Standing on the stage at Shreveport’s legendary Municipal Auditorium, Winston Hall, a musician and tour guide with a passion for the city’s music legacy, pointed to a spot on the floor, right up front in the center. The auditorium was empty that January afternoon, but the imagination quickly filled the seats as though it was Saturday night of yesteryear when radio station KWKH staged its weekly Louisiana Hayride broadcast.
Hall brought the moment to life by pushing the button on a cassette player, which had a recording of a soundtrack from October 16, 1954. An announcer introduced a young man from Mississippi named Elvis Presley. After telling the crowd that he was proud to be there, Presley launched into a song called “That’s Alright Momma.” And then, from there on that spot on the stage… the music world changed. Really.
Because the concert was being broadcast, microphones were set up throughout the audience section. The sound technician quickly noticed that something different was happening. Teenagers, who had been dragged along by their parents to hear a country music show, suddenly seemed possessed. Turning the sound pods the technician integrated the screaming, unlike anything he had ever heard, into the song. Through the woods and hills of north-central Louisiana and into Arkansas and east Texas the airwaves were raucous, as though sending a message that a king was born.
Louisiana, and New Orleans, would be part of the story:
Presley came to Louisiana often, most notably the Hayride. For one of Elvis’ visits, the crowd was expected to be so large that the event was shifted to a larger facility on the nearby state fair site. The schedule was packed with mostly country stars. Elvis performed as the final act before intermission. His act left the largely teenage audience breathless and wanting more. While the show took its break, the audience began chanting loudly for Presley to return. There was so much commotion that Presley was snuck out through a back door where a car waited to whisk him away. But the crowd was still roaring. So, with what would become one of the historic pronouncements in rock-and-roll history, stage announcer Horace Lee Logan innocently spoke the now immortal words: “Elvis has left the building!”
Next to Huey Long’s proclamation of “Every Man A King,” no phrase spoken in Louisiana is as well known. Appropriately, Logan’s message was about a man who by then was referred to as “the King.”
This weekend, Presley will be re-entering buildings as a movie simply known as “Elvis” makes it debut. Up and coming performer Austin Butler plays the title role in the new Baz Luhrmann film. Tom Hanks cartoons Elvis’s legendary manager, Col. Tom Parker, himself a rock-and-roll legend.
New Orleans was also a frequent stop in Presley’s career, including an extended stint to film “King Creole.” He would also perform once on the big stage at Pontchartrain Beach Amusement Park. For that event, Presley was in the crowd of mostly country singers as part of a show put together by Red Smith, a local DJ for radio station WBOK (at the time a country station; later sold and switched to a soul format). The other big name was country singer Jim Reeves, whose ballad “He’ll Have to Go” would go platinum in 1960. (A not so big name was Anne Raye, who that day had been crowned Miss Hillbilly Dumplin.)
Curiously, the Shreveport auditorium, which helped launch Elvis’ career, resembles very much our Municipal Auditorium in New Orleans. Both opened at practically the same time – 1929 and 1930 respectively. The Shreveport building has lost none of its Art Deco good looks and still houses traveling road shows. Like any respectable old building it is also haunted by ghost stories, though neither Hall nor a regular staffer who joined us claim to have ever seen an apparition there. (Although, there is a window that seems to keep reopening after being shut.)
Maybe it is the memories from the past hoping for a matinee.
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