Elvis Presleys TV appearance on the Steve Allen Show (by Jeff Schrembs All Rights Reserved)


On Saturday, January 28, 1956 Elvis appeared on the Tommy and Jimmy Dorsey Brothers Show entitled “Stage Show” on CBS (note: this was a weekly variety show which routinely booked new acts and/or up and coming performers and was produced by Jackie Gleason the infamous actor/comedian). Elvis’ appearance garnered an 18.4% TV viewership rating. This was Elvis’ first network television debut and was the first of six appearances Elvis would perform on “Stage Show”.

On April 3, 1956 Elvis then appeared two times on the “The Milton Berle Show” on ABC. The show was a “live show” with Elvis appearing on the deck of the USS Hancock in San Diego California.

During the second appearance Elvis sang “Hound Dog”. It was during Elvis’ performance, of Elvis “rocking and rolling and moving all around”, that caused a “national uproar” from the Press and by many “leaders” in communities throughout the Nation. A national debate occurred between the teenage (i.e. younger crowd who loved Rock N Roll music) and the “establishment” which preferred Jazz, Opera, and Orchestra music. Elvis Presley, and his appearances on TV, became the lightning rod for everyone who disliked Rock N Roll and feared that it was contributing to the corruption of Americas youth.

Elvis next TV appearance would be on the “Steve Allen Show” on NBC. Steve Allen, Host of the “Steve Allen” show, purposely undermined the talent and stage show presence of Elvis Presley during Elvis’ appearance on the Steve Allen Show (July 1, 1956) by having Elvis appear wearing a black tuxedo outfit (complete with a top hat, white tie, and tails) and singing “Hound Dog” to a Basset Hound. After the show Elvis was FURIOUS at Steve Allen and swore to never do his show again. In later years, when asked about this appearance, Elvis said “it was the most ridiculous appearance I ever did and I regret ever doing it”.

Through the years Steve Allen has tried to minimize his blatant disrespect of Elvis and even included his version of the events in his book entitled “Hi-Ho Steverino”. Here is what Steve Allen said occurred:

 “While Elvis Appeared on my program, before he performed on Ed’s (Sullivan), I had seen him a few months earlier on Jackie Gleason’s summer replacement Stage Show, which featured bandleaders Jimmy and Tommy Dorsey.  I didn’t catch his name that night and have no recollection now as to what he sang, but I found his strange, gangly, country-boy charisma, his hard-to-define cuteness, and his charming eccentricity intriguing.  The next day I typed a memo to my staff people to find out who he was, and to book him for our new Sunday night show.

     “Between the date of the memo and when he appeared–July 1, 1956–his recently released recordings had made him an important attraction, as a result of which our program that evening far surpassed Sullivan’s in the ratings race.

“When I booked Elvis, I naturally had no interest in just presenting him vaudeville-style and letting him do his spot as he might in concert.  Instead we worked him into the comedy fabric of our program.  I asked him to sing “Hound Dog” (which he had recorded just the day before) dressed in a classy Fred Astaire wardrobe–white tie and tails–and surrounded him with graceful Greek columns and hanging draperies that would have been suitable for Sir Laurence Olivier reciting Shakespeare.  

For added laughs, I had him sing the number to a sad-faced basset hound that sat on a low column and also wore a little top hat.  (I learned not long ago that small ceramic statues of the dog-and-top-hat are now among the more popular items of Presley memorabilia.  I think somebody owes me royalties.)  We certainly didn’t inhibit Elvis’ then-notorious pelvic gyrations, but I think the fact that he had on formal evening attire made him, purely on his own, slightly alter his presentation.

     “For his other spot, I wrote a spoof of a typical country-and-western TV or radio show.  Presley played my sidekick and the two of us were well supported by Andy Griffith, who in those days was a comedian, and the always delightful Imogene Coca.

“Inasmuch as Elvis later made appearances on The Ed Sullivan Show, I’ve often been asked why I didn’t make the same arrangements with  him myself.   Here’s the reason:  Before we even left the studio the night Elvis appeared on our show, Ed telephoned Presley’s manager, Colonel Tom Parker, backstage at our own theater  So desperate was he to make the booking, in fact, that he broke what had until that moment been a $7,500 price ceiling on star-guests, offering the Colonel $10,000 per shot. 
 Parker told Sullivan he’d get back to him, walked over to us, shared the news of Sullivan’s offer, and said, ‘I feel a sense a loyalty to you fellows because you booked Elvis first, when we needed the booking;  so if you’ll meet Sullivan’s terms we’ll be happy to continue to work on your program.’
“I thanked him for his frankness but told him I thought he should accept Ed’s offer.   The reason, primarily, was that I didn’t think it reasonable to continue to have to construct sketches and comic gimmicks in which Presley, a non-comic, could appear.   Ed’s program, having a vaudeville-variety format, was a more appropriate showcase for Elvis’ type of performance.
“For his own part, Elvis had a terrific time with us and lent himself willingly to our brand of craziness.  He was an easy-going, likeable, and accommodating performer.   He quickly become the biggest star in the country;  but when I ran into him from time-to-time over the years it was clear that he had never let his enormous success go to his head.”
The reality is that Steve Allen disliked Rock N Roll music and believed that the songs themselves, and the performers of the songs and the fans who liked the songs, were “beneath” real music such as Jazz and Opera.
But it was clear that Steve Allen s’ dislike for Rock N Roll music was not going to stop him from having Elvis appear on his show after seeing the huge TV audience that Elvis’ appearances on the Tommy and Jimmy Dorsey Stage Show and on the Milton Berle shows had brought.
When news leaked out about Elvis Presley appearing on his show Steve Allen tried to “spin” the appearance by saying that “he would not do allow Elvis to do anything that would offend anyone”. The truth is that by having Elvis appear this way, and sing to a dog, Steve Allen not only offended Elvis but the majority of Elvis’ Fans.
Persons who worked with, and knew, Steve Allen on a personal basis have stated that “Steve Allen believed that Elvis Presley was talentless and absurd” and “that is why Steve Allen dressed Elvis up like a clown singing to an animal”.
When watching the entire Steve Allen Show, in which Elvis Presley appeared, it seems obvious that the “smirk” that stays on Steve Allen s’ face is not one of respect or appreciation but one of…”gotcha”.
Steve Allen took it a step further when he had Elvis appear in a “dumb-ed down cowboy sketch”, with Steve Allen and Andy Griffith and Imogene Coca, and giving Elvis the name of “Tumbleweed Presley”.
During the skit Steve Allen, in the corny contemptuous manner he had shown towards Elvis, said “I’m warning you galoots don’t step on my blue suede boots”.
Throughout the entire show, including when singing and in the cowboy skit, Elvis handled it like a pro and worked the audience as best he could under the circumstances. It is clear, while watching the skit, that Elvis enjoyed the banter with Andy Griffith and Imogene Cocoa.
In an interview Steve Allen gave in later years (i.e. 1996) Allen, when asked about Elvis’ appearance and the concerns of the NBC executives, said “I read a lot of nonsense about it and a lot of the reports were wrong and the wrong reports have gotten into the public”. Allen denied having any pressure from the NBC executives and stated that he had watched Elvis’ appearances on the Dorsey Brothers and Milton Berle shows and “I did not object to Elvis’ movements at all”.
This response defies logic for if Steve Allen had no objection to Elvis’ movements when WHY would he have purposely changed Elvis’ look and movements during Elvis’ appearance on his show? Steve Allen tried to justify his restraints on Elvis by saying “I was just trying to work Elvis’ style into the fabric of our show”. Well, Elvis’ style was (wholly) opposite of the style of the Steve Allen Show and no other musical act, such as Jazz musicians or Opera singers, were asked to “change their style and/or their movements”.

In a 1996 interview Allen was asked about the show. Asked if NBC executives expressed any concerns about Elvis’s planned appearance, Allen replied that he’d “read more nonsense about ” it, and “a lot of wrong reports have gotten into the public -“. “If there ever was, I never heard about it. And since it was my show, I think it would have brought to my attention. ” Regarding Elvis’s movements he stated “No! I took no objection to the movements I’d seen him make on the Dorsey Brothers show. I didn’t see a problem. Of course, I had read about some of the controversy, much of it generated by Ed Sullivan, who was opposite of our show on CBS. It didn’t matter to me. I was using good production sense in booking him.”

Elvis’ next TV appearances would be on the “Ed Sullivan Show” and Elvis, justifiably so, was able to perform with minor restrictions (note: at one point Elvis was filmed from the waist up) and set TV audience records for TV viewership. The rest, as they say, is…history.

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