It was May 7, 1955, in Daytona Beach — the first Florida date for the touring show hosted by country singer Hank Snow — and Jacksonville teacher Mae Axton spotted a former student in the audience as the newcomer Elvis Presley took the stage.
The former student didn’t know who Presley was. “None of them did,” Axton later recalled. Axton had been hired to help publicize the tour, and she was curious to know what made the 20-year-old singer so special.
“Awww, Miz Axton,” was the reply; “It’s just a nice big piece of forbidden fruit.”
It’s a memorable line, as the writers of the recently released “Elvis” movie must have thought when they adapted it and gave it to Tom Hanks, playing Presley’s manager, Colonel Tom Parker, in a voiceover delivered in accented English.
Parker didn’t quite sound like that accent, some critics noted, although he was, secretly, a Dutch immigrant, and no doubt other things in the movie are more accurate in spirit than in fact. One thing strikes me as quite true, though: If you want to know what it was like to see Presley on that tour of Florida in 1955 (and 1956), you probably won’t get much closer than the opening scenes of “Elvis”. The filmmakers identify these scenes as taking place in Louisiana, by the way, but it could just as well have been in Florida.
Lace shirts. The pink suit. The uproar over the “hustle and bustle” – Elvis’ arrival was a big deal, and Floridians in venues such as the Orlando City Auditorium, Daytona Beach’s Peabody Auditorium and the Polk Theater in Lakeland had a ringside seat.
As Central Florida journalist Bob Kealing describes in his 2017 book “Elvis Ignited: The Rise of an Icon in Florida,” these tours marked a “turning point in American music history; it was the arrival of rock and roll.
The following year, 1956, Presley scored his first No. 1 hit with “Heartbreak Hotel”, which also involved Axton. After the 1955 tour, she had watched Presley, praising the song. She had written it in her Jacksonville home with fellow songwriter, Tommy Durden, inspired by a Miami newspaper story about a man who left a suicide note saying, “I’m walking in a lonely street. In the end, she gave Presley one-third of the writing credit.
Over the years, it’s been tempting for people to theorize that the song might have some connection to the “Heartbreak Hotel” in the former Osceola County town of Kenansville. Now used as offices, the building is undeniably historic. In 1915, when Kenansville was a boom town for sawmills and railroads, it opened as the Piney Woods Inn. In 1955, the Reverend James W. Webb, pastor of a church in Orlando, bought the place and changed its name.
The building was so run down that some of the neighborhood kids called it “the heartbreak,” Webb said years later. Although Presley was in Florida in 1955, there is no evidence that he visited Kenansville.
“For so long people have searched to find the real so-called Heartbreak Hotel where the unnamed man in the song died,” Kealing writes, “but it was nothing more than a figment of the imagination. by Mae Axton.
Presley’s infamous manager, played in the film by Hanks, remains a very real connection to Florida, however. Turns out Colonel Parker was a man from Florida.
Parker “was a classic Florida hustler, and the money was always on his mind,” journalist Craig Pittman wrote in a 2018 article about Parker’s connection to a Tampa pet cemetery.
Born Andreas Cornelis van Kuijk in the Netherlands in 1909, he came to the United States in the 1920s, found work at carnivals and landed in Tampa after working for the Royal American show, which wintered there. In 1935 he married a Florida woman, Marie Mott, and in 1940 he landed a job with the local Humane Society. Before long, Parker was designing publicity stunts such as dressing up as Santa Claus and giving away puppies. The shelter was in bad shape when it started, but within a year it was out of the red.
Parker opened a pet cemetery that was a disgraceful scam, filled with fake graves, Kealing writes. For years, the Humane Society of Tampa Bay—”a much more respectable organization these days,” notes Pittman—has dutifully cared for the headstones.
It was during the Humane Society days that Parker hosted a successful fundraising concert that paved the way for concert promotion and led Parker to Presley in 1955. “His life is proof,” jokes Pittman, “that any Florida man can be a success, even if deep down he’s just a hound.