LINDA WERTHEIMER, host:
Fifty years ago this month, Elvis Presley made one of his earliest rock concert appearances at a high school in suburban Cleveland. The event has gone down in history for several reasons, not the least being that a motion-picture crew was on hand to record it. But soon after the show, the film disappeared. Ever since, the missing footage has become the Holy Grail of Elvis fans. David C. Barnett of member station WCPN reports on myth, mystery and one fan's search.
DAVID C. BARNETT reporting:
Richard Esper(ph) couldn't believe it. His little high school here in the Cleveland suburb of Brooklyn was playing host to some of the biggest pop groups in the country. Bill Haley & The Comets, The Four Lads and Pat Boone all had hit songs at the top of the charts. And then there was this new kid who walked out on stage in a bright red suit.
Mr. RICHARD ESPER (Attended Early Elvis Presley Concert): He didn't even have to say, `Be quiet,' because it was a death--everybody just. Remember--and I don't know. And everybody looked and with their mouth hanging open, you know, until he started singing. And then everybody kind of went, you know, `Holy moly.'
(Soundbite of "Blue Moon of Kentucky")
Mr. ELVIS PRESLEY (Singer): (Singing) Blue moon, blue moon, blue moon, keep shining bright. Blue moon, keep on shining bright. You're gonna bring me back to my baby tonight. Blue moon, keep shining bright.
BARNETT: Elvis Presley had rarely played outside of the South. Pat Albany(ph) certainly had never heard of the 20-year-old singer, but she couldn't take her eyes off him.
Ms. PAT ALBANY (Attended Early Elvis Presley Concert): When he started gyrating up onstage, you know, it was like, `Oh, my goodness!' Yeah, like, no one had ever done that before.
(Soundbite of "Blue Moon of Kentucky)
Mr. PRESLEY: (Singing) Ah, well, I said blue moon of Kentucky just keep on shining. Shine on. My woman has gone and left me blue.
BARNETT: Many Elvis scholars mark this performance on October 20th, 1955, as Presley's first appearance in a pop-music concert. Up until then, he'd been the opening act for country stars. The acts at this show embodied the changes churning in popular music. On the one hand, you had the wild, subversive antics of Bill Haley and Elvis; on the other, the smooth, preppy style of Pat Boone and The Four Lads.
(Soundbite of "Moments to Remember")
THE FOUR LADS (Pop Group): (Singing in unison) The New Year's Eve we did the town, the day we tore the goal posts down.
Mr. BERNIE TOORISH (The Four Lads): Presley was a joke.
BARNETT: The Four Lads' Bernie Toorish didn't think much of the hillbilly singer from Tennessee.
Mr. TOORISH: He came in with the van or the pickup truck with these guys in red suits, and they all smelled bad. I mean, they probably didn't even bathe. He was just so amateuristic.
BARNETT: The clash of cultures at the birth of rock 'n' roll made the Brooklyn High School concert noteworthy, but this event was of even more interest to Elvis fans because it was filmed. Mike McCormick(ph) recalls that part of the auditorium was blocked off for a motion-picture crew.
Mr. MIKE McCORMICK (Attended Early Elvis Presley Concert): They had a camera sitting right here in the middle of the seats, right?
Unidentified Man: Yeah.
Mr. McCORMICK: Showing on the stage. And they said if we started acting up, it wouldn't make the film.
BARNETT: The film crew, and indeed the entire concert, was a testament to the power of Cleveland disc jockey Bill Randle. Just a few months before, Time magazine dubbed Randle `the nation's top jock.' And he regularly used his influence to stage afternoon music assemblies at local high schools. He had a hand in launching the careers of many performers, including Pat Boone.
Mr. PAT BOONE (Singer): (From 1978 interview) I've referred to Cleveland as the cradle of my career because it was there--you were the--certainly you were the midwife.
BARNETT: In a 1978 interview with Randle, Boone recalled the Brooklyn High School concert and the movie crew.
(Soundbite of 1978 interview)
Mr. BOONE: There's a film--What?--in the Universal vaults?
Mr. BILL RANDLE (Disc Jockey): That's right, MCA. Somewhere somebody's going to go through that untouched film and they're gonna find 14 1/2 minutes of yourself, Bill Haley & The Comets and Elvis Presley, and it's going to be worth about a quarter of a million dollars.
Mr. BOONE: Really?
BARNETT: It seems Randle knew the cameraman and director and arranged for them to document a day in the life of a famous disc jockey. The movie was to be called "The Pied Piper of Cleveland." It would start here and end up in New York with another all-star concert, featuring, among others, Tony Bennett and Frank Sinatra. But when the West Coast film crew hit Manhattan, it got embroiled in a union jurisdictional dispute that effectively shut the production down. The film was shelved, but not forgotten.
Mr. CHRIS KENNEDY (Musician): I've heard about it my whole life.
BARNETT: New Jersey musician Chris Kennedy grew up in a family of Elvis fans. He knew about the film, but he hadn't given it much thought until he read Bill Randle's obituary last year.
Mr. KENNEDY: I think it might have been on a board, like on a fan board. And they were like, `Hey, what ever happened to "The Pied Piper of Cleveland"? Blah, blah, blah.' And I'm like, `Yeah, I wonder what did happen to that.'
BARNETT: So for the past year, Kennedy has made it his mission to find the film. There were many false leads and dead ends. He zeroed in on the events of July 1992, when a British producer named Ray Santilli claimed that he had discovered the film, mislabeled, in a Universal vault. Press accounts alleged that he purchased the rights from Randle at a secret meeting, a story that Randle did little to dispute in an interview on a local TV station.
(Soundbite of a Cleveland TV station interview with Bill Randle)
Unidentified Man: Now you've just most recently sold it to a British combine?
Mr. RANDLE: Very deep pocket...
Unidentified Man: Uh-huh.
Mr. RANDLE: ...British.
Unidentified Man: And according to People magazine, they paid you $1.9 million.
Mr. RANDLE: Well, that's tabloid figures, you know.
Unidentified Man: Ah! When will we ever see that? They now have it and they'll probably work it in some kind of a project along the way.
Mr. RANDLE: They're working on the definitive Elvis Presley.
BARNETT: Researcher Chris Kennedy discovered a different story.
Mr. KENNEDY: I talked to the attorney that had been there, and I found out that none of it happened. Nobody had the film. It really turned out to be a big nothing. And it turned out to be a big PR thing for Bill.
BARNETT: But Chris Kennedy remains undeterred.
Mr. KENNEDY: I think it would be like finding a rough by Michelangelo. It would be raw, the talent and the energy that changed the world.
BARNETT: Even if the mystery of the missing movie, shot at Brooklyn High School outside of Cleveland, is never solved, former student Richard Esper is proud of his piece of history.
Mr. ESPER: For the last 45, 50 years, I've had a lot of bragging rights about this. You can't believe the amount of people that I show that picture to in the yearbook. They can't even believe it. `You had Elvis at your school? What do you mean, you had Elvis?'
BARNETT: For NPR News, I'm David C. Barnett in Cleveland.
(Soundbite of unidentified song)
Mr. PRESLEY: (Singing) Train arrive, 16 coaches long.
WERTHEIMER: Brooklyn High School is staging a concert tonight to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the day Elvis performed there. For a photo of the King on the stage at the school, go to npr.org.
(Soundbite of unidentified song)
Mr. PRESLEY: (Singing) Well, that long, black train got my baby and gone.