Las Vegas Sun

November 20, 2018

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All the King’s men remember the reign of Elvis

They promoted his sold-out shows, spent years traveling with him on the road, arranged his trademark tunes and played host to his crazed fans.

Duties aside, a common thread will forever link four Las Vegas residents: They were all the King's men.

And, as they came to realize only after working with Elvis Presley during the late '60s and through the '70s, they played a small part in rock 'n' roll history.

Though it's been 20 years since Presley's death, on Aug. 16, 1977 -- Saturday marks the anniversary -- their memories of the entertainer remain as crystal clear as the rhinestones that studded his polyester jumpsuits.

Be it the unruly showroom crowds, his onstage antics or infamous all-night parties, the men agree that Presley and his performances here -- a.k.a "The Vegas Years" -- left an indelible imprint on their careers, as well as their personal lives.

Heartbreak Hotel

A phone call from the Associated Press delivered Bruce Banke the news: The King was dead.

"You talk about taking a blow to the stomach. I just lost it," recalls Banke, retired publicity director for the Las Vegas Hilton, where Presley had packed 'em in -- two shows a night, two months a year for seven years.

Banke regained his composure long enough to alert Barron Hilton himself, who happened to be in the hotel that day attending meetings.

"The whole meeting stopped," he recalls. "Mr. Hilton looked at me and said, 'What is it Bruce?' and I told him and the room just let out one big, 'Oh no!'

"I think everybody in the world remembers where they were when (President) Kennedy was assassinated and when Presley died."

But only a lucky 2,000, including Banke, can recall the chaos that was Presley's opening night in Las Vegas, on July 30, 1969.

In terms of media coverage, "It was similar to a heavyweight champion fight," he says. "Elvis' opening was was actually bigger, as far as publicity was concerned, than the opening of the hotel" a few months earlier. "We weren't prepared for it.

"On opening night, he walked out unannounced (and) struck a pose, started his knee twitching and the people just went crazy. The chandeliers were actually rattling."

It didn't take long for Presley's international fans to begin converging on the hotel. "There would be plane-loads of them," especially from England and Japan, Banke says.

"I always compared an Elvis engagement to a COMDEX (convention) or CES (Consumer Electronics Show) of later days. He brought in over 100,000 people. He would draw people in just like a convention did."

And his manager, the late Col. Tom Parker, rolled out the red carpet for them, adorning the casinoswith Presley paraphernalia.

"So when they'd walk out of the shows, it would be like, 'Woah!,' " 61-year-old Banke says. "You couldn't see marble in any of the public areas of the hotel that wasn't covered with something that said Elvis. Talk about overkill."

Speaking of overkill, Banke can't lend validity to the legendary tale that Presley once shot a wall in the hotel's Imperial Suite, the 5,000-square-foot, four-bedroom space he occupied during visits.

"I heard that story. I never saw the bullet hole," he contends.

And no one ever will: Though the 30th-floor suite was renamed in Presley's honor following his death, it was later demolished to make way for the hotel's lavish "high-roller" suites.

But back in the Elvis days, security was stationed by the elevators and stairwells up there to keep fans from trespassing.

"Elvis fans had a communication system that they knew what he was doing all the time." Even when he was just coming to town for a vacation. (Banke also played airport chauffeur to Presley and his entourage.)

"We'd get to the airport and there'd be 500 people out there" waiting for him to arrive. "I wondered, 'Who tells these people.' He was really a prisoner of his own fame. He basically could not go out into the public at all."

Still Banke, who is currently at work with Parker's widow on the Colonel's biography, waxes nostalgic from time to time.

"I just miss the excitement that Elvis brought to town. It was phenomenal, especially in the early days."

All Shook Up

Don't remind Paul Guerrero Jr.

To hear the Las Vegas Hilton showroom captain recall "The Vegas Years," you'd think he's still recovering from the madness.

"It was pandemonium," says Guerrero, who was one of 17 showroom managers at the then-International Hotel. Their job was to find seats for the standing room only crowd of 2,200 ($17.50 a head) to attend Presley's nightly concerts.

Their top priority, he says, was seating the hundreds of "complimentary" guests allocated tickets by the hotel, Col. Parker and Presley himself: Mayors, governors, princes and princesses, sultans among them.

"We had to make sure that the fan clubs were shown courtesy (when deciding) where they were sitting. They wanted to sit up close" to the stage, he says.

"People thought all you had to do was lay a hundred bucks on the maitre d' and you got a seat," Guerrero says. "A lot of people ... did not realize that our hands were tied as to who went down there. Between the stress from the actual work and the stress from the peopl ethemselves ... it was never-ending. It sold out every show, so you'd have to get everyone out after the first show (in time) to get the second one in.

"We were literally lifting trays, helping the busboys get stuff out, and then they'd open the doors and here we go again. It took its toll on us," he says, explaining how several of his co-workers ended up in the hospital with back problems.

At times, the showroom managers doubled as referees between bickering guests, especially when Presley would toss one of his scarves or a stuffed teddy bear or hound dog toy into the audience.

"Elvis would wave and tease the hell out of them with it," Guerrero says. One night he tossed it toward two men seated to the left of the stage. A tug of war ensued.

"They were really going at it," he recalls. "Part of the (stuffed) animal broke lose so the other guy went off balance and fell backwards."

Words were exchanged and blood spewed when one man cracked the other over the head with an empty champagne bottle.

"We were looking at this (and) just thinking, 'Why?,' " says Guerrero, who first met Presley years earlier while working in the showroom at the old Thunderbird hotel-casino.

The Hilton shows "became a phenomenon to the point where we as workers didn't understand what we were involved with. We didn't have time to stand there and say, 'Oh, that's my favorite song.' "

But they did notice when Presley and his stage demeanor took a turn for the worse. Once he erupted into an uncontrollable giggling fit during a performance.

"The (audience) was become very, very uneasy. People were really complaining," Guerrero recalls. "We noticed just before that he had started putting on an awful lot of weight ... and we became very concerned."

Not long after, Elvis "left the building" for the last time.

"I would like to see it again," Guerrero says of the packed houses. "It was a tremendous learning experience. It's always something we're sharing with other people."

Won't you wear my ring

By comparison, Jim Mydlach had it easy. From 1975-77, he supervised concession sales and worked on Presley's road crew.

"They had us doing everything. You wore 10 different hats when you worked for Elvis," recalls Mydlach, director of safety at the Golden Nugget hotel-casino, who also ran for Nevada state senate and lost in 1990.

"It was the fastest-moving show in the world at that time," he says. "You were in a different city everyday and after a while, you didn't even know where you were at."

(Not even the pilot of the crew's plane, who once flew them to Kentucky. "We were supposed to be in Cincinnati.")

Mydlach, who also toured with Rick Nelson, John Denver and Paul Anka, took most of his direction from Col. Parker but, in the meantime, got to know Presley "pretty well. I talked to him a number of times. You saw him everyday.

"He was very deep, very sharp, too," he says, noting Presley's generous nature and numerous donations to charities and people he hardly knew.

During a performance in Baltimore, "Somehow his T.C.B. (which stood for 'Taking Care of Business') ring fell off when he went to make one of his moves," he says.

A young girl in the audience caught it. "She wanted to give it back to Elvis," and Presley reluctantly took it. "He gave her a check for 10 grand. The man had a heart the size of the United States. You don't find people like that anymore."

Memories

So Joe Guercio has helped bring him back to life.

The former musical director for the Las Vegas Hilton spent six years arranging and conducting the 28-piece orchestra that performed behind Presley at the hotel and on the road.

He has spent the past several weeks, however, digitally arranging the music for "Elvis in Concert '97," which will reunite Presley -- via video technology -- with his "original cast" of signers and musicians, including the Jordanaires, J.D. Sumner & The Stamps and Charlie Hodge.

"We're gonna work to Elvis' voice," Guercio explains. "If he says, 'I'd like to introduce my band,' he'll introduce us. Whenever he gives a cue, he'll give it to somebody who's still there."

This weekend's concert, expected to draw about 18,000 people to a Memphis, Tenn. arena, benefits a scholarship fund in Presley's name. The show may eventually be aired as a television special and there's talk of a world tour.

"That would be hip," says Guercio, who worked similar magic in '78, when he conceived the "Unforgettable" duet of songstress Natalie Cole and her late father, Nat "King" Cole, for a performance at the Las Vegas Hilton.

The Presley show, he says, "is a lot more active because he's talking to the people he's working with and we're there now."

Recreating the same energy of the old performances, however, would be impossible.

"The shows were like a Fellini episode. They were never the same," says Guercio, who now owns a Las Vegas entertainment management company.

"First of all, it was not a show, it was a happening. It was bigger than anything you could imagine," he says. "I've never witnessed an audience like that before. He had the mothers, the daughters and their daughters. That's how he was drawing them, the whole family."

Drawing them to his shows, not his suite, as the sordid stories that have circulated about post-concert orgies might suggest.

"The parties were never wild," contends Guercio, who attended a few. "How could they be wild? They'd always be singing gospel music; they'd sing all night long. His dad was always there."

Things were known to get wild on stage, however, especially when Presley and Guercio's taste in music clashed.

"I used to hate 'It's Now or Never,' " he says. "I'd say to him, 'It's an Italian song. It's 'O Sole Mio,' and if you can't sing it, why do you sing that song?' "

One evening, Guercio donned a chef's hat on stage during the number. "It's a chef's song," he explains. "I sat back in the corner and he just about freaked out."

All joking aside, Presley "was a very deep, sensitive man," Guercio says.

And a pioneer of local history. "There should be a Presley statue at the airport. There should be a Sinatra statue. We're a town with no history. This is it."

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