When The King Ruled Over T.V., Not Just Rock ‘n Roll

The deserved praise for this year’s rock ‘n roll biopic from Baz Luhrman, Elvis, has hit a proper chord at a time when the Presley estate could use a booster from a hype hypodermic. As generations fade with their adulation of The King of Rock ‘n Roll, what Austin Butler achieved with an Academy-worthy depiction of Elvis Presley cannot be understated in its relevance. Elvis has stood to wane from the public eye along with always-in-the-public-mind icons such as Tina Turner and John Lennon.

Pilgrimages to Graceland are no doubt up these days, jam-packed in reverence of gold records galore as it was when I was able to visit the Memphis-planted estate built on Vitalis and (at the time) rebellious hip thrusts. Graceland is something every American (or those traveling from abroad with an interest) should see, whether you’re a fan of Elvis or not. Perhaps you’ll take an overnight at The Heartbreak Hotel across the street from Elvis’s variegated, polychromatic mansion. Maybe you’ll be compelled to snag a gold “TCB” lightning pendant, the acronym Elvis and his entourage used as code for “Taking Care of Business.” More mandatory is a trip to Sun Records in downtown Memphis where Elvis cut his recording teeth, along with the Stax Museum–not just a shrine to classic soul and funk, it marks another of Elvis’ landing spots later in his venerated career.

One of the stressors behind the new Elvis film is exposing the truth of what most fans long knew at the time Presley’s death in 1977. Tom Hanks delivered just as much as Austin Butler as Colonel Tom Parker, Elvis’ unscrupulous manager who not only mishandled and exploited Elvis’ global popularity, he was contributor to The King’s exhaustion and tragic death. Part of this fatigue came from a relentless, cash grab Vegas residency and via a gamut of 31 makeabuck movies, many of them insufferable dreck. Jailhouse Rock, King Creole and Viva Las Vegas nothwithstanding, Elvis Presley became for better or worse (mostly worse), a parallel king of the cinema while he was alive.

If you grew up in Elvis’ times and the few generations thereafter, you will be familiar with television in its primitive, pre-cable state. You would then know the terms “VHF” and “UHF.” Rabbit ear antennae and roof-mounted sputniks scraping to pull low fidelity wavelength transmissions, all part of our archaic home entertainment norm. We’re talking capturing no more than 13 or 14 channels total of a possible 36, between the mainstream VHF where the networks primarily operated, and the independent t.v. stations fighting to be seen amidst the tundra of static-snow in UHF land. Elvis ruled both domains.

Elvis’ 17 televised appearances over the decades turned him into a ratings powerhouse on The Ed Sullivan Show, Stage Show, The Milton Berle Show and the nefarious “Hound Dog” incident on The Steve Allen Show. Elvis: Aloha from Hawaii, via Satellite and the 1977 Elvis in Concert nabbed gangbusters rating shares. Yet most fans would agree Elvis’ shining hour on the boob tube came with the electrifying ’68 Comeback Special, done Elvis’ way in rebuff of a starchy scripted Christmas Show. Let history show whose instincts played out the best.

Two years after Presley’s death, Kurt Russell launched an esteemed career of his own in the respectable 1979 made-for television bio movie, Elvis. From here, a devastated American public was still licking their wounds from The King’s inglorious death. Elvis impersonators first sought to keep Elvis’ legacy prospering in memory, even if the countless milking of this shtick soon led to farce. You get why the door was kicked wide open for Joe R. Lansdale’s hysterical horror romp, Bubba Ho-Tep, brought to comedic genius in the 2002 film, with an aged, dropped-out, purported “real” Elvis played by Bruce Campbell.

Seldom few glittering personalities have been elevated to their own personal canon like Elvis Presley. Before cable hijacked the way we consumed television, stations dedicated entire weekends in January and August to Elvis, marking his birthday (January 8th) and death day (August 16th). If you can picture it, one station (usually a UHF channel) would run a two-day marathon of Elvis’ schlocky films. You’d be guaranteed Blue Hawaii, Love Me Tender, Roustabout, Loving You, G.I. Blues, Follow That Dream, Kid Gallahad, Clambake, Fun in Acapulco, The Trouble With Girls, Charro! Double Trouble, Harum Scarum, Girls! Girls! Girls! and Tickle Me along with the few respected movies Elvis laid down for posterity. Keep in mind, in these days, television stations usually signed off the air for five hours before 6:00 a.m. between daily broadcasts.

In my house, my grief-stricken parents always tuned in for the two Elvis weekends, more so to hear the music as they did chores, hung outside on the porch, tossed a few spirits and, of course, to have me go as cross-eyed as the man himself in Blue Hawaii over how awful yet vibrant those cardboard cutout rock extravaganzas were. You just know one big reason for Batman ’66’s existence was to stick it to Elvis’ (moreso Colonel Parker’s) litany of lame.

What resonates the most of Elvis in my house growing up, however, is that glorious ’68 Comeback Special. When VCR’s became a thing, my stepfather recorded a rerun of it and he played it many times over. This is also the man who entered my life as my future dad figure tacking up a poster of Elvis decked in one of his trademark spangled jumpsuits and a Hawaiian lei only a few days after meeting me. This gift bestowed by flicking on my lamp at 11:30-ish at night and walking across my bed with me in it. I could hear The King’s posthumous snicker from beyond, then age 8.

I try to tell younger people, my son, especially, who has an in-and-out love of Elvis, you had to live it to believe it. Sure, somewhere in the 900’s of channel hell on satellite and cable t.v., someone’s still running weekend-long tributes to The King. Back in the day, though, it meant something. It was like the country stopped in remembrance, swinging like mock malefactors with Jailhouse Rock on the t.v. It really was like that. Elvis Presley is eternal, so much he’s deified in ghostly hologram form in a nuclear-blasted casino in Blade Runner 2049, one of my absolute favorite movies ever. No irony the meeting of former and current Blade Runners takes place in a scarred, torched and abandoned Las Vegas. Like Harrison Ford says to Ryan Gosling with “Can’t Help Falling in Love,” he likes that song, 88 years from when it first came out.

Any suspicious mind says Elvis’ reign is likely to make it all the way to 2049 and perhaps more…

–Ray Van Horn, Jr.

14 thoughts on “When The King Ruled Over T.V., Not Just Rock ‘n Roll

    • He was right! Bruce nailed it. I remember meeting Joe R. Lansdale years ago at a book signing and buying his books and him telling me to key in on “Bubba Ho-Tep” with a knowing look about him. Great writer, super-nice dude.


    • OMG, 2049 means a ton to me. Even though it bombed at the box office, it does my heart good to see it so respected and revered out there. I get the most compliments on my 2049 shirt of any article of clothing I wear. I cherish the movie. Denis Villaneuve’s Dune is starting to itch me the same fashion. Such a master of dynamics and atmosphere.

      Liked by 1 person

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