When he ambled into Dude Dodge’s Marine Show Bar at the corner of South Dixie Highway and Evernia Street, he ordered a beer.
The barkeep probably saw a young punk with jet-black greaser’s hair and cool cat clothes. He definitely didn’t believe this pretty boy was 21. So he told him no.
And that was the day rock history will record that Elvis Presley was ejected from a saloon in downtown West Palm Beach.
It’s one of many intriguing anecdotes in Bob Kealing’s new book, “Elvis Ignited: The Rise Of An Icon In Florida” (University Press of Florida). The author and longtime TV journalist connects a lot of previously unconnected dots, showing how the Sunshine State was an incubator for Presley’s breakout year of 1956.
Kealing makes a persuasive argument that Presley’s “moonshot” to fame could not have happened without Florida, from his uneasy relationship with manager and former Tampa dogcatcher Col. Tom Parker to meeting Mae Axton, who in one afternoon at her Jacksonville home would help write the song that made Presley a nationwide sensation — “Heartbreak Hotel.”
“There’s a rich tapestry of Elvis in Florida,” said Kealing, author of previous Florida-centric books on Beat author Jack Kerouac and country-rock legend Gram Parsons. “He was all over the state (in 1955 and 1956.).”
Kealing suggests that Presley served as a rock and roll Johnny Appleseed, spreading youthful rebellion across the peninsula. “I don’t think it was any accident that kids started picking up guitars and forming garage bands after seeing him. He was the template of cool in Florida.”
It’s well-known that Presley performed in West Palm Beach early in his career. But until Kealing’s book came out, who knew that beloved local historian James Ponce met Elvis?
On Feb. 20, 1956, Presley performed four shows at the Palms Theatre on the corner of Clematis Street and Narcissus Avenue. It was his first headlining show in a theater, topping a country-leaning bill that included the Carter Sisters, Louvin Brothers and the Blue Moon Boys, who were Presley’s backup band: guitarist Scotty Moore and bassist Bill Black.
At the time, Ponce was desk manager at the downtown Pennsylvania Hotel, where the musicians were staying. He bumped into Presley on the street after a matinee performance. The soon-to-be-King asked him: “Where can someone get a beer?”
They headed up to the Marine Bar, which had a small stage where owner and local boatman Dude Dodge offered a mix of comedians and musicians like Allen Di Biasio, dubbed “The World’s Lousiest Pianist.” Presley told Ponce he liked the warm weather here. But, as Kealing wrote, the joint’s bartender greeted Presley with an icy look when he ordered.
“Don’t you know who this is, this is Elvis Presley,” Ponce told the bartender.
“I don’t care who he is,” the bartender said. “He needs a card.”
Refused service, a “dejected” Ponce and Presley left, and ran into an angry Col. Parker who told Presley in no uncertain terms to return to the hotel. “He came on so heavy,” Ponce said of Parker. “Elvis sort of cowed down a little.”
Kealing interviewed Ponce a couple years before he died in 2015, and found the Worth Avenue historian to be a marvelous raconteur at age 96. The author remembers him doing laundry while telling tales of his “two-block walk with Elvis.”
Ponce’s only regret? “I thought, my God, I should have saved the sheets he slept on.”
By the way, that bartender wasn’t the only one who missed Presley’s significance in West Palm. Even with ads in the paper hyping his show, The Palm Beach Post didn’t bother to cover it, despite massive crowds of teenagers and a raucous screaming that practically drowned out Presley’s singing.
Kealing cuts the paper some slack. “He played West Palm Beach as a headliner in name only,” he said. “He’s just recorded ‘Heartbreak Hotel’ but it hasn’t come out yet. He’s on the cusp of fame in West Palm Beach.”
“Elvis Ignited” pulls together many fascinating strands of the Presley legend. He first saw the Atlantic Ocean in Daytona Beach. The iconic photo from his first RCA album was shot at a Florida concert. “Heartbreak Hotel” was inspired by an account of a suicide note — “I walk a lonely street” — in the Miami Herald. Presley, who made $50 at his first Florida gig, even opened shows here for a pre-TV comic named Andy Griffith.
And the growing, unhinged passion he stirred in Florida teenagers — and the fear it stirred in parents — reached its apex when a Jacksonville judge pondered whether his pelvis-wiggling was grounds for an obscenity charge. (Presley waggled his finger instead.)
Male newspaper reporters in 1956 sounded like hysterical prudes writing about Presley concerts — the Miami News’ Damon Runyon Jr. described him as having “the glassy gape of a hypnotized hillbilly.” But one thing Kealing’s book celebrates are unsung female journalists in Lakeland, St. Petersburg, Miami and Orlando who were able to see Presley with more clarity and insight.
“Men wrote in the point-of-view of parents,” Kealing said. “But thank goodness you had these prescient women. They got to know the real person behind the persona.”
Of course, in those days, celebrities were more accessible. Anybody who wandered backstage could find a shirtless Presley willing to give a female fan a smooch or a reporter an interview. (And female reporters inevitably got a hug and a kiss, too.)
Before his fame became so overwhelming, this Elvis would flirt with waitresses at truck stops or talk to fans at roadside motels.
Kealing’s book deftly captures a pre-Interstate Florida where an anonymous Presley would be traveling for grueling hours down every two-laner in the state in his signature automobile. “He’s on Tamiami Trail, he’s on 441, he’s on U.S. 1, he’s driving the pink Cadillac,” said Kealing.
It’s one of the reasons Kealing loves writing about that era in Florida: “Pre-Disney culture in this state gets glossed over.”
He hopes that his book research encourages the state to consider a Presley tour or trail, from the remaining concert venues (the Palms is now a parking lot) to Axton’s Jacksonville house to sites in north Florida where he filmed “Follow That Dream.”
It could give visitors a sense of how Florida fans were pioneers in the cult of Elvis.
“Floridians had extraordinary access to Presley early on,” Kealing said. “Imagine what it must have been like for these kids to see him in their black-and-white world, whirling onto the stage in Technicolor.”