MEMPHIS, Tenn. -- Elvis Presley was only 21 when he first opened in Las Vegas in 1956. It was at the New Frontier Hotel, where a 30-foot marquee of the entertainer invited guests to hear "The Atomic Powered Singer."
The two-week engagement turned out to be a mismatch. "Elvis wasn't ready for Vegas, and Vegas wasn't ready for Elvis," says Graceland archivist Angie Marchese. One of his records, "Heartbreak Hotel," became his first No. 1 hit during the 1956 appearance, but the audience of older Vegas gamblers gave the hip-swiveling newcomer only a "lukewarm welcome."
It would take 13 more years before the singer returned to the Vegas stage in 1969. By then he was one of the biggest legends in show business. His sold-out concerts broke all attendance records, and his stage costumes were a big part of the attraction.
Those costumes are a major part of a new exhibit, "Elvis: Live from Vegas," in the Sincerely Elvis Museum in Graceland Plaza.
"His audiences loved them. They really loved them. It was like, 'What's he wearing?,' not just, 'What's he singing?' " says Marchese.
When he opened at The International Hotel in 1969, Presley wanted to make a statement on stage. Instead of the jacket-and-tie outfits of many Vegas performers, he wore a two-piece tunic-and-pants costume modeled after a karate outfit. The exhibit opens with a simple black version of the costume and includes 29 more suits that grow more elaborate as the exhibit progresses.
At a soft opening for the exhibit recently, one visitor, Beki Lowry, an accountant at Mary Kay headquarters in Dallas, said the cumulative effect of the suits, including Presley's iconic American Eagle suits, was "how thin Elvis was. Everybody talks about him being huge when he was in Las Vegas, but all of these, even the later ones, are tiny."
Presley debuted his first one-piece jumpsuit in January 1970. It started simply with a white suit looking almost as much like a flight suit as a stage costume. A year later, he added a cape to the costumes and often wore suits with matching capes through 1973.
"As the suits became more elaborate, the capes became more elaborate, and it finally became too cumbersome," says Marchese. Many of the beaded and embroidered suits with colored stones cost as much as $1,500 in the 1970s and, adjusted for inflation, would cost more than $8,500 now.
The exhibit also includes other aspects of Presley's Vegas years, including a contract signed by his manager, Col. Parker, and hotel management. The contract is written in ink on a tablecloth with Parker signing for Presley and agreeing that he would perform two shows a day in two four-week engagements each year for five years. A "show statement" for one appearance also is part of the exhibit, showing Presley's earnings for one month as $130,000 and Parker's earnings $65,000.
Parker's role in promoting Presley is among other exhibits, too, including the top 10 feet of that 30-foot marquee Parker used to promote the singer in his first Vegas booking. He also promoted Presley on bus benches, and the backs of two painted benches are mounted behind costumes in one display case.
Although Presley was not on stage in Vegas between 1957 and 1969, it was still his "playground," says Marchese. While filming movies in Hollywood, he and his friends often spent weekends in Vegas attending the shows of other entertainers and gambling, usually blackjack.
And Presley fans know that he was married twice in Vegas. The first was his character's marriage to actress Ann-Margret's in the 1964 movie "Viva Las Vegas." The second was in real life, in 1967. The singer wed Priscilla Beaulieu in an eight-minute ceremony in the suite of the Aladdin Hotel's owner.