Elvis' Golden Anniversary On TV

Elvis Presley circa 1957
AP
Fifty years ago, as Elvis Presley was about to make his first appearance on "The Ed Sullivan Show," Helen Kreis was staring at the TV screen, barely able to contain her teenage excitement.

Then her father pulled the plug.

"He was just joking, but before he could get it plugged back in, I was next door at the neighbor's house. They were watching Elvis, of course, and I wasn't taking any chances," said the now-65-year-old Kreis, of Olney, Md.

"Everybody was watching Elvis."

Well, maybe not everybody, but nearly everyone in America who had a TV had tuned in. Presley's first of three appearances on Sullivan's show, on Sept. 9, 1956, drew 60 million viewers, more than 80 percent of the national TV audience.

It was the high point in the year, 1956, that was the defining period for Presley's move from regional celebrity to national icon, and it created one of the first great moments in the history of American pop culture.

"This was a chance for him to really prove himself to the country," said Andrew Solt, producer of an upcoming set of DVDs marking the 50th anniversary of Presley's appearances on the "Sullivan" show.

Elvis fans from around the world are in Memphis this week for the annual remembrance of his death in 1977. Many still remember the year Elvis lit up American televisions.

"Other singers just stood there and sang, and then all of a sudden, you've got this guy up there going all over the place," said Diane Adams, 68, of Florence, S.C.

In those days, few homes had more than one television, so millions of star-struck teenagers watched the show with their parents, making the Elvis experience a family event and giving parents a look at what all the hoopla was about.

2By today's standards, Presley looked tame on that first "Sullivan" show in his plaid jacket and opened-neck shirt. He was cool, for sure, with a sly, curled-lip smile, but hardly threatening.

Presley had already been on national TV several times in 1956 before Sullivan had him on, but none of the earlier programs carried Sullivan's wide appeal and all-American stamp of approval.

Presley's first No. 1 hit, "Heartbreak Hotel," came out in January 1956, and his first album, also a chart topper, was released in March. As his fame grew, so did the vigor of his critics, who saw Presley as an oversexed enchanter leading American teenagers to ruin.

But when Sullivan praised him as a "decent, fine boy" much of the storm began to subside. The praise came at the end of Presley's final show on Jan. 6, 1957, when he was shown from the waist up only. (Sullivan missed Presley's first appearance while recovering from injuries suffered in a car crash. Famed actor Charles Laughton hosted the show.)