Remembering Elvis Presley and his reign as ‘King Creole’
When Elvis Presley pulled into New Orleans on a train on March 1, 1958 (he “has had some bad experiences with planes,” a Paramount Pictures publicist told The Times-Picayune), he was no stranger to the city. He had hung out in New Orleans. He had performed here multiple times. Back in 1955, he even judged the “Miss Hillbilly Dumplin” contest at Pontchartrain Beach. This time, though, was different. This time, he was a bona-fide star, and he was in town to film his fourth movie, “King Creole,” about a French Quarter kid with aspirations of becoming a singer. Local fans were ecstatic, mobbing the sets and essentially confining Presley to his room at the Roosevelt Hotel when he wasn’t filming. Still, years later, Elvis himself would reportedly declare it his favorite of all his on-screen roles.
Elvis’ fans — being fans — would eat up “King Creole” upon its release on July 2, 1958. Conversely, some critics — being critics — would spit it out. (“‘King Creole’ is a bag of garbage which some responsible person should have carried out to the garbage can,” wrote Sam Lesner of the Daily News.) For the most part, though, “King Creole” would earn Presley praise for his performance. To this day, many consider it to be among the best of the more than 30 films he made.
- “King Creole” was based on the best-selling Harold Robbins novel “A Stone for Danny Fisher.” For the film, the setting was changed from Brooklyn to New Orleans and the lead character was changed from a boxer to a singer.
- Much of the film was shot on the Paramount lot in Hollywood, with just more than a week of production taking place on location in New Orleans. Among the locales at which it shot: the balcony at 1018 Royal Street, from which Elvis croons the film’s opening number, “Crawfish”; around the corner at McDonogh 15 Elementary School on St. Phillip Street; and at a fishing camp along Hayne Boulevard in New Orleans East.
- Elvis stayed at the Roosevelt Hotel while he was in town, with his entourage taking up the entire 10th floor.
- The film boasts a deep supporting cast, including Carolyn Jones, Walter Matthau, Vic Morrow and Dean Jagger. It was directed by Michael Curtiz, a two-time Oscar-winner — and five-time nominee — known for helming such films as 1942’s “Casablanca.”
- In June 1958, it was announced that the film’s world premiere would be held at the Saenger Theatre on Canal Street, with some of the film’s stars attending. But after it was learned that sneak previews would be held in some 40 Texas cities, the theater decided to pull the plug on the affair. “I refused to let a subsequent showing here be termed a ‘world premiere,'” a theater spokesman said.
- Just before filming was to begin, Presley received a draft notice enlisting him for military service. He earned a brief deferment to film “King Creole” from Jan. 20 to March 10 and joined the Army on March 24, just two weeks after filming ended.
- The soundtrack for “King Creole” reached No. 2 on the Billboard pop album charts. It featured such locally flavored tunes as “Crawfish,” “New Orleans,” “Dixieland Rock” and the title track, but the single “Hard Headed Woman” was its biggest hit, reaching No. 1 on the singles charts.
- Returning to New Orleans in 1977 for an appearance in “Move Over Mrs. Markham” at the Beverly Dinner Playhouse, “King Creole” co-star Carolyn Jones fondly remembered her time with Presley. “Elvis was so sweet in those days,” she said. “It took three days to shoot the last scene. I was sitting by Lake Pontchartrain with a 104 fever, and it was freezing. Elvis was supposed to go off to the Army in a few days, and I said, ‘Oh God, I’ll give you the gray gunk.’ He said, ‘It’ll be a lovely way to go.’ He was so gallant.”
- Jones would go on to earn fame as Morticia Addams in TV’s “The Addams Family.”
- Actress Dolores Hart plays a teen who falls for Presley’s character in “King Creole,” marking her second film with Elvis, after 1957’s “Loving You.” Five years later, Hart left Hollywood behind, becoming a Roman Catholic nun.
- The Times-Picayune edition marking Presley’s death on Aug. 17, 1977, was for decades the paper’s best-selling edition – until the New Orleans Saints won the Super Bowl in 2009.
In the decades since “King Creole” hit the screen, dozens of films — hundreds, even — have been shot in and around New Orleans. And while any number of them are probably technically better than “King Creole,” it would be hard to find one that is so universally appreciated, both in New Orleans and outside of it. For starters, it played up its local setting nicely. It also further cemented Presley’s connection to the city. Perhaps most importantly, it marked a key moment in the career of the young King of Rock and Roll — and thus a key moment in American pop culture history. You didn’t have to be an Elvis fan to realize after “King Creole” that the guy had undeniable talent. As Randy Lewis wrote in The Los Angeles Times in 1990: “Awright, so none of Elvis’s movies ever made anyone believe he was a threat to Brando. But in the best moments of ‘King Creole,’ Elvis still showed the world the toughest, sexiest most talented performer in the history of rock ‘n’ roll. And that was no act.”