In this People's History, HistoryLink staff historian Cassandra Tate (b. 1945) recalls a memorable encounter with Elvis Presley at Sicks' Seattle Stadium in Rainier Valley, on Labor Day weekend, 1957.
Elvis and Me
On September 1, 1957, at Sicks' Seattle Stadium, my friend Frances Bragg introduced me to Elvis Presley and changed my life forever.
I was 12, claiming to be 13, and of course my world was already changing, with or without Elvis. My family had moved that summer, from the "projects" at Rainier Vista to a house of our own at 45th Avenue and Ferdinand Street, still in the same neighborhood -- Columbia City -- but on the other side of a psychic ravine. I would be going to a new school, Caspar W. Sharples Junior High, in a few days. Frances, my best friend, would stay at Asa Mercer Junior High. We would quickly lose touch with each other.
The seeds for even greater changes were being planted in the world that lay far outside my personal boundaries. A Baptist minister named Martin Luther King Jr. was organizing marches, boycotts, and demonstrations in Montgomery, Alabama. The governor of Arkansas was vowing to use force to prevent the integration of a high school in Little Rock. The wicked Communists in the Soviet Union were preparing to launch the first satellite into space -- Sputnik -- a feat that would reinvigorate the sales of basement bomb shelter kits and increase the number of bomb drills we had in school. Out on the Nevada desert, the United States Atomic Energy Commission was detonating nuclear bombs more powerful than those that had cremated Hiroshima and Nagasaki, in explosions that could be seen and felt in Los Angeles, 250 miles away.
But I knew nothing of those matters. For me, that summer was defined by a personal trajectory: up and down the steep incline of Ferdinand Street between Rainier Avenue and Lake Washington Boulevard, over and across the business district of Columbia City, roaming freely from morning until dark, with brothers and sisters or friends or by myself.
My orbit took me down to the lake to swim, back up to the house to either deposit or collect the younger siblings I sometimes had to care for, down to the COLVMBIA BRANCH of the SEATTLE PVBLIC LIBRARY (where no one could ever explain why "V" was carved into the building instead of "U"), over to the Tradewell store next door or to the bakery down the street for cookies and chocolate milk, across to the vacant lot to pet the pony I pretended was mine, over to the Five and Dime store to look at the science fiction magazines, up to the drug store at Rainier and Hudson for a cherry Coke, down to the dump at Genesee (now more sanitary and perhaps less interesting as a park).
We rarely had adult escorts, although we were not without adult supervision. The people on the street, the clerks in the shops, the neighbors on their porches: there were watchful eyes all around us, and more than enough adults who corrected our minor transgressions on the spot and reported any major malfeasance to our parents. We were warned not to take candy from or get into cars with strangers, but no strangers ever offered us treats or rides. We lived in a world that felt safe.
It was on Labor Day weekend, the actual if not the official end of summer, when Frances spotted the advertisement that promised "TOMORROW Will Be Seattle's Most Exciting Day!" Elvis Presley "and his all-star stage show" would be appearing Sunday, the next day, "IN PERSON," at Sicks' baseball stadium, tickets $1.50, $2.50, and $3.50. We had been planning to go to a movie, and were looking at the newspaper to see what was playing at the Columbia Theater. Elvis won out over a double feature -- Jimmy Stewart and Sheila Bond in Spirit of St. Louis and Bruce Bennett and Lon Chaney in Daniel Boone, Trail Blazer, admission 25 cents for kids 12 and under.
Elvis Presley was a certified teen idol by 1957. He had recorded half a dozen hit singles, starred in three movies, and stunned parents everywhere with his pelvic performances. Frances knew all the words to all his songs. She was a year older than me and more socially advanced. She was sneaking her mother's cigarettes and browsing through the cosmetic counters at the Five and Dime while I was still building forts in the woods. I was eager to prove that I could be as much a teenager as she was.
I dressed carefully for my meeting with Elvis: gray felt circle skirt with a pink poodle appliqued on one side; enough crinoline petticoats to make the skirt stand out almost perpendicular to the ground; pink sweater, enhanced with the strategic use of tissue paper; new loafers with shiny pennies in the flaps; my hair in a ponytail. It pleased me to think that I looked like any other teenage girl, walking down the street on her way to someplace interesting.
About 15,000 of us waited for Elvis at Sicks' Stadium that night. Frances and I sat in the top row of the bleachers -- the best seats we could get for $1.50 on the day of the show. We couldn't see much of the stage, which had been set up on second base, but we had a good view of the crowd. I had never seen so many people in my life. The promoters said later it was the biggest crowd ever for a single artist in Seattle up to that point; of the 16,200 people who went through the gate, 90 percent of them were teenage girls.
Elvis had performed in Vancouver, British Columbia, and in Spokane the day before; and his Seattle appearance was preceded by one the same day in Tacoma. The show was supposed to begin at 8:30 p.m. but it was well past 10 p.m. when he finally took the stage. We entertained ourselves meanwhile with walking up and down the aisles, going back and forth to the restrooms, and looking over the things we could have bought if we had any money: Elvis Presley hats, Elvis Presley buttons, Elvis Presley souvenir books, Elvis Presley photographs, and Elvis Presley ice cream bars, among other things.
There were other acts -- the All-Star Stage Show included singers, dancers, comedians, jugglers, and marimba players -- but we didn't pay much attention to them. For one thing, the stage was so far from our seats that it was hard to see or hear anything. Besides, every once in a while someone would shout "There he is!!!" and we'd all scream, jump up, search the baseball field for evidence of Elvis, then settle back down until the next flurry of excitement and distraction.
Finally, a cordon of policemen appeared around the stage, the crowd began to scream in earnest, and Elvis walked out from the dugout. A girl sitting next to me fainted.
He wore a dark shirt and slacks and a gold lame jacket that shimmered in the lights. When he leaned toward the microphone, the tsunami of noise from the audience reached a shrieking crescendo. Frances clutched me and screamed. I watched the ambulance crew strap the girl who had fainted to a stretcher and carry her down the stairs and out of the stadium. She hadn't been able to hear even one song.
The adult critics didn't much like the show. Seattle Times writer Marjorie Jones went into alliterative overdrive in her report on the "writhing, wiggling-sexy, side-burned, sullen-eyed Southerner" and his "shrieking, screaming mass of tingling teen-age worshippers." She added that "Vulgar is the kindest way to describe Presley's pulsating gyrations." John Voorhees, in the Seattle Post-Intelligencer, concluded that "Elvis' movements seemed to delight the onlookers much more than the singing -- which could mean burlesque is on the way back." My mother, who didn't see the show but read about it in the newspapers, thought that people who went to concerts and then screamed so much they couldn't hear the music were beyond foolish.
Toward the end, Elvis stood quietly before the microphone and announced that the next number would be the National Anthem. He burst into "Hound Dog" instead. Voorhees said the scream from the audience sounded like "12,000 girls all having their heads shaved at once." I was one of them by that point, having become a full-fledged acolyte in the Church of Elvis. He sang two choruses and then he was gone, without even a wave or a bow, vanishing through a gate in the right field fence. A few girls slipped down to the stage and scooped up dirt from around second base before the police shooed them away.
Frances and I walked back to Columbia City along Rainier Avenue, a good half-hour walk from the stadium at Rainier and McClellan Street. We sat on the curb in front of Tradewell for a while, not saying much of anything. The evening had been an untrammeled success. We had seen a rock and roll star, and a car full of boys had honked at us as we walked home. We took it as a sign of validation. We had crossed over a bridge, and left our childhoods behind.
It hardly mattered that I wouldn't be able to get into the local movie house for only a quarter for much longer.