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Presley Family Friend Reflects On Elvis' Las Vegas Residency

Elvis Presley
"Elvis Presley 1970" by Ollie Atkins, chief White House photographer. See ARC record. - a White House photograph by Ollie Atkins

Elvis Presley 1970

July 31st marked the 46th anniversary of the start of Elvis Presley's residency at the International Hotel in Las Vegas.

During his seven year stint at the hotel – which later became the Las Vegas Hilton and is now the Westgate – Elvis played 837 consecutive sold out shows to more than two and a half million people.

One person who was at Elvis' first shows at the International was Jerry Schilling, a longtime friend of the Presley family.

Schilling told KNPR's State of Nevada that he met Elvis just two days after the star's first single was played on the radio in Memphis in 1954. Schilling was just 12 years old. 

Presley went to high school with some of Schilling's cousins and they had gathered to play football in a park. 

"He was very James Dean-ish. He was a great guy but he could also be a tough guy. He had a temper," Schilling said.

Schilling remembers the legend has having a star quality before he had a hit record. 

In 1964, Schilling started working for Presley. It was after his teen idol days and in the middle of his years as a movie star. 

According to Schilling, it was those last year's in Hollywood that led Elvis to his residency in Las Vegas. 

"He had been so unhappy with the last few movies he had done," Schilling explained, "They had homogenized Elvis if you will."

When his move contract was finished, Presley made his iconic 1968 comeback TV special. The special was a massive success and re-launched the star's career as a stage performer.

Schilling recalls the effort Presley put into the show at what was then The International hotel.

"He put together Vegas with all the things that had influenced him when he was growing up," he said.

The star worked out every day, lost weight and studied karate, which he used in his performance.

"When I saw him open at the International, I realized he had it," Schilling remembered, "He was still that wild animal but he was more choreographed. He was more trained but they did not tame him and that was the excitement." 

Schilling said the excitement for the show wasn't just felt in the audience but in the whole city. Elvis did two shows a night for 30 nights and on his last night he did a third show so workers on the Strip could come and see him. 

"He changed a lot of about Vegas," Schilling recalled. For many years, the city's showrooms were seen as places for acts that were on the downturn of their careers, Schilling said. 

"I think Elvis made it popular that while you were really hot and at the heart of your career you could play Vegas."

Schilling said while Elvis' legacy lives on in Las Vegas, it wasn't without the hard work of his ex-wife Priscilla and the estate. He credits the legend's longevity with the opening of Graceland in the early 80s and the efforts of the star's record company, which continues to put out music and allow his music to re-mastered.  

According to Schilling, Elvis' estate was one of the first to protect the rights of a deceased celebrity. 

Jerry Schilling, Presley family friend

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Casey Morell is the coordinating producer of Nevada Public Radio's flagship broadcast State of Nevada and one of the station's midday newscast announcers. (He's also been interviewed by Jimmy Fallon, whatever that's worth.)