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Tales still alive of Elvis' performances at Helena parish hall

In 1954 and 1955, Elvis Presley was not yet famous, Helena was a thriving center of Delta commerce and St. Mary Church's parish hall was the best place in town to hold a dance. Presley performed at the "Catholic Club" several times -- until the pastor told him to never come back.

Published: October 21, 2006   
Courtesy Lynne Von Kanel
Sacred Heart Academy boarding student Becky Haley dances with her future husband Kenneth Abels in the summer of 1956 at the Catholic Club in Helena.

HELENA -- The story goes that Elvis Presley was kicked out of the Catholic Club for signing the thigh of a teenage girl after he performed there in 1955. The sisters of Sacred Heart Academy banned boarding students from attending Presley's shows, after the rumors of his shocking "hip gyrations" had reached their ears.

Stories about the future King of Rock 'n Roll in Helena vary as much as the opinions on his unique music style. Though the details of Presley's legendary expulsion have been muddied by 50 years of creative storytelling, most agree on this basic point: the late Father Gregory Keller, former St. Mary Church pastor, told the ambitious musician to leave and never come back.

The Catholic Club, as it was known in the 1950s, was St. Mary's parish hall and Sacred Heart's school gymnasium. The former Sacred Heart Academy was run by the Sisters of Charity of Nazareth until 1962. The club also served as Helena's community center because it was the largest building of its kind at the time. Civic organizations, schools and other local groups frequently rented the club for banquets, meetings and dances.

So when the young and not-yet famous Presley went looking for a place to perform in Helena, only 65 miles southwest of Memphis, he was directed to the parish hall, in part by St. Mary parishioner and local celebrity radio host "Sunshine" Sonny Payne.

  • On the road to stardom
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  • In the 1950s, the then-thriving Delta town of Helena had become a magnet for regional musicians since KFFA's "King Biscuit Time" had put Blues on the map in 1941.

    Payne, 80, who has hosted the show since 1951, still broadcasts five days a week from the Delta Cultural Center. On Oct. 4 he joined fellow parishioners, Nick Brocato, 79, Lynne Von Kanel, 70, and Annetta Beauchamp, 77, at St. Mary Parish to remember the days The King played in Helena.

    Payne recalled that Presley first approached his KFFA co-worker Larry Parker about playing a gig in Helena in the early 1950s. He is uncertain of the exact date.

    Long before his nationally televised appearances in 1956, Presley's early performances, in many small Southern towns like Helena, were not officially documented. According to a Jan. 23, 2005, article in the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, as well as the Web site and the book, "Elvis: Day by Day," Presley did shows at the Catholic Club at least four times in 1954 and 1955. These dates include Dec. 2, 1954; Jan. 13, 1955; March 8, 1955; and Dec. 14, 1955.

    Payne said his first impression of Presley was not a good one.

    "He had on an old T-shirt and a cigar in his mouth. He didn't impress me one bit," he said. "When you're in show business, you have to look like a show person, and you can't do it in T-shirts or blue jeans."

    Payne said Presley auditioned for Parker, who then told Payne, "'He's not bad.'" So Payne and Parker approached Father Keller (the uncle of the current pastor in Carlisle and England, Father Thomas Keller) for permission to rent the Catholic Club.

    The cost was $15 for three hours, which was a lot of money back then.

    Payne and Parker each borrowed $7.50 to come up with the fee because Presley did not have it and promised to pay them back after the show, which he did.

    But the second time Payne and Parker booked Presley at the Catholic Club, Jan. 13, 1955, they didn't get their money back. And it was the last time the pair booked a show in Helena for the future superstar.

    Payne said Presley asked if he could pay them back later, but he never did.

    "Before he went into the Army I called and, got, 'Oh man, I'm gonna get it to you,' but after two or three calls I said, 'Well, forget it.'"

    Payne did eventually get his money, 50 years later.

    The Helena Chamber of Commerce contacted the Elvis Presley estate about the debt and presented Payne with a $15 check at the annual chamber banquet in February 2005.

    "I felt about this high," Payne said holding his hand a foot off the floor. "I was thoroughly embarrassed."

    Brocato said he worked the concession stand when Presley performed at the Catholic Club. He shared Payne's view on Presley.

    "I wasn't a fan of his at all," he said. "You have to keep in mind that he was just starting out when he came here. He wasn't an overnight success."

    "The guys didn't like it, but the girls sure did," Von Kanel chimed in with a laugh.

    Brocato said he doesn't remember a lot about the shows except when Elvis "did that little dance on the stage with that shuffling of his feet (and) the girls went wild."

    Von Kanel admits she was one of those girls.

    "Oh, I went wild," she said. "I was one of those girls screaming and hollering."

    The Sacred Heart graduate said she first heard Presley perform at the Catholic Club as the opening act for Country Western stars Jim Ed and Maxine Brown. She saw him perform at least two other times at the club.

    "His voice and his actions; we'd never seen anything like that before," she said. "This new rock 'n roll was what the teenagers in my group were really eatin' up. We really loved it."

    Brocato said he was there the night Presley was asked to leave the club, but he only saw the crowd of girls rush on the stage after the performance. Though he heard lots of rumors, including that Presley was "autographing their panties," he didn't actually see what happened.

    Von Kanel quickly objected to that notion.

    "I saw him autograph a girl's leg. She hiked her skirt up and he autographed her thigh. I didn't see any panties," she said.

    Neither of them saw or heard the exchange with Father Keller.

    Beauchamp, who was not there, said she was told by several parishioners at the time that a "furious" Father Keller told Presley, "You're a disgrace to manhood and don't come back anymore."

    Von Kanel said she never saw that side of Presley.

    "We would all go backstage and talk and visit and get autographs. He was very congenial, very nice," Von Kanel said. "The guys hated him."

    "Looking back I don't see anything that was obscene or really bad about it, it was just that we weren't used to that," she added.

    Fellow Helena resident Billie Jo Moore, 68, spoke about her Elvis experience in an Oct. 5 telephone interview. Moore graduated from Barton Public School in 1956 and she said she remembers seeing Presley at the club twice. The first time she went with girlfriends and they had to sit in the bleachers because all the chairs on the floor were full. "Kids from all the county schools went."

    "He was an electrifying entertainer, but different from anything any of us had ever seen," Moore said. "The shock value was just tremendous."

    She said she wouldn't call what he did indecent or inappropriate, but "it was a stretch bordering on vulgar."

    Presley even drew the attention of America, the national Jesuit magazine, in its June 23, 1956, issue. Titled "Beware Elvis Presley," the author quoted several newspapers around the country that found Presley troublesome. One described a performance in Wisconsin as a "'strip-tease with clothes on,' (and was) not only suggestive, but downright obscene."

    Moore also recalled Presley's "God-awful colored clothes." The gold pants were "gaudy," she said.

    Nancy Norman, 68, is an Elaine High School graduate, also in 1956.

    Like Von Kanel, she first heard Presley at the Jim Ed and Maxine Brown show.

    "My mother wouldn't let me go unless my Daddy went," she said in an Oct. 5 telephone interview with Arkansas Catholic.

    So Norman, her father and five or six girlfriends went and were "amazed" by what they saw.

    "I thought he was an awfully nice young man," she said.

    Norman said she, her father and friends went backstage to introduce themselves after the show and invited Presley to eat dinner at the In Between, a former popular restaurant and hang out.

    "He was so conscious of his hair," she said. "He combed his hair more than anybody I ever saw in my life."

    "Then we followed him all over the countryside," she said.

    Norman saw Elvis in shows in Earl, Wynne, Barton, Marianna and even Memphis, eight times in all from 1955-56, with three of these at the Catholic Club in Helena.

    Payne and Brocato both said in later years they grew to enjoy Presley's music.

    "I never appreciated Elvis until he died," Brocato added. "His songs about religion ... are really beautiful to give him credit for it."

    "I had the greatest respect for him for what he did," Payne said. "He pulled himself up by the bootstraps with the help of Colonel (Tom) Parker. He made a man out of him."

    On the road to stardom

    In the 1950s teenage girls wore poodle skirts, boys greased their hair back and blue jeans were considered rebellious. It was a time when many legendary music stars were born in the South, including Elvis Presley.

    Though most of the world never heard of Presley until 1956 when he first performed on national television, many Southern towns like Helena had loved and hated his music for years.

    According to, The King performed more than 250 shows from July 1954 to December 1955 primarily in Tennessee, Texas, Mississippi, Louisiana and Arkansas. But Presley also played as far away as New Mexico, Florida, Ohio and Vermont.

    Besides the Catholic Club in Helena, Presley played in many locations in Arkansas including Bono, Camden, El Dorado, Forrest City, Hope, Leachville, Little Rock, Pine Bluff, Newport and Texarkana. In some cases, like the Catholic Club, Presley performed in these areas two times or more.

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