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March 11, 2013

Elvis Presley's Vegas years on display at Graceland

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 last week, 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.”

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