Elvis Week Blog 7 – Front Row at the ’68 Special 50th Anniversary Celebration

BY JON WATERHOUSE

Die-hards know every note, every scene, every subtle nuance of the landmark 1968 “Elvis” NBC television special. The beloved show –known as the “’68 Comeback Special” in fan speak– captures Presley arguably at his peak. Sleek and inspired, raw and reinvigorated. How could it possibly get any better?

It happened last night at the ’68 Special 50th Anniversary Celebration. The audience at the Graceland Soundstage witnessed what will go down as one of the most unique and moving multimedia presentations in Elvis Week history.

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Taking place in tandem with other screenings throughout the country on August 16, the Elvis Week show provided an exclusive happening. Event producer Andy Childs and a team of creatives infused a screening of the TV program’s original 90-minute version with a living, breathing documentary of sorts. Live behind-the-scenes recollections, musical enhancements, and Elvis’ original iconic costumes came together, taking the “’68 Special” experience to uncharted territory.

Historic in nature, pivotal in Presley’s career trajectory, and still relevant today, “’68 Special” marked Elvis’ return to TV and performing in front of a live audience. It resulted in what many call one of Presley’s most passionate performances. Projected on the big screen with vintage commercials and the show’s original NBC introduction, the presentation gave the already larger-than-life musical film the appropriate size and scope.

The Introductions

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Throughout the evening, some of the key players of the original broadcast took the stage. Producer-director Steve Binder, musical director Billy Goldenberg, and writer Allan Blye shared their own candid memories before introducing specific scenes. Dancer Tanya Lemani, who portrays the belly dancer in the “Little Egypt” scene, made a surprise appearance, dancing while donning a costume similar to what she wore 50 years earlier. Prerecorded reflections from Priscilla Presley, Elvis confidant and collaborator Jerry Schilling, songwriter Mac Davis and the late D.J. Fontana added even more perspective.

The Costumes

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For the first time, Elvis’ trademark costumes from the original program, including that unmistakable black leather suit, were displayed onstage during a “’68 Special” screening. This unannounced element of the show took its own share of logistical preparation. According to Angie Marchese, vice president of archives and exhibits for Elvis Presley Enterprises, event producer Andy Childs proposed the concept, asking her blessing. “I thought it was an amazing idea. I told him, ‘I wouldn’t do this for anybody but you and Elvis,'” she said with a laugh. Backstage, security guards stood watch over the costumes, which were removed from the Elvis: The Entertainer Career Museum just before the show. Throughout the show, Marchese and members of the archives staff would bring a specific costume onstage to correspond with what Elvis was wearing onscreen at that moment.

The Tennessee Mass Choir

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The show’s emotional level reached its zenith with a surprise appearance by the Tennessee Mass Choir. With infectious enthusiasm, the choir hit the stage, backing up Elvis’ original vocal during the “’68 Special’s” gospel medley. “Elvis was a musical genius,” said choir director Jason Clark, “and we learned that when learning this music. There were so many different moving parts throughout each song, and the energy of the music really kept us interested. And that pulled the best out of us.” The choir remained onstage for the epic closer, “If I Can Dream,” a song with newfound meaning for Clark and company. “Just thinking about the history of Memphis, it’s a dream for a black gospel choir to be a part of something of this magnitude,” Clark explained. “It was like a dream being fulfilled. It’s as if (Elvis) sang a prophecy. It was awesome.”


Five ’68 Comeback Faves

The “’68 Special’s” 50th anniversary gives me another excuse to see how far I can stretch my credit line. The gift shops on the Graceland campus oblige with plenty of themed goodies. I found five faves at the store inside the Elvis: The Entertainer career museum at Elvis Presley’s Memphis.

“Comeback ’68: Elvis – The Story of the Elvis Special”

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If you missed director Steve Binder’s interview with host Tom Brown at yesterday’s Conversations on Elvis: ’68 Special, all is right in the world. You can have Binder’s musings at your fingertips. His newly-released soft cover coffee table book pairs his personal account of the show’s creation with vibrant photos.

’68 Comeback Special Camp Shirt

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Feel like making a bold “Comeback” statement? You can dream big, literally. The mammoth print on this button-down, short sleeve camp shirt captures Elvis in the midst of belting “If I Can Dream.”

’68 Special Guitar Strap Scarf

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Serious fans of the special should recall Elvis’ ode to his guitar strap as he playfully changes the lyrics to “One Night With You.” You may have the urge to sing it with this draping around your neck. Made of viscose, the scarf features a pattern inspired by one of the guitar straps Elvis slings over his shoulder in the show.

“If I Can Dream” Gold Record

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At yesterday’s Conversations on Elvis: ’68 Special event, the show’s music director Billy Goldenberg spoke about collaborating with songwriter Earl Brown on the epic tune “If I Can Dream.” A gold record award of the 45 single –it’s matted and framed– would give any home or office a touch of Graceland museum magic.

’68 Special Black Leather Watch

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I may not be able to pull off a black leather suit a la Elvis, but I can go as far as rocking a replica of the wristband-style watch he wore with it. Thankfully, the time piece will help get me to work at the correct hour. Don’t want to tick off the big boss man.

Don’t forget to peruse Shop Graceland and Graceland’s gift shops for more “’68 Comeback Special” loot.


3 Comments

  1. Loved and followed Elvis all my life. I saw him three times in concert. Never did he disappoint. Thank you for keeping his memory alive!

  2. stephen

    The Comeback Special on the big screen was powerful to see. Elvis’s talent transcends time. I’ve heard all 700 songs since I was eight and he still inspires me today.

  3. ARGYRO KOUKOULA

    I really loved the things Steve Binder, Billy Goldenberg, and Allan Blye shared with us that day before the show. It was amazing listening to the three of them going back in the time and taking you with them there!!!!

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