Tampa Area Couldn’t Help Falling In Love With Elvis

Elvis Presley performed in Tampa near the beginning of his career and near the end.

On May 8, 1955, you could have seen a vibrant, 21-year-old Elvis at the Homer W. Hesterly Armory, singing “That’s All Right.” General admission was $1.

Twenty-one years later you could have seen a pudgy, sweating-to-get-through-the-show, 42-year-old Elvis at Curtis Hixon Hall on Sept. 2, 1976. Tickets for the sold-out show were $12.50.

As we near the 44th anniversary of his death on Aug. 16, let us reflect upon Elvis’ ties to the Tampa area.

From that first show in 1955, through a half-dozen more over 20 years, an annual festival in his honor, a local diner where he ate, the filming of the movie Follow That Dream and his alleged haunting of a downtown hotel, Elvis has left an imprint in Tampa.

When “Elvis the Pelvis” first came to town, he was not famous. The nation’s media did not know what to make of this good-looking, hip shaking, knee-twitching rockabilly singer with a mane of wavy hair and a lip that curled up with a sexy sneer. With his star rising fast, Elvis was considered by many to be a threat to decency and good music.

The last time he came to town, the nation’s media was treating the King of Rock ‘n’ Roll as if he were past his prime.

When Elvis and his three-piece band, The Blue Moon Boys, motored into Tampa in 1955, they were riding in a used 1954 pink Fleetwood Cadillac that Elvis bought that year. Even though money was beginning to roll in, Elvis was known to be tight with a dollar, often staying in cheap hotels or with people he knew.

This former truck driver who had billed himself as “The Hillbilly Cat” had recorded a few songs on the Sun Records label in Memphis. He was gaining teenage fans as a regular on the Louisiana Hayride radio show.

Elvis had been on the road since January of that year and had already played more than 100 dates from Texas to Florida.

For the month of May, Elvis was “a special added attraction” to country singer Hank Snow’s All-Star Jamboree. Also on the bill were Faron Young, Mother Maybelle Carter and Tampa native Slim Whitman, known for his high-range yodeling skills.

Whitman and Snow were managed by Col. Tom Parker, a Dutch-born promoter and former carnival hustler who lived in Tampa from the late 1930s to the early 1950s. Parker had worked with the Hillsborough County Humane Society as an animal handler in-residence and fundraiser. He started a pet cemetery here that charged a $100 per funeral and burial.

Parker also arranged Humane Society fundraising concerts featuring country artists from Nashville. This led to a career switch when he started managing singer Eddy Arnold.

Elvis and Tom Parker. (Photo courtesy of Ronny Elliott)

The Homer W. Hesterly Armory held close to 5,000 and was sold out. Elvis closed the show to screaming fans.

Col. Parker was impressed with Elvis’ appeal. When Elvis returned to Tampa on July 31, 1955, Parker was his manager.

Andy Griffith, long before he became sheriff of Mayberry, was the headliner for the July 31 matinee and evening shows at the Armory. Griffith sang and did comedy routines. Elvis closed the shows, following Ferlin Huskey and Marty Robbins.

Col. Parker hired Tampa photographer William V. ‘Red’ Robertson to get Elvis in action. One shot of Elvis singing, known as the “Tonsil” photograph, became an iconic image that was used as an album cover and to promote future concerts. Parker also hired Tampa-based Rinaldi Printing to produce posters and other Elvis-related materials and the relationship continued throughout his career.

The “tonsil” photo from Elvis’ performance at Hesterly Armory July 31, 1955 (left) and the cover of his self-titled debut album released in 1956 (right).

By the end of 1955, Elvis had outgrown these country music jamborees—he was the headliner. Television appearances and more successful recordings such as “Hound Dog” and “Heartbreak Hotel” followed.

Elvis made record chart history in 1956 with 17 songs on Billboard’s Top 100 singles chart, including three singles that reached No. 1—”Heartbreak Hotel,” “Don’t Be Cruel” and “Love Me Tender.”

He hit the road again that year performing 143 concerts in 79 cities. He returned to sell-out three shows at the Tampa Armory in February 1956. And he was back in Florida in August for a grueling sweep of six cities in two weeks, where more than 100,000 fans attended.

He played the Homer W. Hesterly on Aug. 5 for two sold out shows that drew 10,000 fans. Some started lining up at 4:30 a.m. to get in and an estimated 1,000 were turned away.

Elvis also played Miami, Lakeland, St. Petersburg, Daytona, Orlando and Jacksonville. This time he rode into Tampa in a brand-new Lincoln Continental that he bought for $10,000 cash following the Miami concerts where feverish fans damaged his car.

Tampa Tribune reporter Paul Wilder, who was friends with Col. Parker from his days as a dog catcher, got the first exclusive interview with Elvis in 1956. The Tampa Tribune called Elvis “America’s only hoochie-coochie dancer” and the Miami Herald said he was “the high priest of a momentary teenage cult” and a St. Petersburg Times columnist said his moves on stage might be a short-lived “gimmick.”

Elvis was never that accessible again. Reporters and photographers were barred from the set of Follow That Dream, filmed in July 1961 on location in Yankeetown, Inverness, Crystal River and Ocala, in Central Florida. It was the ninth out of 31 movies starring Elvis.

Based on a 1959 Florida novel, Pioneer, Go Home! by Fort Myers author Richard P. Powell, the movie follows the struggles of vagabond family stranded in a rural area of Florida.

Elvis stayed at Port Paradise Hotel in Crystal River during the shoot. A courtroom scene took place in the 1912 Citrus County Old Courthouse in Inverness.

Pumpkin Island near the bridge over Bird Creek on State Road 40 was turned into a beach with tons of fill dirt and white sand. A thatch-roofed shack costing $20,000 and a boat dock were built on the beach. And that stretch of highway was painted black.

In 1996, that section of SR 40 was named Follow That Dream Parkway. A bronze historical marker honoring Elvis stands just west of U.S. 19.

Tampa-based singer/songwriter Ronny Elliott was a teenager when the movie was shooting and tracked down where Elvis was staying. “I bugged every person I knew who was old enough to drive to get me to Crystal River,” Elliott recalls.

“When Elvis strolled out that first morning, he stood around and chatted, and signed pictures for quite a while,’ Elliot says. “He was always too kind and too polite to ever walk off. Over the next few weeks more fans figured it all out and we didn’t have as much of him to ourselves.”

Elliott made several trips and took numerous photographs of Elvis. Elliott’s grandmother, Lottie, came along. She hugged and laughed with Elvis and one time brought him a coconut cake.

Ronny Elliott with Elvis. (Photo courtesy of Ronny Elliott)

Elliott cherishes his memories of Elvis. “As we sat around and chatted, Elvis’ moods seemed to roller coaster regularly,” he says. “Oh, he was always friendly, always sweet, but you could see lonely wash up regularly. I’m only just beginning to understand that it’s the lonely that connects us. Not me and Elvis, all of us.”

The bank scene in Follow That Dream was filmed in Ocala on Silver Springs Boulevard. Among the throngs trying to get a glimpse of Elvis pulling up to a bank and getting out of a car, was a 10-year-old Tom Petty. He came down from his Gainesville home with his Uncle Earl, a photographer who working with the film crew. Young Petty was impressed by the crowd reaction and meeting Elvis was an incredible moment that inspired him to pursue a music career, according to a 2007 article in The Gainesville Sun.

Petty would recall that Elvis appeared “radiant as an angel” that “seemed to glow and walk above the ground.” And then Elvis came over and greeted Tom who said he did not remember what Elvis said because he was “too dumbfounded.”

We know that Elvis visited Weeki Wachee State Park on July 31,1961 because there are YouTube videos documenting the event were 3,000 fans packed in to see him greet the legendary mermaids.

The Coney Island Drive-Inn on Jefferson Street, which opened in 1960, has a shrine to Elvis, claiming he ate at footlong hot dog there during a break in filming.

Elvis would come back to Tampa for concerts at the Curtis Hixon Hall in 1970, 1975 and 1976, one year before his death.

For the last two visits he was the slick, somewhat bloated Elvis of Las Vegas, the one in the fancy jumpsuits who wore sweat-soaked scarfs that he tossed to the crowds. He still played to sold-out shows, singing a slew of his hits to a mostly middle-aged and older audience, many of whom had seen at the Armory when they were teens.

Legend has it that after his concerts, he would stop at one of the few places that was open all-night, the then-Ayers Diner on Florida Avenue. It later became Nicko’s Diner and now is the Chop Chop Shop.

The Nicko’s management long claimed that Elvis ate there often and once ordered a grilled peanut-butter-and-banana sandwich. In 2006, a bronze plaque commemorating Elvis’ visits was installed in one of the booths during the Tampa’s annual Elvis Festival, which began in 2003 and continued through 2015.

Ayres Diner in Seminole Heights, 1950s (left) and the “Elvis Booth” plaque (right).

The weeklong festivals included screenings of Elvis movies and numerous events including an Elvis Tribute Artist Contest and a Hunka-Hunka-Burning Love Brunch and Wedding Vow Renewal with an Elvis tribune artist as the officiant.

During the 1956 concerts in the area, Elvis stayed at The Floridan Hotel in downtown Tampa. In Deborah Frethem’s “Haunted Tampa” book, she recounts a story about a woman who was living in the Floridan Hotel in the summer of 1977 when one morning her radio started playing Elvis singing “Heartbreak Hotel.”

The radio tuner started moving up and down the dial by itself, the story goes. Every station was playing Elvis, she claimed, and when she would turn the radio off, it came back on playing “Heartbreak Hotel.” She said she yanked out the plug but the radio kept playing. Frantic, she rushed down to the lobby to tell the desk clerk and he informed her that Elvis had died the day before, on Aug. 16.

Was it the ghost of Elvis? If so, he seemed determined NOT to leave the building.

Walt Belcher, longtime Tampa Tribune entertainment reporter and Elvis fan, wrote this for Caught In The Act.

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