Long Live the King

Research into Elvis Presley’s first California concerts over the first week of April, 1956, has yielded new material about the San Diego dates, including unpublished photos of the rock icon backstage at the long-gone San Diego Arena at Eighth and Harbor.

Elvis’s first California performance was a taping for the Milton Berle Show on April 3, 1956, on the aircraft carrier USS Hancock, docked at the 28th Street Naval Station. The next two nights, he played two sold-out shows at the San Diego Arena, aka Glacier Garden. Among the backstage visitors on April 4 was aspiring singer Glen Troutman, later known as Glen Glenn.

“He was very nice to talk to, but he was very nervous,” recalls Glenn in an interview recently posted at scottymoore.net. “I don’t think he’d played to such a big crowd before. I remember him biting his bottom lip a lot, drinking Coke, and just buzzing with nervous energy.”

As seen in Glenn’s previously unpublished backstage photos, “The jacket he was wearing was drenched in sweat because he’d worked so hard onstage. We spent a fair while talking to him, because they couldn’t get him out of the building due to all the screaming fans outside. In the end, they had to get the San Diego Shore Patrol to escort him back to his hotel room.”

The Scotty Moore site unearths a backstage photo from the April 5 show, with Elvis having switched to a dark jacket as he autographs the arm of a giggling young girl. The photographer’s notation indicates the girl to have been 12-year-old Barbara Shepherd, then of 2335 Seabreeze Drive.

Ticket sales for the two 1956 concerts reportedly totaled $17,250, with 11,250 fans attending. According to the book Elvis Day by Day, Presley was paid around $15,000 for the two-night stand. The day after the second San Diego date — April 6 — Presley signed a seven-year movie deal with Paramount.

Three weeks later, “Heartbreak Hotel” hit number one.

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"This is the first time that the Hancock is going to rock and roll, while still in anchor!" The titular host of NBC's Milton Berle Show [aka Texaco Star Theater] introduced Elvis Presley to a live audience on the deck of the aircraft carrier USS Hancock, docked at the Naval Station in San Diego bay.

Presley's first-ever California performance (with his new backing band the Jordanaires) included "Heartbreak Hotel" (on its way to becoming his first #1 hit) and a few others. The singer gamely acknowledged the raging controversy about his "shocking" onstage pelvic gyrations by taking part in a comedy sketch.

Presley introduced Berle, dressed as Elvis (world's first Elvis impersonator?), saying "Mah twin brother, Melvin Presley." Berle/Melvin then takes credit for all the hip-wiggling, saying "I gave him his singing style - I used to drop grasshoppers down his pants."

Elvis' sexually-charged "singing style" was no joke to San Diego police, however. The next two nights, both of Presley's concerts at the San Diego Arena on 8th and Harbor Drive (aka Glacier Garden ) were sold out and police presence was heavy. Over both evenings, several young women were removed from the Arena, reportedly for "hysterical and lewd behavior."

The Shore Patrol had to set up a floating blockade behind the venue, after two teen girls in their underwear and carrying soaked dresses emerged from the water to make a run for Presley's dressing room (they were caught by police and released, presumably after their garments dried). Three people were arrested.

"Some girls broke into the bathroom of Elvis's dressing room and stole the toilet seat," recalled KCBQ disc jockey Don Howard in a 1979 interview with localKicks Magazine. "His Cadillac was covered with obscene messages, and two sailors were arrested for masturbating during the show from watching the antics.... After the concert, the police arrested 12 girls running nude through the halls of the El Cortez Hotel, looking for Elvis.”

“I introduced him [to the stage],” says longtime local DJ Happy Hare Martin, “and he rushed out and sang the first chorus of Hound Dog, which I could not hear above their primal screams. Then…he began wiggling and rotating his pelvis. This is when half the girls lost control of their bladders.”

Martin had been with Elvis backstage in the hours leading up to the show. “Elvis was a blonde,” he says. “I kept his secret for many years, until I learned that he had been outed…When I entered the dressing room, I was flustered to see that the King had no clothes. He was pacing buck naked in the dressing room…Seeing me, he grabbed his gold Lamé suit and covered himself. Too late. I had caught him.”

“In contrast to his black head of hair was a golden wheat-colored tuft [down below]. Yep, he was a natural blonde, alright. ‘You ain’t gonna tell nobody, are ya?’ he asked, almost pleading. I nodded a firm no, and that was that. I later learned that Tony Curtis was his idol. He regarded Tony as the ultimate babe magnet, so he dyed his hair raven black, just like Tony's…the kid obviously did not realize that his hair could have been [turd brown], and it would not have mattered.”

When Presley was scheduled to return to the Arena June 6, Police Chief Adam Elmer Jansen (the city's longest-serving Chief, at 14 years) had had enough. "If he puts on the same kind of show that he did last April, I'll arrest him for disorderly conduct," he was quoted saying in the Union (repeated nationwide after newswires picked up the story). "I've had enough complaints from parents to assure me that twerp is not doing the kids any good."

Late in the year, the city Social Services Department held a series of hearings, to discuss whether Presley should be banned from playing in San Diego .

Presley escaped town without being arrested or banned and in fact returned years later to pack them in for three more sold-out performances, after Police Chief Jansen retired - November 15, 1970 (ticket sales 14,659), April 26, 1973 (15,050 attendees) and April 24, 1976 (17,500 attendees).

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