It all happened over 50 years ago: January 6, 1957. The most famous act of "censorship" in television history. Elvis Presley was actually photographed, deliberately, from the waist up only. Why all the fuss over a then 22-year-old?
Well, It is almost impossible to overexaggerate the effect Elvis Presley had on America (and the whole world) 50 years ago. It is a bit hard for our generation to comprehend all the stir the young Elvis created. We live in the "I've seen it all" generation -nothing shocks us anymore. Female mud wrestling, the O.J. trial, the countless sex scandals, snuff films, serial murders, etc. etc. etc. We are all at the almost "impossible to shock" level on this crazy planet.
But in the very staid, conservative 1950s, where the world's top singers were Bing Crosby, Dean Martin, and Perry Como, Elvis came on the scene like a tornado. The hip-shaking, gyrating kid from Mississippi shook up the show biz world in a way no one else ever has, before or since. The Ed Sullivan Show was America's #1 favorite family variety show in 1956. A strange marriage of two colossal forces were soon to meet and become show business legend. Ed had previously declared he would never have Elvis on the show, but Elvis just got too big and Sullivan had no choice but to recant.
Elvis appeared on the September 9, 1956 Ed Sullivan Show, hosted by Charles Laughton, who referred to Elvis as "Elvin" Presley. A record audience of 60 million (an 82.5% rating) watched the show, the biggest TV audience of all time at that point.
Elvis also appeared a a second time on October 28, 1956. This time his sandy-blondish natural hair was dyed to his "bad boy jet black" shade, the Elvis look we're all so familiar with. Both appearances were huge, but the "historic" one was yet to come. Elvis' swiveling hips and gyrating body movements had caused a massive stir from these first two appearances, not to mention his concerts and other TV guest shots. TV critics, public school teachers, priests, ministers, and terrified parents all railed against this menace to the world's youth.
And so, for Elvis' third and final appearance on The Ed Sullivan Show, it was agreed: he would only be photographed from the waist up! Incredibly, the people in charge of the Sullivan Show must have thought this would make the legions of worried adults feel safer and more secure with "Elvis the Pelvis," while the kids of America could still enjoy watching even "half" of their sworn idol.
And so, on that fabled night, the King sang his songs and was indeed only shot from the waist up. Interestingly, and ironically, Elvis' last chosen song that night was a Gospel number. Yes, Elvis, the king of rock 'n' roll, was a deeply, devoutly religious man, and Gospel was always his favorite musical form. He read the Bible on a regular basis. He did not drink, Pepsi being his drink of choice. And he always addressed his elders as "Sir" and "Ma'am." Hmmm ...some menace.
After the legendary show, Sullivan came out and told the TV audience, "This is a real fine boy," as if trying to reassure the nation's adults. As we watch the black and white film clips of the early 1950s Elvis, we are almost amused. Is this what the fuss was all about?
Elvis' performance was definitely great, but "shocking?" Amusing, interesting, electric- yes, but shocking ---ho hum. I guess it makes us wonder about something else, though. What the heck will future generations, fifty years from now, think when they watch films of us and the world we've become so accustomed to? And the way things are going, what will the world be like at that time?