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‘Viva Las Vegas’: Sin City still dancing to Elvis tune after 60 years

Updated May 20, 2024 - 6:55 pm

The song’s opening line tells the story of Las Vegas — then and today.

“Bright light city, gonna set my soul, gonna set my soul on fire.”

“It showed you there was more to Las Vegas than mobsters and the Rat Pack. That message had value,” Las Vegas historian Michael Greene says of the titular tune from the 1964 film “Viva Las Vegas.”

“Viva Las Vegas,” the movie and song, helped crystallize Vegas’ identity as a worldwide tourism destination. The film, released 60 years ago this week, co-starred Elvis Presley and Ann-Margret, and was directed by the legendary George Sydney (a guest lecturer at UNLV late in his life).

The film was boosted by its bouncy soundtrack and technicolor, which showed off the stars’ red and yellow outfits and the city’s flashing neon.

‘Get those stakes up higher’

“Viva’s” storyline: Race car driver Lucky Jackson (Presley) hits Vegas to compete in the Las Vegas Grand Prix (the forerunner of today’s F1 race, without the widespread repaving).

Lucky’s engine coughs out, and he loses his money when shoved into the Flamingo hotel-casino pool by lifeguard — and part-time singer/dancer — Rusty Martin (Ann-Margret).

The early king and queen of Las Vegas would hit it off royally. They sing. They dance. They flirt. They end up getting married at the famous Little Church of the West, right here in the Wedding Capital of the World.

The pairing of Presley and Ann-Margret was paramount to the film’s appeal. Of course, both would go on to perform as headliners in Las Vegas.

Their chemistry was evident as Elvis, donning a sharp grey suit, trails Ann-Margret (in a canary-yellow swimsuit) around the pool deck. Self-confident in his portrayal as Lucky, Elvis strums an acoustic and croons, “The Lady Loves Me,” which starts as a solo and grows into a teasing duet.

Presley and Ann-Margret also tore it up in the explosive “C’mon Everybody” number at the gymnasium/dance studio set, with the “University of Nevada” sign looming in the background. That set is today’s Barrick Museum at UNLV.

‘With your neon flashin’

Ann-Margret has twice recently returned to the university where that scene was filmed. She was inducted into the UNLV College of Fine Arts Hall of Fame in 2021. She was celebrated with an honorary doctorate the following year.

Prior to her Hall of Fame induction, Ann-Margret talked of her time with Presley during the filming.

“He was a great man. This is going to sound weird, but I’d never seen him perform before I did the movie,” the entertainment icon said. “I know, it’s hard to believe. And we just found out that we were very much alike. Growing up and being very shy, and then you become this other person when you are performing. I loved my parents so much, and he loved his mother so much.”

Ann-Margret had become a sensation a year earlier in the film adaptation of “Bye Bye Birdie,” also directed by Sydney. She was the only entertainer to ever share top billing with Elvis.

As they rehearsed, Ann-Margret recalled, “We looked at each other and said, ‘We’re moving the same!’ The music brought that out in us. We just chuckled at that.”

She also claimed she had seen “Viva Las Vegas” once, end-to-end, just after the final cut.

”I see my movies only one time, and it’s usually in a screening room,” Ann-Margret said “The knuckles are white. It’s just very uncomfortable, I don’t know who that person is. I still don’t. I just did the best that I could.”

‘They’re all livin’, devil may care’

Jerry Schilling, whose friendship with Elvis dated to the mid-1950s in Memphis, said Elvis and Ann-Margret were close long after “Viva” wrapped.

“They kept in contact. They were dating for, I guess, about a year after the filming,” said Schilling, who lived with The King at his estate in Bel Air, Calif., at that time. “I mean, they were as close as you could get, when you’re living undercover (laughs).”

Ann-Margret is famous for her love of motorcycles. She stood on a bike alongside Elvis during “Viva’s” filming. She later rumbled to the stage on a Triumph during her days as a Strip headliner.

So Elvis parked a bike for his co-star and companion in his SoCal garage, with “AMO” painted on the gas tank. That stood for the initials in her birth name, “Ann Margret Olsson.”

“So he referred to her as, ‘Ammo,’ like ammunition,” Schilling said. “Elvis was very clever. But that all happened in the aftermath of ‘Viva Las Vegas.’”

‘Many memorable versions’

Co-written by the late songwriting team of Doc Pomus and Mort Shuman, “Viva Las Vegas” peaked at No. 29 on the Billboards singles charts. The film’s title tune has been covered by a multitude of artists. The Killers, Wayne Newton, Billy Idol, Bruce Springsteen, Bette Midler, U2, ZZ Top and even the UNLV pep band have performed memorable versions in Las Vegas.

Billy Joel sang a segment of it in his most recent Las Vegas show at Allegiant Stadium in February 2022, and before in 2016 at T-Mobile Arena. Travis Kelce of the Chiefs also sang it at Allegiant, loudly and proudly, at the Super Bowl trophy ceremony.

“Viva” is a “must” song for Vegas favorite Pete Vallee, aka Big Elvis, an afternoon headliner at Harrah’s Piano Bar, where he has played to full houses since 2012.

The only Elvis act playing regularly on the Strip, Vallee opened at then-Barbary Coast (today’s Cromwell) in 2002. His Vegas career dates to 1997, when he debuted at the now-shuttered Roadhouse saloon on Boulder Highway.

Vallee has sung “Viva Las Vegas” in every performance.

“It’s always been a really popular song, but I think it’s actually grown more in popularity now,” Valley says. “It’s played in all the sporting events. It was on during the Super Bowl. The Golden Knights have had guys dressed as Elvis, and they’re doing ‘Viva Las Vegas.’ So you have young kids who hear it all the time, and they know about Elvis just because of ‘Viva Las Vegas.’”

‘I’m gonna have me some fun’

In 2002, the city of Las Vegas reportedly asked Elvis Presley Enterprises for permission to use “Viva” as the city’s official song. Those talks stalled over a disagreement over the fee. But the song was played unofficially during Oscar Goodman’s three terms as mayor as his “walk-in” music for all public events.

“I had the showgirls, the martini and ‘Viva Las Vegas’ playing in the background,” Goodman says. “As mayor of Las Vegas, what could be better?”

One who was not known to perform the song live was The King himself. It was not on his set list at the International or Las Vegas Hilton, or any of his road dates.

Schilling can’t recall Elvis ever performing the song for an audience.

“That is a great question, but I never heard him sing ‘Viva Las Vegas’ in Las Vegas,” Schilling says. “I was there for all the shows, so … It would seem like a no-brainer, but maybe he thought it would be too typical. He probably wanted to leave it to others to keep it alive.”

John Katsilometes’ column runs daily in the A section. His “PodKats!” podcast can be found at reviewjournal.com/podcasts. Contact him at jkatsilometes@reviewjournal.com. Follow @johnnykats on X, @JohnnyKats1 on Instagram.

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