The 40th anniversary of Elvis Presley's satellite concert from Honolulu offers a reminder of his love for the isles
POSTED: 1:30 a.m. HST, Jan 6, 2013
LAST UPDATED: 3:08 a.m. HST, Jan 6, 2013
It was big. It was unprecedented. It was Elvis.
Elvis Presley, known worldwide as "The King," would perform in a concert that would be broadcast "live via satellite" from Hawaii to more than 40 countries. At a time when a long-distance telephone call was still a big deal, broadcasting anything "live via satellite" — let alone a full-length concert — was the stuff of science fiction.
For Presley, who had seemed bigger than life almost from the beginning of his career, the concert on Jan. 14, 1973, was the milestone that would mark the final years of his life. It underscored a career turnaround and served as a dramatic midpoint: Five years earlier his career was thought to have been over, and nearly five years later he was dead.
But in 1973, Presley was ready to do something big. The concert he called "Aloha from Hawaii" was it.
And Hawaii was the perfect place to do it.
'ELVIS: ALOHA FROM HAWAII 40TH ANNIVERSARY SCREENING'» Where: Blaisdell Arena
» When: 7:30 p.m. Jan. 14
» Cost: $35
» Tickets: 800-745-3000 or www.ticketmaster.com
ELVIS IN HAWAIIA special series marking the 40th anniversary of the "Elvis: Aloha from Hawaii" concert, Jan. 14. 1973. For more coverage, visit staradvertiser.com.
Monday: Fans share their burning love for The King
ELVIS AND HAWAII» Elvis Presley's first visit to Hawaii was in November 1957 for shows at Honolulu Stadium and Schofield Barracks.
» The singer performed a benefit at Bloch Arena on March 25, 1961, raising nearly $62,000 to help build the USS Arizona Memorial.
» Presley filmed three movies in Hawaii: "Blue Hawaii," "Girls! Girls! Girls!" and "Paradise, Hawaiian Style"
» On Aug. 15, 1965, Presley visited the USS Arizona Memorial and laid a wreath containing 1,177 carnations in honor of those who lost their lives aboard the ship.
» In May 1968 the singer took wife Priscilla, daughter Lisa and some friends to visit the USS Arizona Memorial.
» Presley's "Aloha from Hawaii," broadcast via satellite around the world Jan. 14, 1973, at the Honolulu International Center (now Blaisdell Center), remains the most-watched broadcast by an individual entertainer in television history.
» Presley often stayed at the Hilton Hawaiian Village and Ilikai Hotel, and also rented homes on the North Shore and Lanikai Beach. His last visit was in 1977.
» Scenes for Presley's movies were shot at Waikiki Beach, Diamond Head, Ala Wai Harbor, the National Memorial Cemetery of the Pacific and other Oahu locations.
Source: Elvis Presley Enterprises Inc.
FAN MEMORIES"I was very fortunate to score front-row seats to the Jan. 14, 1973, performance. The lady next to me brought a stool to stand on to give Elvis a lei, but when he came our way, I impulsively jumped on the stool. Elvis knelt down. ... I saw him sweating heavily, so I wiped his brow, which surprised him. He went back to singing, hopefully knowing how happy he had made me."
--Aunty Bunnie Hollinger, Waialua
"I was at the dress rehearsal and the concert. I can still remember Elvis acknowledging Jack Lord, who was in the audience. There were some females who ran to the front of the stage and fought for the scarves that he handed over. There was a touching moment when a female in a wheelchair presented him with a lei (and) he knelt down on the stage and bent over to receive the lei and a kiss and gave her one of his scarves. That was class."
--Alton Wong, Hawaii Kai
The logistics would be formidable anywhere, but to broadcast live at appropriate times in Asia and Europe meant the concert had to start at 12:30 a.m. in Hawaii. Almost as important, perhaps more so for Presley if not for his shrewd, number-crunching manager, Colonel Tom Parker, was the location itself.
Not only was Hawaii an exotic backdrop, but Elvis loved Hawaii and Hawaii loved Elvis.
The love affair started early. Hawaii — still an isolated American territory when Presley achieved national stardom in 1956 — embraced him with a fervor unsurpassed in many other parts of the country. A local write-in contest to win the hat the singer wore in his first movie, "Love Me Tender," drew 53,000 letters. The winner, 16-year-old Evelyn Hirai, received the prize from Hawaii deejay Tom Moffatt at the film's "teen premiere" in Honolulu.
"That was a big deal," Moffatt said. "Colonel Parker heard about this 53,000 response on the hat, and I think that's why he felt he should bring Elvis to Hawaii."
Less than a year later, Presley came to the islands for the first time in November 1957 to do a pair of concerts at the old Honolulu Stadium in Moiliili. (Reserved seats were $2.50 and $3.50.) Ron Jacobs, another legendary figure in island radio history, was the concert emcee.
"Hawaii was much more innocent then," Jacobs said. "Here we are, out in the middle of nowhere, and all of a sudden this guy shows up. The sound (of his music) was completely different, and he had the weirdest name I'd ever heard … but by the time he got here (for the concert), he had enough advance notice and enough hits that emceeing that show was just incredible."
Jacobs and Moffatt, who worked together at KHVH radio station, met Parker when he arrived in Honolulu to check things out a day or two before Presley got here for the stadium concerts.
"We talked about doing an Elvis impersonator thing (as a radio promotion)," Moffatt said. "The Colonel said, ‘No one can impersonate Elvis,' and that ended the conversation."
Jacobs decided to prove him wrong.
A third deejay, Donn Tyler, made up to look like Elvis, was driven around Oahu in a convertible accompanied by someone who might be mistaken for Parker. Jacobs was the driver. He called the radio station posing as a fan who'd just seen Elvis pass by, and off they went. Before long Moffatt was getting calls from excited listeners who'd seen "Elvis" and "Colonel Parker" drive by.
When Jacobs and Tyler returned to the radio station, the phone rang. It was Parker.
Parker, who always liked good publicity he didn't have to pay for, wanted to congratulate them for pulling off the stunt.
The day after the stadium concerts, Veterans Day, Presley performed for a crowd of 10,000 people at the Post Bowl at Schofield Barracks.
A bond between Parker and the two Hawaii deejays lasted until Presley's death in 1977. Parker contacted the pair in 1959 shortly before the singer was discharged from the Army.
"If we got X signatures (on a petition), Elvis would do his first concert in Hawaii after being released from the Army," Moffatt said. "We got a (news service teletype) roll and took it over to Ala Moana Center (to get signatures) and started blasting it on the radio. Ala Moana had just opened then (in) 1959, and that summer the Colonel got me an interview with Elvis. I talked with Elvis (on the telephone) in Germany. It was a pretty big deal. We were lucky. We got a clear line."
A year later, Presley and Parker learned that funding for the uncompleted USS Arizona Memorial in Pearl Harbor had dried up. They stepped forward and offered to do a benefit concert when, as Honolulu journalist Eddie Sherman puts it, "no one (else) was interested."
Sherman, a longtime "three dot" columnist for The Honolulu Advertiser and then for MidWeek, met Presley and Parker when he was covering concert preparations for the Advertiser.
"The Pacific War Memorial Commission was having a very tough time raising money (for the memorial)," Sherman said. "(Honolulu Advertiser editor George) Chaplin wrote an editorial, (and) he sent it around the country to the newspapers and Colonel Parker saw the story and he called. ‘What can my boy and I do to help you?' They paid their own way, and when they came here Chaplin assigned me to cover the thing. That's how I met them."
Presley and Parker picked up all the production costs of doing the show so all the money from ticket sales and commemorative programs would go to the fundraiser.
Sherman remembers asking Parker about setting a price for the programs.
"He said, ‘Whatever they give you, don't give change!'"
The concert pushed the project forward. Held on March 25, 1961, at the Navy's Bloch Arena, it raised $62,000, which included a $5,000 donation from Presley and Parker.
PRESLEY'S relationship with Hawaii became even tighter in the early '60s when he filmed parts of three films here.
"Blue Hawaii," filmed in 1961, was a beautiful showcase for the new 50th state with scenes shot at Hanauma Bay, Tantalus, Ala Moana Beach Park and the Coco Palms Hotel on Kauai. It was one of Presley's most successful films and produced one of his best movie soundtrack albums.
The second movie — 1962's "Girls! Girls! Girls!" — could have taken place in any tropical locale but included location shots at Kewalo Basin and Ala Wai Harbor.
Nine movies later, Elvis returned to Hawaii in a big way in 1966 with "Paradise, Hawaiian Style." Co-starring James Shigeta, Suzanna Leigh and Donna "Eleu" Butterworth, it included location shooting at the Maui Sheraton, the Hanalei Plantation Resort on Kauai and locales on the Kona Coast and Windward Oahu. It concluded with a lengthy musical production number starring Presley at the newly opened Polynesian Cultural Center in Laie.
But Presley's popularity and commercial success was on the decline. The impact of The Beatles and the "British Invasion" and the increasingly mediocre films he starred in led some music journalists to write him off entirely.
PRESLEY proved them wrong when he successfully reinvented himself as a concert artist with a 1968 television special and then in Las Vegas, which at the time primarily showcased acts that were not rock 'n' roll.
In November 1972, Presley followed three sold-out performances at the Honolulu International Center (now the Blaisdell Arena) with a news conference to announce his satellite-live concert. He told reporters it would benefit the Kui Lee Cancer Fund, named for the late Hawaii songwriter. RCA President Rocco Laginestra, who joined Presley, Parker and Lee's widow in the Hilton Hawaiian Village's Rainbow Rib Room, said admission to the show would be by donation only.
Sherman said "Hawaii Five-0" star Jack Lord donated $1,000 for his ticket. But some folks are said to have gotten in for a dime.
The concert raised $75,000, which included a $1,000 donation from the singer himself.
But even as Presley sought a global audience, organizers could not air the concert live in the United States, which was primed that day for Super Bowl VII. U.S. fans would not see "Aloha from Hawaii" until April 4 on NBC.
The U.S. broadcast was 30 minutes longer than the one-hour concert.
Thousands of fans got a preview of the show when organizers allowed them to watch the Jan. 12 dress rehearsal as long as they made a donation to the Kui Lee fund. Fans stormed into the arena when the doors opened and waited two hours for the rehearsal to begin.
The real concert drew 6,000 people, which filled the arena because a large "We Love Elvis" sign covered about 3,500 seats.
Ruth Falter, in 1973 "a poor 21-year-old working for GEICO," paid $2 for her ticket — a lot of money for her at the time. She still has her ticket stub.
"I was really an Elvis fan," Falter said. "I was so excited to be part of the historic event, but because it was so late at night, I was afraid I couldn't stay awake."
Falter and a friend fortified themselves with a pitcher of margaritas before they went to the arena and had no problem staying awake once the show started after midnight. She plans to attend the 40th-anniversary screening of the "Aloha from Hawaii" concert Jan. 14.
Hawaii Gov. Neil Abercrombie, a UH teaching assistant in 1973, doesn't remember how much he paid for his ticket, but guesses it wasn't much.
"Obviously, (with) people like me going, I mean it was cheap," he said.
Abercrombie remembers the event as "just amazing."
"(Elvis was wearing) the white uniform and the cape, and he was making his semi-karate moves and all that stuff," he said. "The spotlight would go off and it would be dark. And then the light would go on, and there he'd be in the cape with the big collar. And in my mind's eye he was wearing Beatle boots. … Maybe he wasn't, but it seemed that way because the pants had a flare and they were stiff … and he had a big smile on his face. He was obviously enjoying himself."
Presley, wearing his iconic "American Eagle" jumpsuit, tossed the $10,000 cape into the crowd at the end of his performance and then flashed a shaka to the audience.
Longtime Hawaii entertainer Melveen Leed had seen Presley perform at the MGM Grand in Las Vegas but said the "Aloha from Hawaii" concert was something special.
"I was sitting on the side, but I was so near (to the stage). It was so exciting because I really was such a big fan of his," she said. "I remember him always relating to his band and his singers. He was such a professional … and his voice was just super. It was just beautiful. It was flawless."
Presley performed a cross section of classic hits and contemporary material that included "See See Rider," "Burning Love," "Blue Suede Shoes," "Steamroller Blues," "Early Morning Rain," "Suspicious Minds," "Can't Help Falling in Love" and — of course — Lee's "I'll Remember You."
When the show was over and the audience had left, Presley recorded five additional songs for the U.S. broadcast.
Sherman remembers "Aloha from Hawaii" as the show of a lifetime.
"We knew it was important, but in retrospect, as time went on, we didn't know how big it was," he said. "(Elvis) was in his prime … (and) at that time they estimated that it was the biggest audience ever. All over the world."
Presley, 38 at the time, also understood the significance of the satellite-live 1973 concert. Moffatt, who interviewed the singer at Honolulu Airport when he arrived for the show, said Presley told him, "Tom, this is the biggest thing I've ever done."