Wednesday, August 15

The King is DEAD?????

It was August 16, 1977. I was news director for WEEK-TV in Peoria. Late that morning one of the station clerical workers—an older woman—came into the newsroom and nervously asked me if it was true Elvis had died. The woman was really shaken. She said she had heard it from a friend. I told her I hadn't heard of any such thing, and offered to check the wires.

I should stop here and tell you that this woman was an Elvis Presley fanatic! She had a Betamax tape of Elvis' comeback TV special from 1968—called the "Singer" special because it was sponsored by the Singer Sewing Machine people. A little history. Home video recording—first Betamax, than VHS—was only two years old. A home Beta recorder cost $1,600-$2,000 (a good month's pay for a lot of people in those days when a brand-new Volkswagen Beetle could still be had for under $2,500). There were no pre-recorded tapes for sale yet, no “Blockbuster,” no cable in most places. You could record off a local channel—you could play back—and that was it: all for only a month's pay!

Somehow, someplace, sometime, someone had recorded a replay of the Elvis comeback special and given it to her (commercials and all). No one in her group of friends could afford a Betamax machine, so their idea of a great time was to pop up some popcorn and—two or three Saturdays a month—adjourn as a group to a local appliance store that was very accommodating and let them watch Elvis Presley for an hour!

Now, don't get me wrong, I liked Elvis just fine: but three Saturday nights a month in an appliance store? I thought she was nuts!

But I also saw she was troubled, so together we went to the wire machines. Nope: nothing there. Three TVs on in the newsroom, tuned to the three networks: nothing there. To be on the safe side I told her I'd make a point to listen to radio news for the next few hours. Nope, nothing.

Nothing until mid afternoon when the wire bells chimed and the printer spit out the news a line-at-a-time: Elvis Presley Dead!

I had to break the news to that poor woman. She took it well. She already knew, she told me: her friends had told her.

I've thought about that a lot in the thirty years since.

No cell phones—only land lines. No cable news (CNN was still roughly two years away, MSNBC and Fox not even dreamed of). No Internet, or instant messaging, or e-mail. Yet somehow word of Elvis Presley's death had made it the 450 miles up I-55 from Memphis to Peoria faster than it had made it to New York and the rest of the world—four or five hours faster!

Telegraph, telephone, television—and yet “tell an Elvis fan” turned out to be the fastest form of communicating that day thirty years ago.