There was an interesting series of shows that ran on the History Channel over the Memorial Weekend called “America: The Story of Us,” and it was a kind of narrative pop history lesson about the origins and development of our country from the Mayflower to the present day.
The series featured vintage classic film and tape, computer-generated historic scenes, and costumed actors re-creating key events in American history. On the whole it made for captivating viewing, 12 hours worth. It seemed like an authoritative super-series, but thought the production left much be be desired in the casting of actors who played some of the great names in American history. For example, the guy they picked to portray the hulking and menacing Joe Louis — a heavyweight champion whose famous visage remains clear to millions around the world — looked more like Richard Pryor on his worst day. I mean, the showbiz Louis couldn’t have weighed more than 135 pounds and threw punches like a really angry Ellen Degeneres. (At least he was black, they got that much right.)
I took particular umbrage to the Louis miscasting because of the Brown Bomber’s importance to local sports lore, and because I met Louis once and he did me a terrific — if odd — personal favor.
In 1971 I did the dumb thing that millions of young — and dumb — young Americans do when they have time and money on their hands. I flew to Las Vegas for a weekend. A friend and I figured we couldn’t AVOID having a good time going to Las Vegas for a wild weekend. (Fact is, to me anyway, going to Vegas on a bender is about as much fun as a typical New Year’s Eve outing. You walk around thinking you’re supposed to be having a great time, but it seems to fall outside your reach; you have the constant feeling you ought to be somewhere else.) One of the reasons we headed to Vegas was to catch Elvis Presley’s much-heralded set of comeback concerts at the International Hotel. I was a longtime fan, and figured ‘what could be cooler than catching Elvis in Vegas?’
One problem: On the Saturday night we confidently headed to the International to see Presley, we got out of a cab to find a block of hopeful concert-goers circling entirely around the building. Whoops. Elvis in ’71 still had that SRO appeal. Seeing that line let the air out of our anticipation, until my buddy had a great idea. He ran to a phone and made a call. Within minutes we were back in a cab, and headed to the famed Caesar’s Palace across the Strip.
We raced through Caesar’s until we saw the legend we were seeking. There was the great Joe Louis, dressed in what looked like casual golf clothing, baseball-type hat and all, working the floor in his well-known capacity as a ‘greeter’ at Caesar’s. He was nearly 60 then, and functioning in a capacity well beneath his legendary worldwide status … but it was Joe LOUIS. I was impressed. My buddy went right up to him, and told our tale of woe — we were two dumb Detroit guys doing Vegas for a couple days, and we had hoped to see Elvis, but that dream seemed dashed. Wasn’t there anything that he, as a fellow Detroiter, could do for us?
We followed Mr. Louis to a Caesar’s house phone. He picked it up, asked for the International Hotel, and simply said, as best I can recall, “Bernie, it’s Joe, I got two guys here who need to Presley tonight. Okay.” He then turned to us, and said we should get back to the International, ask for Bernie, and we’d be taken care of. Simple as that. We thanked Joe Louis, ran out of Caesar’s, and upon arriving back at Elvis Central had the aforementioned Bernie hand us off to a waiter who deposited us in a beautiful large elevated booth, big enough for six and centrally located, located only about 75 feet from the stage.
And that was how I saw Elvis Presley in 1971 (and yes he was thin in those days) — thanks to the kindly intercession of one of the biggest names in American sports history, and arguably the greatest heavyweight of all time. I mean, it sounds like bragging, right? Or an exaggeration. But truth is truth, and that’s the story of Joe Louis … Elvis Presley … and me. Pretty dang cool.
In referencing an old joke — Of everybody involved in that small tale, I’M the only guy I never heard of…..