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Happy Birthday, Elvis: A look at his deep ties to Las Vegas

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Las Vegas News Bureau

Liberace and Elvis Presley trade jackets and instruments in an impromptu jam session at the Riviera on Nov. 14, 1956.

Elvis Presley's Birthday

The Elvis statue in front of the Las Vegas Hotel & Casino in Las Vegas is decorated on Elvis' birthday Sunday, Jan. 8, 2012. Launch slideshow »

With this week's anniversary of Elvis’ 77th birthday, the King of Rock 'n' Roll's impact on Las Vegas is still celebrated more than three decades after his death.

Although not known as a gambler, he enjoyed the city’s night life, and he befriended Liberace and other big-name entertainers while developing relations with casino executives at the Sahara and Aladdin. They were the first in Las Vegas to make him feel at home; the community would embrace him soon after.

From a big-production Cirque du Soleil show to impersonators galore to quiet tributes paid in respect at a statue outside of the resort home of his longtime resident headliner show, people still come to Vegas to "see" the iconic entertainment legend.

Here is the Sun's look at the key moments that solidified Las Vegas as Elvis' second home:

    • 1956: Elvis debuts in Vegas as an opening act — for a comedian

      Elvis, billed as the “Atomic Powered Singer,” was panned in his Las Vegas premier in April 1956, opening in the New Frontier’s Venus Room for comedian Shecky Greene and the Freddy Martin Orchestra. He mustered only polite applause. At a Saturday matinee, on the other hand, teens screamed with delight. Although the concert proceeds financed lights for a baseball park — the first of many gifts he gave the city — Las Vegas preferred suitors who appealed to big spenders. Teens couldn’t gamble.

      “For the teenagers, the long, tall Memphis lad is a whiz; for the average Vegas spender or showgoer, a bore,” Las Vegas Sun reviewer Bill Willard wrote at the time. “His musical sound with a combo of three is uncouth, matching to a great extent the lyric content of his nonsensical songs.”

      Although Las Vegas didn’t see much in him yet, Elvis reaped substantial benefits from that first date. During breaks, he and his band caught another Strip lounge act, Freddie Bell and the Bellboys, who performed the song “Hound Dog.” Within weeks of leaving town Elvis had incorporated the song into his own live act and it became one of his biggest hits.

    • Ann-Margret and Elvis Presley dance together for the filming of MGM's "Viva Las Vegas." Their on-screen chemistry translated to off-screen romance as the two were involved in a highly publicized affair.

      1963: Viva Las Vegas

      It wasn’t until the filming of “Viva Las Vegas” in 1963 that the entire city began to fully embrace Elvis. The cast and crew were everywhere — the UNLV gymnasium, the Flamingo swimming pool, the Tropicana skeet range.

      “The big turnaround for Elvis in Vegas started with ‘Viva Las Vegas’ because tourism increased tremendously after he made the movie,” said former Army buddy and road manager for Elvis, Joe Esposito. Esposito also is a retired Wynn Las Vegas casino host.

      Of that time, Esposito said Elvis “… felt good because he was respected” in Vegas.

      The film was capped off by the title song, in which Presley serenaded the “bright light city gonna set my soul, gonna set my soul on fire.” The song has become such a part of the city's culture that it is essentially UNLV's fight song during athletic events.

    • Las Vegas Sun founder Hank Greenspun with Priscilla and Elvis Presley at their wedding.

      1967: Elvis and Priscilla get married at the Aladdin

      Elvis' link with Las Vegas was cemented when he exchanged wedding rings with Priscilla Ann Beaulieu in Milton Prell's suite at the Aladdin in May 1967.

      “They chose Vegas because it was an easy place to get married quick,” says Esposito, who served as best man. “It was discreet.”

    • Elvis Presley wails into the microphone during a 1970 performance at the International Hotel.

      1969: Elvis becomes Vegas headliner

      After the Elvis-Priscilla honeymoon came his much longer honeymoon with Las Vegas — a historic seven-year run at the International (which became the Las Vegas Hilton that became the Las Vegas Hotel) from 1969 to 1976. The shows revived Presley’s career as a live performer while injecting new life into a city that had been searching for the next great act after the breakup of the Rat Pack.

      Elvis was more than ready to appear before a live audience in Las Vegas for the first time in 13 years, even if he didn’t realize it at the time.

      “He was very excited that people came out to see him but he was a nervous wreck when he first walked onstage,” Esposito says. “He had been so concerned about being accepted again, and he had tears in his eyes when he was accepted.”

      International owner Kirk Kerkorian inked the deal with an initial $100,000-a-week contract, and Presley’s image was plastered on billboards and bus placards all over town.

      Elvis sold out 837 consecutive shows over the seven years after opening in July 1969. Performing two shows a night for two months each year, he sold more than $164 million worth of tickets in today’s dollars to 2.5 million fans, engraving rock ’n’ roll into the city’s landscape and proving that a casino showroom could make money.

      Elvis gave back to local charities, allowing them to share in the proceeds of souvenirs that were sold in the hotel lobby.

    • The cast of <em>Viva Elvis</em> at Aria in CityCenter commemorates what would have been Elvis Presley's 75th birthday on Jan. 8, 2009.

      2010: Cirque du Soleil debuts Elvis-based show

      Though it now will be known as the first Las Vegas-based Cirque du Soleil show to close, one of the biggest and most expensive symbols of the city's love affair with Elvis is “Viva Elvis,” the Cirque production at the Aria’s Elvis Theater.

    • Twenty-four members of the parachute team The Flying Elvi take the ceremonial first trip on the new rollercoaster Speed - The Ride at the Sahara on April 28, 2000.

      Today: From slots to impersonators to the Flying Elvi, Elvis has yet to leave the building

      Try walking down one of the sidewalks of Las Vegas Boulevard or taking your picture in front of the famed "Welcome to Fabulous Las Vegas" sign and not see an Elvis impersonator.

      The image of Elvis in his iconic white jumpsuit has become as much of an image tied to Vegas as the Bellagio fountains or the Stratosphere tower. There are some things that folks all around the world instinctively think of when they think of Las Vegas, and Elvis is absolutely a part of that group.

    CORRECTION: | (January 8, 2012)

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    1. Last week I saw three Elvis's standing together on Fremont street. And I wasn't even drunk yet. Elvis is everywhere in Vegas.

    2. I'm a Saint in the Church of Elvis. Been married there 3x. It's true.

      Sadly Vegas was key to corrupting the purity of that boy from Tupelo.

      "Fame is the noise of madmen." -- Marcus Aurelius Antoninus, Roman Emperor

    3. Viva Elvis ! Long live the King :)