Mary E. Sawyer Auditorium
La Crosse, WI

The Mary E. Sawyer Auditorium in La Crosse, WI - c1950s
Photo by Universal Photo Service courtesy eBay

Mary Estella Sawyer was born in 1856 and had lived in La Crosse, Wisconsin for more than 50 years.  Her fortune was derived from ownership in the Sawyer and Austin Lumber Company, and she kept it intact until she bequeathed it to the city.  Her husband died at the age of 41 and she spent the rest of her life supporting herself as a seamstress. She had a knack for taking the latest New York fashions and replicating them in La Crosse.1

In 1893, she was one of the original founders of the Woman’s Industrial Exchange. At this point in history, it would have been a disgrace for a married woman to work outside the home, so creative women found ways to get around this. The founders’ initial investment of $2.00 made it possible for the creation of the Woman’s Industrial Exchange, a place for women to sell their goods. Baked and preserved goods, needlework, and other handicrafts were sold anonymously so that women were able to uphold their dignity and pride. Mary facilitated the “Fancy Work” committee of the exchange.1

At the time of her death in 1941 Mary had bequeathed the city $600,000 to build its first auditorium, the only stipulation was that it must bear her name, Mary E. Sawyer.  Mary imagined red velvet seats and professional lighting, a true Shakespearian experience but what was eventually built was a multi function venue that featured a basketball court and could host live performances. When the auditorium opened in 1955 at Sixth and Vine streets, it was advertised as having the most seating available in the Coulee Region, with seating for 4,000.2

Advertisement in the La Crosse Tribune - May 8, 1956
courtesy La Crosse Public Library

On May 14, 1956, Elvis, Scotty, Bill and D.J. performed two shows at the Sawyer auditorium in La Crosse.  After completing their two week appearance in Las Vegas at the New Frontier a week earlier, they had performed the day prior with an afternoon show in St. Paul and an evening show in Minneapolis, MN.  The programs were promoted as a five-star variety show featuring Elvis, The Jordanaires, Irish tenor Frank Connors, the Flaim Brothers and Rick Flaim and his  Orchestra.

Chicago native and orchestra leader Rick Flaim - 1956
WI State Register photo courtesy U. Of W. La Crosse Murphy Library

As Peter Guralnick wrote in Elvis Day by Day, from this point on, virtually all of Elvis' personal appearances were variety shows produced by the Colonel, on which no other performer who might be considered a rival (as opposed to dancers, jugglers, and Irish tenors) appeared. Despite pressure from both RCA and William Morris, the Colonel insisted upon this format both as a guarantee that Elvis will stand alone and as a way of performer; not just another "rock 'n roller" to be tagged with the same 'juvenile delinquent" line that the press applied increasingly to every aspect of the new music. These acts were supplied by Chicago talent agent Al Dvorin, a longtime associate of Tom who helped set up the date in La Crosse and remained with the show off and on for the next twenty-one years.  Further, at this time both Time and Newsweek ran stories describing Elvis' phenomenal rise, beginning what amounted to his first exposure to the glare of national (as opposed to trade or regional) publicity.

Emil Flaim and Elvis backstage while in Minneapolis - May 13, 1956
Photo courtesy Emil Flaim

The Flaim brothers, Rick and Emil were a musical comedy act from Chicago. Rick, the younger of the two played sax, clarinet and actually all the reed instruments while Emil played piano and accordion.  They had started performing young and at ages nine and seven the brothers had performed on Bob Hope's first ever United Service Organizations (USO) show on May 6, 1941, at March Air Force Base in California. Their manager at the time was Charlie Hogan, who also managed Bob Hope, Al Dvorin had heard about them then.

By the time of the show in La Crosse they also led, and were performing in, their own six piece orchestra that on this tour would also back up the other acts like Frank Connors, an Irish tenor from Detroit who had been performing since the '30s.  The orchestra featured Rick Flaim and Wayne Ford on saxophones, Jerry Ross and Marty Scatena on trumpets, occasionally either Bob Allen or Gary Hicks on drums and Emil on piano/accordion.  They always opened with the song Zing! Went the strings of my heart and on some dates featured female vocalist Jackie Little.  Emil said that they usually only backed the Jordanaires for maybe one song and that Hugh Jarrett would be the one that would introduce Elvis.

Elvis in the La Crosse Tribune - May 15, 1956
article courtesy La Crosse Public Library

WKBH deejay Lindy Shannon, who interviewed Elvis backstage, would later recall the near pandemonium of the concert. The band playing ahead of Elvis had to stop because of the crowd erupted when Elvis was seen in the wings.3  When Elvis appeared for two shows at the old Mary Sawyer Auditorium, he was already deep in controversy from his TV guest shots and judged by a small bunch of city do-gooders before he even walked on stage.  In fact, the district attorney was called in to see if he could stop the second performance.4

Elvis interviewed by La Crosse radio WKBH Deejay Lindy Shannon - May 14, 1956
Photo courtesy Cristi Dragomir

The review in the La Crosse Tribune read, Dozens of La Crosse teenagers beat on doors and windows and screamed at police to get "just a look " at squirming, stomping Elvis Presley Monday night. A few tried building a human ladder to," stacking up on each other's shoulders to beat on second floor auditorium windows almost 10 feet off the ground.  And Elvis? Elvis was "scared". He said so himself.5

Elvis onstage at Mary E. Sawyer Auditorium - May 14, 1956
Photo courtesy Ger Rijff's "Talking Elvis"

While a full house yelled like wild banshees at the floor shows acts that preceded the king of rock 'n roll, Elvis himself was pacing nervously near the entrance to his dressing room, his guitar lying carelessly on the floor. "I'm always by myself before I go on," he said. "I'm never assured. In Las Vegas, a while ago, it was really bad. There were a lot of movie stars there, and that made it even worse."  Ten minutes later Presley stepped onto the stage, immediately the soft-spoken kid with the nervous laugh disappeared and Elvis turned into a purple-coated musical demon who belted out songs like his young life depended on it."5

Elvis onstage at Mary E. Sawyer Auditorium - May 14, 1956
Photo © Vinje Dahl Jr. courtesy eBay

The results were unbelievable. Central (High School) could win a state basketball championship and the reaction would pale by comparison. When "the king" walked onto the stage, bedlam broke loose. At the first tap of the Presley leg the auditorium almost exploded.5

Elvis and Bill onstage at Mary E. Sawyer Auditorium - May 14, 1956
Photo © Vinje Dahl Jr. courtesy eBay

From there on it was an even match to see see who would entertain whom. Presley was getting a big kick from the screaming crowd as they were getting from his half dance, half song stage antics.  In competition for volume, the crowd won hands down.5

Scotty and Elvis onstage at Mary E. Sawyer Auditorium - May 14, 1956
La Crosse Tribune Photo courtesy La Crosse Public Library

Outside the auditorium there still were crowds of youngsters who forgot to buy tickets or spent last week's allowance too soon. A year old boy sat on the sidewalk in his stroller, forgotten by a baby sitter who just had to have just that "one look at Elvis."5

Scotty and Elvis onstage at Mary E. Sawyer Auditorium - May 14, 1956
Photo courtesy La Crosse Public Library

The kids weren't the only ones who grabbed the spirit. Elvis was "getting through" to everyone. A big, strictly, official-looking figure, crept up to a side door of the auditorium and opened it to a dozen or more "cats" crowding forlornly just outside seeing distance from "the king."  "Inside, quick," he growled. "And upstairs." The grin couldn't help buy creep into his voice.5

Elvis and Bill onstage at Mary E. Sawyer Auditorium - May 14, 1956
Photo © Vinje Dahl Jr. courtesy eBay

On the floor of the building, the listeners couldn't sit still. Every time Presley opened his mouth or dragged a foot across the stage in a bit of squirming "business" 15 or 20 rushed to push or pull at each other for a place near the edge of the stage. An auxiliary policeman ran out to shake the boldest from the stage itself, before the spectators became the entertainment.5

Elvis onstage at Mary E. Sawyer Auditorium - May 14, 1956
Photo © Vinje Dahl Jr. courtesy eBay

When Presley left the stage, the mob followed him. Five La Crosse city policemen, 12 military policemen from Camp McCoy and 15 auxiliary policemen were barely enough. The swarm of teenagers broke through the first police line and managed to pursue Elvis to a point just above the stairs to his dressing room. There a line of policemen two deep finally managed to stop them.5

Elvis and Bill onstage at Mary E. Sawyer Auditorium - May 14, 1956
Photo © Vinje Dahl Jr. courtesy eBay

In his dressing room after the show, Elvis talked to eight or 10 people, with a coke balanced in each hand, thumbs tapping nervously. Echoes of "We want Elvis" still boomed from the floor of the auditorium. Shapes appeared through the glazed window of the dressing room. pointing and pounding, whispering loudly, "Is that him?"5

Elvis onstage at Mary E. Sawyer Auditorium - May 14, 1956
Photo © Vinje Dahl Jr. courtesy eBay

Presley patiently answered every question put to him by two high school girl "reporters," and threw in a quip or two of his own to put them completely at ease. "‘Mr. Presley," they called him as they fired away with "who's your favorite whatziz" questions. Elvis grinned.5

Elvis and D. J. onstage at Mary E. Sawyer Auditorium - May 14, 1956
Photo courtesy Ger Rijff's "Talking Elvis"

"What's been your biggest kick in the rocket to the top?" someone asked. "The audience," Elvis replied. “Do you like all the screaming and yelling?" "Sure do," came the drawled answer. "It covers up my mistakes."5

Elvis and Bill onstage at Mary E. Sawyer Auditorium - May 14, 1956
Photo © Vinje Dahl Jr. courtesy eBay

The girls kept firing questions while Elvis shuffled a pair of scarred black loafers back and forth across the floor. "I wore out a pair of these tonight, he said , "just scraping across the floor." He held up the shoes for inspection. The beading across the front was ripped and the Presley big toe headed for daylight.5

Elvis D.J., and Bill onstage at Mary E. Sawyer Auditorium - May 14, 1956
Photo © Vinje Dahl Jr. courtesy eBay

Elvis had somehow picked out a bit of teenage spirit and tucked it into his whanging "geetar." You don't have to understand it. Just listen to it. And the kids will tell you. This boy is "crazy." Here's a "cat the swings."5

Fans at Elvis' show in La Crosse (15 year old Vinje Dahl at far left) - May 14, 1956
La Crosse Tribune photo courtesy U. of W. - La Crosse Murphy Library and La Crosse Public Library

Fifteen year old Vinje Dahl Jr. was one of the kids in the audience sitting in the front row with a camera and strobe light that he had received from his parents at Christmas. From his seat up front he shot about four roles of film. He said he had an inkling he might have something good on his hands after he developed the photos to share with friends at Central High School. “I took them to school the next day, and the kids just went crazy, said Dahl. “I think I sold them for a couple of bucks each. I wound up with enough for a pair of water skis. That was kind of neat."6

Elvis and Bill onstage at Mary E. Sawyer Auditorium - May 14, 1956
Photo © Vinje Dahl Jr. courtesy eBay

In a review by Fred Heffling, a writer for the Monroe County Democrat, with the headline: "Teen-Agers Explode when Orchid Coated Elvis Presley Appears," Heffling wrote: "When they started leaping over the balcony railings like a herd of buffalo thundering over the rim of a canyon. this music critic threw his notebook and pencil away. The occasion was the first public appearance in Wisconsin of Elvis Aron Presley - certainly a sociological phenomenon as well as a singer of songs."7

Scotty and Elvis onstage at Mary E. Sawyer Auditorium - May 14, 1956
Photo © Vinje Dahl Jr. courtesy eBay

Heffling added: "His voice, however, is not what sends his audiences into hysterical frenzy. It is the way he moves when he sings. He appears very much like a man who has swallowed a jackhammer."7

Fans at Elvis' show in La Crosse - May 14, 1956
La Crosse Tribune photo courtesy La Crosse Public Library

He also wrote that "...there were perhaps 4,000 there 75 percent females and 75 percent under the age of 18. The noise that rose, however. sounded like 40,000 people who had just sat on tacks at the same time." 'That was after someone shouted during intermission "There's Elvis!" His performance lasted 26 minutes. When it was over, Elvis made a dash to the rear of the stage."7

Elvis onstage at Mary E. Sawyer Auditorium - May 14, 1956
Photo courtesy Ger Rijff's "Talking Elvis"

Lindy wrote, Elvis spent the night at the old Hotel Stoddard, and I recall the commotion he caused after the concert when hordes of teens blocked traffic in front of the hotel, hoping for a glimpse of their idol. Police tried in vain to disperse the crowd, but the crowd wouldn’t leave until Elvis waved and stuck his leg out the fourth-floor window and wiggled it madly.  This seemed to satisfy all but two overly-excited city school girls who climbed the hotel fire escape and somehow managed to gain entrance to Elvis' room. The only other person there besides Elvis was the RCA Victor record salesman from Milwaukee who later told me what happened during those few bizarre moments.4

Elvis and Scotty onstage at Mary E. Sawyer Auditorium - May 14, 1956
Photo courtesy Sheila Roth

The girls began sobbing wildly, pulled up their sloppy Joe sweaters and insisted that Elvis autograph their breasts, Elvis told them that they would have to leave the room, and he ushered them to the door. Later that night the girls apparently had an autograph session of their own, and after much boasting to their school friends the next day, their hero's signature was discovered on their bosoms by some teachers.4

Fans at Elvis' show in La Crosse - May 14, 1956
La Crosse Tribune photo courtesy La Crosse Public Library

Two days after Elvis' performance in La Crosse, a letter was written to J. Edgar Hoover on letterhead of the La Crosse Register, the newspaper published by the Catholic diocese of La Crosse suggesting that Elvis' performances were “serious to U.S. security."8  It went as follows:


copy of the La Crosse Register Letters - May 16, 1956
courtesy of the F.B.I. FOIA/Privacy Website

Mr. J Edgar Hoover
Federal Bureau of Investigation
Washington 25, D. C.

Dear Mr. Hoover,
     Elvis Presley press-agented as a singer and entertainer, played to two groups of teenagers numbering several thousand at the city auditorium here. Monday May 14.
     As newspaper man, parent, and former member of Army Intelligence Service, I feel an obligation to pass on to you my conviction that Presley is a definite danger to the security of the United States.
     Although I could not attend myself, I sent two reporters to cover his second show at 9:30 p.m. besides, I secured the opinions of others of good judgment, who had seen the show or had heard direct reports of it. Among them are a radio station manager, a former motion picture exhibitor, an orchestra player, and a young woman employee of a radio station who witnessed the show to determine its value. All agree that it was the filthiest and most harmful production that ever came to La Crosse for exhibition to teenagers.
     When Presley came on the stage, the youngsters almost mobbed him, as you can judge from the article and pictures enclosed from May 15 edition of the La Crosse TRIBUNE. The audience could not hear his "singing” for the screaming and carrying on of the teenagers.
     But eyewitnesses have told me that Presley's actions and motions were such as to rouse the sexual passions of teenaged youth. One eye-witness described his actions as “sexual self-gratification on the stage," — another as “a striptease with clothes on." Although police and auxiliaries were there, the show went on. Perhaps the hardened police did not get the import of his motions and gestures, like those of masturbation or riding a microphone. (The assistant district attorney and Captain William Boma also stopped in for a few minutes in response to complaints about the first show, but they found no reason to halt the show.)
     After the show, more than 1,000 teenagers tried to gang into Presley‘s room at the auditorium, then at the Stoddard Hotel. All possible police on duty were necessary at the Hotel to keep watch on the teenagers milling about the hotel till after 3 a.m., the hotel manager informed me. Some kept milling about the city till about 5 a.m.
      Indications of the harm Presley did just in La Crosse were the two high school girls (of whom I have direct personal knowledge) whose abdomen and thigh had Presley's autograph. They admitted that they went to his room where this happened. It is known by psychologists, psychiatrists and priests that teenaged girls from the age of eleven, and boys in their adolescence are easily aroused to sexual indulgence and perversion by certain types of motions and hysteria, — the type that was exhibited at the Presley show.
     There is also gossip of the Presley Fan Clubs that degenerate into sex orgies. The local radio station WKBH sponsors a club on the "Lindy Shannon Show."
From eye-witness reports about Presley, I would judge that he may possibly be both a drug addict and sexual pervert. In any case I am sure he bears close watch, — especially in the face of growing juvenile crime nearly everywhere in the United States. He is surrounded by a group of high-pressure agents who seem to control him, the hotel manager reported.
     I do not report idly to the FBI. My last official report to an FBI agent in New York before I entered the U.S. Army resulted in arrest of a saboteur (who committed suicide before his trial). I believe the Presley matter is as serious to U.S. security. I am convinced that juvenile crimes of lust and perversion will follow his show here in La Crosse.
     I enclose article and pictures from May 15 edition of the La Crosse TRIBUNE. The article is an excellent example of the type of reporting that describes a burlesque show by writing about the drapes on the stage. But the pictures, to say the least are revealing. Note, too, that under the Presley article, the editor sanctimoniously published a very brief “filler" on the FBI’s concern for teenage crime. Only a moron could not see the connection between the Presley exhibit and the incidence of teenage disorders in La Crosse.
     With many thanks, and with a prayer for God‘s special blessing on your excellent and difficult work for justice and decency.
Sincerely yours,


The response was simply that the F.B.I. did not have jurisdiction in the matter raised by the La Crosse writer:


F.B.I. reply to La Crosse Register
courtesy of the F.B.I. FOIA/Privacy Website

La Crosse Register
Post Office Box 823
La Crosse, Wisconsin

Dear Mr.  XXXXXX

     Your letter dated Apr 10, 1956, with enclosures, has been received.
     While I appreciate the interest prompting you to write, the matter to which you refer is not within the investigative jurisdiction of the FBI.
     I want to thank you, however, for your most generous remarks relative to the work of this Bureau.

Sincerely yours,
John Edgar Hoover


Though the letters are now public information, the addressees apparently are not.  Monsignor Anthony Wagener, the editor of the Register at that time said Patrick Whelan, an assistant editor in 1956, likely wrote the letter and also a follow-up editorial titled "The Menace of Presley" in the May 25, 1956 Register.  Whelan, who died in January 1987, was in the intelligence service before coming to La Crosse, Wagener said.9

Interestingly enough, Whelan, if he was the writer, acknowledged that he did not even attend the show and Lindy Shannon believed that the letter was likely prompted by the events of the girls at the Hotel afterwards.  He would later write that the Tribune’s Letters to the Editor page was filled with pros and cons for weeks on end. The complaint letter was sent to the FBI two days after Elvis' appearance, and then the editorials started in the La Crosse Register — "The Menace of Presley" and one titled "Morals and Disc Jockies" which blasted me for promoting the concert and playing Presley records. Pressure was also put on all radio stations in the city to stop playing Elvis discs. It was a time for fearing anything or anybody exploring new ideas in popular music.4

Three weeks later Elvis, Scotty, Bill and D.J. would make their second appearance on the Milton Berle show and their L.A. debut.  The Flaim Brothers and their orchestra would continue to open and support acts opening for Elvis on several more dates in the Midwest in 1956.  An article published in the Wisconsin State college newspaper that advertised a performance by Rick at the auditorium for the college's homecoming dance the following October described them then as a ten piece orchestra made up of young men with a style that was "refreshing."  Rick Flaim was also a regular in the clubs in Printers Alley in Nashville and was a good friend of Boots Randolph. Sadly, Rick died in an auto accident in 1963.

The Mary E. Sawyer auditorium would also see use as the home court for La Crosse State college's basketball team, the Indians, beginning in 1957. While hosting games in the early years of the NBA, the New York Knickerbockers defeated the Minneapolis Lakers 94-93 there before a crowd of 2,093. also in 1957.  Beginning in June of 1959, the auditorium was also used to hold the graduation ceremony of the Wisconsin State College.

Campaign Poster La Crosse, WI Oct 9, 1980
courtesy republican party of MN

Rock acts that ranged from Herman's Hermits and the Buckinghams to Journey and Van Halen would eventually perform in the arena.  It was also home to political events. Vice President Nixon campaigned there in 1960 and former President Gerald Ford spoke there in March of 1976.  During the 1970s the auditorium was no longer considered  adequate to host trade shows or conventions and a new venue was planned. The last official event staged at the Mary E. Sawyer Auditorium was a campaign rally for Presidential candidate Ronald Reagan three days before the La Crosse Center opened. It remained essentially unused from then until the county bought the building in 1987 and razed it in March 1988 to make way for a new county building.10

As a result of the Freedom of Information Act, the F.B.I. files on Elvis would be made public in 1989, a year after the auditorium was razed.  Though he was never the subject of an investigation, for the most part, their records consist of copies of letters from members of the public commenting on his performances, newspaper clippings, and documents reporting that he was the target of extortion attempts and death threats.  The La Crosse letter was not the first. Surprisingly, the agency received the first letter as early as April 11, 1956, from someone in Memphis no less, warning of his "immoral behavior and indecency" and stressing censorship.8

The Mary E. Sawyer Auditorium in La Crosse, WI
Postcard courtesy Kerri Johnson of the La Crosse Center

About ten years ago, Vinje Dahl, now the owner of Dahl Ford in Davenport, Iowa, dug out his long lost negatives and selected ten of the best shots.  He had 1000 sets printed, the first of which he donated to the La Crosse YMCA.  The rest he hoped to sell to collectors.6

Lindy Shannon was repeatedly asked over the years about his impression after meeting Elvis, and his answer never varied. He was a shy, polite young gentleman of apparently good upbringing who always addressed me as sir, although I was his senior only by seven years.4  Lindy passed away on October 1, 1995 and a music scholarship program in his name was established at the University of Wisconsin through proceeds from concerts recognizing his contribution to rock and roll music. "The Godfather of La Crosse rock and roll" as he is known there now is considered an important part of music history in that area and through the efforts of his friend, La Crosse rock and roll music historian Bill Harnden and La Crosse Radio Classic Rock 100.1, Lindy will have flowers on his grave forever.

Emil Flaim

Emil Flaim continues to perform.  He is now joined by his wife Shirley on vocals performing several nights a week at Crazy Earl's in Peoria, AZ.

page added May 27, 2009

All articles and ads are courtesy of Bill Petersen, Peg Jerome, Megan Isley and the La Crosse Public Library Archives. Special thanks to them and to Pat Smith of Classic Rock 100.1, Bill Harnden and to Emil Flaim for their assistance with this page
1 excerpts from Mary Sawyer - The Road She Traveled - by Addison, courtesy of the School District of La Cross 2006 
2 excerpts from "1956 Review Elvis mistake for La Crosse" by La Crosse Tribune and public library staff - Nov. 3, 2003
3 excerpt from "Were you there the night when Elvis rocked LaX?" by Lindy Shannon, La Crosse Tribune - May 12, 1994
4 excerpt from "Girls' visit may have sparked city's controversy over Elvis" by Lindy Shannon, La Crosse Tribune - Aug 12, 1989
5 from "Teen-Age Bedlam Greets Stomping Elvis Presley" by David C. Lee,  La Crosse Tribune - May 15, 1956
6 excerpted from "Mislaid negatives develop into Presley photo package" by Gayda Hollnagel,  La Crosse Tribune - Dec 8, 2000
7 excerpt from "What was it like when Elvis rocked La Crosse?" by Pat Moore,  La Crosse Tribune - Jan 12, 1996
8 courtesy of the Federal Bureau of Investigation FOIA/Privacy Website
9 according to "La Crosse connection found in FBI's file on Elvis Presley" by Julie Inglebret - La Crosse Tribune July 30, 1989
10 excerpt from "Reagan event closed out old Mary E. Sawyer" by La Crosse Tribune staff - Sep 7, 2007

This review of the La Crosse show appeared in the Monroe County Democrat newspaper in neighboring Sparta, Wisconsin three days after the show.

Article in Monroe County Democrat - May 17, 1956
courtesy Monroe County Local History and Library

Teen-Agers Explode When Orchid-Coated Elvis Presley-Appears

(Democrat Staff Writer)

La Crosse — When they started leaping over the balcony railings like a herd of buffalo thundering over the rim of a canyon, this music critic threw his notebook and pencil away.
The occasion was the first Public appearance in Wisconsin of Elvis Aaron Presley — certainly a sociological phenomenon as well as a singer of songs.- 
Mr. Presley appeared at the Mary E. Sawyer auditorium in La Crosse Monday night and to say that he fractured his near-capacity audiences of howling teenagers is stating it mildly, indeed.

Teen-Age Rage
Mr. Presley, in case you have not heard, is the current teen-age rage and that, too, is understating it.
He is a 21-year-old youth whose face is distinguished by bushy sideburns. His hair is tousled and flops down over his forehead while he furiously flails a guitar, occasionally hitting a string.
He is a tight trousered youth who sings incomprehensible words to songs which sound like they
were written by cavemen.
His voice, however, is not what sends his audiences into hysterical frenzy. It is the wav he moves when he sings them. He appears very much like a man who has swallowed a jackhammer.

26 minutes of Elvis
Monday nights show ran about 90 minutes, but Elvis - as he is referred to by moonstricken teenagers - was on stage for only 26 of those minutes. That was enough.
Several acts preceded the great man's appearance. There was a shapely blonde female vocalist, a comedian, an Irish tenor, and a quartet. These acts were good, but when you are on a bill with Elvis Presley you may as well have stayed home. The impatient audience gave them half-hearted applause.
Occasionally a plaintive voice called out from the dim reaches of the balcony, "Where’s Elvis?"

Photos Sell Fast
The show started at 7 p.m. and at 8 p.m. an intermission was declared. Vendors coursed through the audience carrying with them armfuls of glossy photos of Elvis.
They sold like hot-cakes even though the smallest was priced at 50 cents. The large - billboard size photos - sold for a dollar.
The intermission over, a seven piece band which had accompanied the previous acts, again took its place. There were loud moans from the balcony as another 10 minutes drifted past without Elvis.
Suddenly there was a loud shriek, 'There's Elvis," a female voice screamed. The audience rose as one and the noise was as though Allan Ameche had plowed over the one-yard line with the winning touchdown.
There were perhaps 4,000 there - 75 percent females and 75 percent under the age of 18. The noise that rose however sounded like 40,000 people who had just sat on tacks at the same time. The roof of the Mary E. Sawyer auditorium quivered.

False Alarm
The shout , however, was a false alarm. It wasn't Elvis at all standing there at the side of the stage. It was one of his orchestral henchmen and he wore a scarlet jacket, black trousers and black bow tie. He grinned broadly.
The noise subsided, but only for a moment. The seven-piece band left the stage and Elvis' crew bounced up the stairs and took their places.
There were three of them. One of them carried a guitar-with wires trailing to a loudspeaker. Another took his place behind a glittering array of drums. The third trundled a bass fiddle with him twirling it for effect.

Still No Elvis
Pandemonium was again released as the audience sensed the great moment coming. There were some who thought Elvis was among the three on the stage and they screamed like banshees. But Elvis had not yet appeared.
When he did appear it was like D-day on the Normandy beaches, the atom bomb on Hiroshima, Eddie Mathews hitting a game winning homerun at Milwaukee county stadium, and the sound of jet planes breaking the sound barrier, all rolled into one. The Mary E. Sawyer auditorium shook.
The sound grew in great waves as Elvis leaped up the stairs and burst upon the stage. His appearance was a colorful one. He wore an orchid colored jacket which hung loosely on his better than six-foot frame. A guitar hung by a thong from his neck. He came to the center of the stage, spread his legs wide and leaned back, By this time the shrieks were disturbing seismographs in far away places. But the noise was nothing compared to what followed.
Elvis leaned back, opened his white silk sport shirt and a great expanse of bare chest appeared. He grabbed the microphone. The drummer thumped his tomtom and the guitar player stroked his instrument. The bass fiddle player thumped sensuously in the background.
"One for the money." Elvis sang, "two for the show, three to get ready and go, cat GO!"
That was the last anybody more than two feet away from Elvis heard all night. The shout that shook the Mary E. Sawyer auditorium at that point ls beyond description.

Stampede In Balcony
The explosion touched off a stampede. The balcony audience left their seats and surged to the railings. Soon they were pouring over the railing in great waves. Ushers attempted to stay the onrush, but they were swept aside.
On stage Elvis was going through his jackhammer gyrations and with each quiver, new shrieks rose to the ceiling. The balcony audience flowed to the front of the stage overrunning those who held seats there. Soon everybody in the place was standing and Elvis, his guitar hanging from his neck and as yet untouched, bellowed unintelligible songs into the microphone.
Hands reached up to grab him, but Elvis, wise in the ways of his audiences, was careful not to wander too close to destruction. Ushers rushed across the stager beating back the hands, but as fast as they were pushed away, new ones appeared, clutching.

Loudspeakers ineffective.
This reporter sat directly under a gigantic set of loud speakers and it is a fact that after the first few chords were struck and the first few words sung, nothing but a continual shout and shriek was heard thereafter.
The least, little movement by Elvis was given thunderous acclaim.
He held one hand at his side, wiggling his thumb. The audience was carried away in the transport of delirium.
It is a curiosity that he struck his guitar strings only a few times - if at all. This reporter did not see his hands near the strings all evening.
The noise was so great that an elderly man, after only five minutes, staggered up the aisle towards the exits, holding his hands to his ears and shaking his head.

Woman Holds Child
A woman, carrying a small child , was in the mass packed around the stage. She passed the baby over her head to someone in the rear and then fought her way to the front.
Elvis continues to quiver and shout into the microphone which, at times, was held parallel to the floor and at other times entwined in his legs. Occasionally he would jerk his way from one side of the stage and gyrate there like a cork screw chewing into a champagne cork. He was something to see.
At times he would advance to the microphone to say something. "Friends," he would say, "friends . . ." And that was all the farther he got for the noise drowned him out. He would reel around the stage then, clutching the microphone, his guitar still swinging from its thong.

Elvis Quivers
One number required the services of a quartet and the group dutifully marched onto the stage. But as soon as the song began, nothing could be heard. The quartet looked at each other with puzzled faces. Elvis just quivered.
At one point the wires leading to the electric guitar were disconnected. Nobody noticed the difference. The guitar player, in fact, left the stage. And Elvis kept quivering.
The drummer gave up at another point. Although he smote his percussion instruments with the strength of 10 men, not a single thump was heard. The drummer got up, stood on his chair and flailed the empty air with his sticks. Elvis quivered in orchid splendor.
Photographers roamed across the stage, literally drowning in pictures. There were newsphotos everywhere.

Elvis advanced to the microphone to say a few words. "Friends," he said, "friends . . " He was driven back by a wave of sound. "Friends," he persisted as he reeled across the stage with his microphone. "freinds."
A guitar wailed through the loudspeaker. Drums pounded. "Tutti fruitti", Elvis sang, "fruitti tutti." Ushers rushed across the stage to beat back the clutching hands. "bim, bam, boom," Elvis sang, "boom, bam, bim."
He went into a 30-second quiver which raised new shrieks to the ceiling. A middle aged husband nudged his squirming wife. "Some voice," he said.
The performance lasted only 26 minutes. It finished characteristically, Elvis howled his last note into the microphone threw his hands wide and in so doing flung the microphone to the floor.
"That thing cost 80 bucks," WKIJ disc jockey Bill Lahm said in astonishment.
Before the microphone hit the floor, Elvis was running toward the rear of the stage. He was not quivering now, he was in full flight. The audience pursued him. Down came the curtain of a dressing room at the side of the stage.
Military police, City police, special police, firemen and ushers fought the onrushing crowd. Elvis, exhausted, collapsed somewhere in the building.
That was the 7 p.m. show. There was yet another to follow at 9:30 p.m., but by that time this reporter was safe at home where he tried to convince himself for some hours that what he had seen was true.
The crowd gathered early for Elvis at La Crosse. They were waiting outside at 4 p.m. After the show they dogged Elvis to his hotel Stoddard room where he, late at night, stuck his head out the window, eliciting one last shriek from his hot breathed admirers.
It was a night to remember in La Crosse.

article added July 28, 2009

Previously unpublished Pics from La Crosse

Complete issue here

Old pictures tell the story of the day Elvis came to town

Dave "Rudy" Rudrud, owner of Shooter's bar on 3rd Street, has shared with Second Supper several previously unpublished photos of Elvis Presley's visit to La Crosse in 1956.

Rudrud got the photographs of the May l4 concerts (two shows) from his late uncle, Ray Plamadore, former general manager of the Mary E. Sawyer Auditorium, where Elvis performed. (For newcomers, the auditorium was formerly on the site of the county building on 6th and Vine streets.)

Girls camp out for a chance to see Elvis in La Crosse - May 14, 1956
Photo © Dave Rudrud courtesy Second Supper

The collection includes photos (photographer unknown) of Presley's concert - his first in Wisconsin, his three-man band, local fans and a backstage interview of the 2l-year-old Presley by Lindy Shannon, a well-known local radio show host and music promoter.

The photos, moreover, led Rudrud to another insight of interest to Elvis fans: a You Tube slide show with audio from the Shannon interview.

"I was trying to do research on the photos and found it through that," Rudrud said.

The slide show provided no background as to who was doing the interview. although one person identified Shannon in the comments section. "I recognized the voice right away," Rudrud said. "He (Shannon) had a radio program, when I was a kid, about music."

Elvis, Scotty, Bill and DJ on stage in La Crosse - May 14, 1956
Photo © Dave Rudrud courtesy Second Supper

Shannon worked many years for WKBH radio, in the record department of Leithold Music and with Lin-Beck Enterprises, which was his music promotion business. He died in 1995.

"Everybody knew Lindy," said Rudrud, who described Shannon as a "mover and shaker" in the rock and roll industry in this town.

Elvis and Scotty on stage in La Crosse - May 14, 1956
Photo source Sheila Roth - added Mar. 15, 2012

The interview includes discussion of Presley's two-year music career, hints of a movie career yet to come, his First Vegas visit and more.

This section contains excerpts originally published in the September 17, 2009 edition of Second Supper.  Second Supper is a community weekly newspaper published 48 times a year, on Thursdays by Bartanese Enterprises LLC.  Special Thanks to FEEC's/thefool for the link to this publication.

section added October 22, 2009


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