When Elvis Presley came to Brooklyn
Recently, Brooklyn Eagle writer Paula Katinas wrote about Bay Ridge nostalgia crooner Martin McQuade and his show honoring Elvis Presley at Hunter’s Steak & Ale House on Fourth Avenue.
While Katinas’ article focuses on McQuade, who has also performed songs by Bing Crosby, Dean Martin, Danny Kaye and others, she mentions Presley’s little-known visit to Brooklyn in September 1958.
No, Elvis didn’t play a concert here. In fact, he rarely performed in New York City, some exceptions being his 1956 appearances on “The Ed Sullivan Show,” which was filmed live, and a 1972 show at Madison Square Garden.
Presley wasn’t exactly here involuntarily. Most people familiar with the essential facts of his life know that he went into the Army in 1958. What they don’t know is that Elvis shipped out for Europe at the Brooklyn Army Terminal.
Those who know the Brooklyn Army Terminal today know it as a complex for commercial and industrial businesses that is run by the city’s Economic Development Corporation. But until the early 1980s, the Army Terminal, as the name implies, was a military base run by the U.S. Army.
Over the years, more than three million troops passed through the facility — including Presley. Recognizing Elvis’ importance, the Brooklyn Army Terminal has an exhibit commemorating his arrival in Brooklyn.
In his website “Forgotten New York,” neighborhood historian and tour leader Kevin Walsh traces the route Presley likely took from Fort Hood, Texas, to the Brooklyn Army Terminal. His troop train went over several railroad lines (the U.S Army had the clout to arrange that) until it arrived in Penn Station.
From there, it switched from the tracks of the Pennsylvania Railroad (now part of Amtrak) to the Long Island Rail Road and proceeded to Jamaica. Then, it reversed directions and proceeded west over the LIRR’s still-active Bay Ridge freight line until it switched onto a spur that served the Brooklyn Army Terminal.
An article and photo from The New York Times of Sept. 23, 1958, survives. The Times only gave Presley two paragraphs. At the time, most adults in the U.S. considered rock to be a juvenile fad that would soon fade away, and the only place you could see in-depth articles about singers like Presley, Buddy Holly or Chuck Berry was in teenage fan magazines.
Presley held a brief press conference inside the base, while about 100 teenage girls gathered outside. One reporter asked him what he would do if rock ‘n’ roll died out when he was in the service, and Presley answered that he would concentrate on his acting. The Philadelphia group Danny and the Juniors had a top-selling record that year called “Rock ‘n’ Roll Is Here To Stay,” but many people hadn’t yet gotten the message.
Unfortunately, Presley didn’t have much time to take in many of the borough’s sites, like Coney Island, Prospect Park or the Brooklyn Museum. He soon shipped out from the Brooklyn Army Terminal’s pier, bound for Germany. It turned out that the Times interview was prophetic—after he came back to the States in 1960, he wasn’t that much of a rocker anymore.
It’s too bad he didn’t stay here a little longer and pick up some of that “Brooklyn attitude,” as former Borough President Marty Markowitz used to say. If he had, he might have kept recording straight-ahead rockers like “Hound Dog” and “Jailhouse Rock.” Furthermore, he might have been able to resist temptation and could still be performing to sell-out crowds today. You never know!
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