjunct professor at Webster University, teaching classes in film.