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THOMPSON: The summer I met Elvis in Florida

October 16, 2017 - 12:00 PM

 


OPINION


This week's column is another excerpt from my book about growing up in Florida during the 1950s and 1960s. Despite the distance in miles and time, I believe we all share common bonds, and perhaps these words ring true to some readers who grew up here or elsewhere during that time.

Ocala was a small town...just 12,000 people in 1950...but everyone from Hollywood to New York knew it well. A lot of famous people visited, but it was Elvis Presley who created by far the biggest stir ever in Ocala. I met Elvis the summer of 1961 when he was in a movie - “Follow That Dream”, which was shot on location in the area. This was not the first time Elvis was in Ocala, but I was too young for his first visit. On Tuesday, May 10, 1956, Elvis - known then as the “Hillbilly Cat” - performed at Ocala's Southeastern Livestock Pavilion. 

According to an advertising poster, Elvis didn't get top billing by any means. But he was a force to be reckoned with as this tour would prove. Elvis criss-crossed the South and Southwest - New Mexico, Texas, Arkansas, Louisiana and Florida - from Jan 1 until he arrived in Ocala on May 10...100 performances in 130 days! 

Elvis, in a red-sequinned dinner jacket with black lapels, white shirt and black pants, won the audience - especially the teenagers. He gyrated across the stage - actually the flatbed of a truck - singing "That's All Right Momma", "Blue Moon of Kentucky"  and "Good Rockin' Tonight".  

Most of the 2,700 people showed up in Ocala to see and hear Hank Snow, whose first 14 singles all made Billboard's Top Ten Country hits. The photo below shows Elvis the morning after the Ocala show - with a camera at Silver Springs.

Elvis
Elvis
Image Credit: SUBMITTED/Don Thompson

A few nights later a crowd of more than 14,000 mostly teenage girls - greater than the entire population of Ocala - went crazy as Elvis rocked in Jacksonville's Gator Bowl stadium. When Elvis ended the show with "I'll see you girls back stage," thousands took him at his word, storming the stage and literally tearing off his clothes and shoes. Colonel Tom Parker, the singer's new manager proclaimed to a reporter, "The heavens just got a brand new star."

Fast forward five years. The summer of 1961 was exciting. I no sooner finished my stint in show business...running coffee for the Sea Hunt crew...than I heard Elvis was coming to Ocala to make a movie. August in Ocala is hellish, but that didn't stop a few thousand people from lining up for hours every day to get a glimpse of rock and roll's biggest star. 

The temperature and humidity were identical the second Saturday in August...98.

The crew for "Follow That Dream" was shooting scenes inside the old Commercial Bank and Trust building on Silver Springs Boulevard. By 7:30 a.m. I was on the steps of the public library directly across from the entrance to the bank...ten feet above the street and a perfect venue. 

I discovered that watching a movie being made was not nearly as interesting as watching a movie. Elvis and other actors arrived about 8:30 a.m., but within seconds they were whisked inside the bank and wouldn't be seen again until they left late in the afternoon. A few extras were chosen from among the local residents on hand...but most were adults. But, like a dog coveting a bone...I never left the library steps. The crowd had grown larger during the day and by afternoon numbered in the thousands.

Finally, the crew broke about 4:30 p.m...and a limousine pulled up in front of the bank. Elvis ran out to a squealing crowd of mostly girls and young women. He had a towel over his head and jumped into the back of the Cadillac and it sped off with a police motorcycle escort. I stayed as the crowd quickly dispersed, disappointed that my only view of Elvis was from 50 yards away. But suddenly, I wondered why Elvis had a towel over his head...was it really him?

And then I thought, he had blue jeans on when he went into the bank...but left wearing black slacks. On a hunch, I quickly ran across the street through the alley between the bank and another building to the bank's parking lot and back entrance. I arrived seconds before the “real” Elvis came out. He patted me on the head and said, "Hey, you're a smart fella," as he passed and got into a convertible. I'm not sure of the make or model...but only a few others saw him leave.

I wasn't able to mouth even a "hello" but he had talked to me. The entire day of waiting was worth it. I later learned that during his brief stay in Ocala, Elvis had eaten breakfast one morning in mom's luncheonette. Mom had heard his name, but had never seen one of his movies or listened to his records. He was just another customer...and according to the women who worked for mom, that's how mom treated him. He ate breakfast, leaving a dollar tip…more than a good breakfast cost back then.

I remember mom saying he was polite and good looking, but she told others that he "better watch his money” or he would end up broke tipping like that. It was a different era…and I must confess, I miss it just a little.

– Don Thompson, an American awaiting Canadian citizenship, lives in Vernon and in Florida. In a career that spans more than 40 years, Don has been a working journalist, a speechwriter and the CEO of an advertising and public relations firm. A passionate and compassionate man, he loves the written word as much as fine dinners with great wines.  His essays are a blend of news reporting and opinion.


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