Friday, 12 August 2016

Did Elvis Presley see Star Wars?

Elvis on May 29, 1977, the week Star Wars
was released. Photo:

Episode Nothing asks whether Elvis saw Star Wars – and considers what that question tells us about the tumultuous times of 1977.

So, did Elvis see Star Wars?

Crowds outside Mann's  Chinese Theater

I’m not a big fan of blog posts that lure you with a clickbaity question like this one and then make you read hundreds of words of padding before you get to the answer.

So let me give you the answer right away: No, it doesn’t look as though Elvis saw Star Wars, although he tried. But in the process of finding out, it’s possible to get an insight into the world that lapped up Star Wars in 1977 – as well as discovering a perhaps surprising connection between Star Wars and the king.

Celebrity viewings of Star Wars – and Elvis’ attempts to see the film

The Spy Who Loved Me: the film
Elvis saw instead of Star Wars

As word spread about this astonishing film Star Wars and the lively scenes outside the cinemas where it was playing, the rich and famous wanted to see it as badly as the ordinary kids.

Hugh Heffner and guests from the Playboy mansion headed in limousines down to Mann’s Chinese Theater in Hollywood – the venue that became known as the home of Star Wars – to see what all the fuss was about. In other cities, celebrities such as Muhammad Ali and Senator Edward Kennedy were spotted at their neighbourhood cinemas taking part in the communal experience of standing in line to see the film.

The most famous celebrity of them all, Elvis Presley, was not accustomed to standing in line to see films. In Memphis, Tennessee, his home town, Elvis was pandered to. Cinema managers would gladly open in the middle of the night in order that Elvis and his friends could descend from Graceland to see a film.

Elvis was in poor shape in 1977. He had gained weight, was behaving erratically, and his concerts could be shambolic. His last show took place on June 26. Elvis was increasingly withdrawn, but he still lived his nocturnal lifestyle in Memphis, and you would imagine the movie-mad King would have loved Star WarsNot only was it full of action, but the Force and the Jedi would surely have appealed to Presley’s love of mysticism and martial arts.

Elvis, Lisa Marie and Ginger Alden returning from
seeing The Spy Who Loved Me on August 12, 1977.
Photo from Elvis Behind the Image Volume 2

That August, almost three months after Star Wars was released, it seems Elvis was trying to get a print of the film to screen in Memphis, apparently to please his daughter Lisa Marie as much as himself. At least, that’s the story widely repeated online, even if no one seems to cite their sources. (Sadly, Peter Guralnick’s superb two-volume biography of Elvis doesn’t mention Star Wars.)

On August 12, unable to obtain a print of Star Wars, Elvis took Lisa Marie and his girlfriend Ginger Alden to see the new James Bond film, The Spy Who Loved Me, at the General Cinema in Whitehaven, Tennessee. It was the last film he saw. Some sources say he was trying to obtain a print of Star Wars as late as August 15, the day before he was found dead in a bathroom at Graceland.

Disco, punk and the death of the King: the pop cultural events of 1977

Charlie's Angels: another pop culture
phenomenon from 1977

There was an awful lot going on in pop culture in 1977; almost too much to take in. Ongoing,massively popular TV series like Charlie’s Angels and Starsky and Hutch were visible on newsstands and stores everywhere. However, TV was also learning that a serious series like Roots could be a huge, talked-about success.

In popular music, the simultaneous zenith of punk rock and disco made it the ideal time to be selling seven inch records. These were times when cultural phenomena like these reached practically everyone, whether or not they approved.

In August 1977, the death of possibly the most famous man in the world stunned everybody. It wasn’t even the only death of a legend that year. The world would lose Groucho Marx just three days later, Bing Crosby in October and Charlie Chaplin in December. But the shocking premature demise of rock and roll’s biggest star was bad news on the scale of Star Wars’ good news – a seismic event you couldn’t ignore. 

Despite the national mourning, though, Star Wars mania would barely pause; the film would continue in many cinemas for months to come.

Cinema-goers in the UK, however, experienced things in a different order.  Thanks to the delayed release of Star Wars in Britain, we went through disco, punk, Roots, the Silver Jubilee, the deaths of Elvis, Groucho, Crosby and Chaplin … and only then did we finally get Star Wars.

Elvis and Star Wars: the surprising link

An ad for the Star Wars Holiday Special

There is one surprising connection between Elvis and Star Wars.

In 1968, Elvis had enjoyed one of the most successful moments in his career. A Christmas Eve TV special, called simply Elvis, had seemed sure to be a bland festive event that would confirm the King’s slide into irrelevance. In fact, the show, executive produced by Dwight Hemion, became –  largely thanks to director Steve Binder – a triumph. It came to be known by the unofficial title the 68 Comeback Special.

Ten years later, Binder and Hemion would be involved with Twentieth Century-Fox’s attempt to bring Star Wars hurriedly to the small screen. The project was the Star Wars Holiday Special. And with this show, two key players in Elvis’s greatest TV event would leave their fingerprints on one of broadcasting’s great embarrassments.

There'll be no update from Episode Nothing next Friday, but I'll be back on August 26. In the meantime, feel free to leave comments. 


Anonymous said...

I remember these pop cultural signposts as if they were yesterday.

Darren Slade said...

Thanks a lot for commenting. We've lost some big figures in 2016, but between August 1977 and the end of the year, we saw the deaths of Elvis, Groucho, Bing Crosby and Chaplin... That really was a year for losing legends.

John White said...

August '77, eh? I have a feeling that I was in Northern Ireland around that time with relatives. I heard of Elvis' death on the news when I was there--and, I think--the US and Russian link-up in space.

But I also think I might have seen clips of Star Wars on British TV during the same visit, which got me very excited. 'Screentest' or 'Clapperboard' or something?

I must have been in a frenzy of anticipation by the time I saw the film in Dec '77.

Darren Slade said...

Thanks John. Wouldn't it be great to track down those early TV items about Star Wars? If there was something on Screentest, it's a shame wasn't included in that Star Wars at the BBC compilation at the end of last year.

John White said...

All I recall was seeing the Mos Eisley shootout and the TIE fighter attack on the Falcon, Darren. It was amazing stuff!

Anonymous said...

San Diego homeless Jesse died 2015 Billy Smith said this 2017.
Billy Smith said :This question,is Elvis still alive.
well,I mean,let me say this, How this got started.
Well, we (elvis /I } actually talked , about it one night,Of Elvis changing places, He was showing me picture,Of himself ,and He said Does this look like me,and I (billySmith} Yeah,and He said, well ,it's not.He said this guy had a facelift to look like me.Billy Smith ,I said Elvis ,now you can fool a lot of thepeople ,I said, but that not you ,that's not you.
That's somebody else.and He (Elvis) Said, You know,
I could Swap places with this person ,and nobody'd everknow the difference,I (billy smith) said ,Again you know,I know,this picture of you and not somebody else. Well,that's led on ,I wanted never thought about it again ,Until After Elvis was dead ,and many years ,I (billy smith)I would always heard these fans saying is Elvis still alive?and so and sightings,and all this ,So I thought, well you , people are holdon to that ,So make this story up,Me (Billy Smith } and Marty Lacker , and it was supposed,to be ,you know, that Elvis swapped places, with this guy,who had _and was dying,and Elvis hid him in the attic,until for the time,for him to die,He had facelift,to look like Elvis,naturally Elvis, wasn't going change his looks,(laugh)So this guy had to look like him (Elvis Presley).This story came out ah was but like i said, it was Supposed to be just kind of a joke but English paper,picked it up ,and they wrote it as a factual story, and duh,of course I've heard this over the years ,now I've decided,well,you know,this time, to get this all cleared up ,because,this is just not right,I never meant for this story to mislead,anybody, or Hurt anybody,in any kind of way, so here's the truth, Elvis died, August 16,1977 one of the hardest days,of my life, and I can trufully say He's gone and we can't bring him (elvis) for all those out there, that asked,that question ,always heard the little story,and took me serious,and i was not serious,that was all supposed to be just in fun.And i want to tell you now it hurts it still hurts,but he's gone.(so when was Elvis gone -1977 or 2015 ? )

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Gman said...

The three celebrity deaths that made the biggest impact in my lifetime were Elvis, John Lennon and Michael Jackson.