Elvis in Vegas feels more like a rough outline for broader ideas rather than an in-depth examination of what the title would have the reader believe.
In the acknowledgements of Elvis in Vegas, Richard Zoglin explains that his original intention for the book was to craft a history of Las Vegas during its glittery, 1960s Rat Pack-era height of appeal for Midwesterners looking for a bit of escapism only to have his publisher suggest using Elvis’ Vegas-staged comeback at the end of the decade as the central framing device. This admission would almost be better suited as a preface to the work to help explain to those coming for the Elvis stories why Elvis plays such a small role in a book prominently bearing his name. Using Elvis as the hook feels slightly disingenuous as the gist of Zoglin’s original idea indeed remains the heart of the book, with Elvis himself being somewhat of a cursory figure who feels tacked-on a bit at the beginning and the end of the work in order to appease his overlords at Simon & Schuster.
Which is too bad, because Zoglin’s original thesis is just as compelling, if not more so, than Elvis’ famed comeback after nearly a decade wandering the wilderness of shitty movies and their equally tepid soundtracks. Had he been given clearance to properly expand on his proposed exploration of ‘60s-era Vegas, he might’ve managed the same heights as his stellar look at the history of Comedy in the 1970s, Comedy at the Edge: How Stand-Up in the 1970s Changed America. It would’ve been a fine companion piece, showing how Vegas in the 1960s helped shape much of the modern perception of celebrity and the accompanying lifestyle through the myriad figures who made their marks on the desert town in the shadow of mob rule.
But instead we get a book that feels only half finished in terms of its exploration of both Vegas and its perception in the eyes of Middle America and Elvis’ lasting impact on the city which now plays host to countless artists staging long-term residencies modeled on Elvis’ ground-breaking series of shows at the International. Hyped as “the story of how Las Vegas saved Elvis and Elvis saved Las Vegas,” Elvis in Vegas instead comes off more as how Elvis was the next logical evolutionary step in Vegas’ historically cyclical cultural and entertainment turnover. That the actual comeback story is largely crammed into a rushed final chapter certainly doesn’t help matters.
With the supper clubs largely falling out of favor and the nightclub acts contained therein becoming increasingly culturally passé, it simply made sense that the next generation’s iconic figure would step up and claim the mantle previously held by the likes of Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin and Sammy Davis, Jr. These represented the generation who came of age during the war years and were thus seeking out the entertainers of their formative years, much in the same way those who came of age in the 1950s and during the embryonic stages of rock ‘n’ roll would come to seek out their idols in the waning years of the ‘60s. In essence, Elvis was simply the next in line as the torchbearer for Vegas entertainers, representing the generational shift that was taking place at the time.
This isn’t to discount the significance of Elvis’ act and the spectacle it entailed, rather it simply shows it to be the next logical step as people’s tastes changed with the times and Las Vegas, an area catering to a particular age group at that time, had to adjust its offerings accordingly to meet the needs of the corresponding generational shift. This is the real story that helps shape much of Elvis in Vegas, but it gets overlooked in favor of Zoglin’s original idea for the book and at the expense of his forcibly shoehorning the Elvis narrative into the book’s structure.
Because of this, Elvis in Vegas: How the King Reinvented the Las Vegas Show would’ve been better served as two separate works, one chronicling the reinvention of Las Vegas in the ‘50s and early-‘60s, followed by its reinvention in the wake of Elvis’ tenure. Or, better yet, each could be a part of an even broader cultural examination of the role Las Vegas has played and continues to play in shaping how we consume entertainment, while offering an historical narrative of the city as it bends and shapes itself to the changing tastes of not only Middle America, but the culture as a whole. In essence, then, Elvis in Vegas feels more like a rough outline for broader ideas rather than an in-depth examination of what the title would have the reader believe. A missed opportunity.