HONOLULU — Fifty years ago, Elvis Presley helped raise money and directed much-needed attention to the stalled efforts to build the USS Arizona Memorial. The King is now being remembered for his contributions as the historic sites at Pearl Harbor enter a new era.
Pacific Historic Parks, in partnership with Elvis Presley Enterprises Inc., will start selling T-shirts on Friday for $24.95 to commemorate the iconic crooner's historic benefit concert at Pearl Harbor's Bloch Arena on March 25, 1961. Proceeds will support the educational programs at the USS Arizona Memorial and the new $56 million Pearl Harbor Visitor Center.
The black T-shirt features an image of the original concert billboard with Presley standing in his gold lame suit and a hangtag replica of the concert ticket. The shirts will be available at the visitor center's bookstore or online at www.PacificHistoricParks.org through the end of the year.
"For us, recognizing this benefit concert is a way of making the public aware of the cultural history of the memorial," said Daniel Martinez, Pearl Harbor historian for the National Park Service's World War II Valor in the Pacific National Monument.
Congress in the late 1950s authorized the construction of the memorial to honor the crewmembers entombed when the USS Arizona was sunk during an aerial attack by the Japanese that plunged the United States into World War II. The Pacific War Memorial Commission was tasked with raising $500,000 to build the USS Arizona Memorial.
Ralph Edwards, host of the hit TV series, "This is Your Life," kicked off the public fundraising efforts on his Dec. 3, 1958 show when he featured Arizona crewmember and Medal of Honor recipient Samuel Fuqua. More than $95,000 was raised.
But contributions and attention dwindled over the next couple years, with less than half of the $500,000 raised. Presley's manager, Colonel Tom Parker, read about the stalled efforts in the Los Angeles Examiner.
Presley, who was already scheduled to be in the islands to film "Blue Hawaii," agreed to help by performing a benefit concert. It was his last live stage performance for more than eight years.
"Both of these celebrities, one that kicked it off and one that came to its aid two years later, are important," Martinez said. "I think this is the beginning of the influence of celebrities in national campaigns of fundraising in our country. ... It wasn't just a concert. It was an event that had national attention and media coverage."
On March 25, 1961, the 26-year-old Presley took the stage to an arena packed with 4,000 frenzied, screaming fans who paid anywhere from $3 to $100 a ticket.
Presley performed 15 songs that night, including "Heartbreak Hotel," "All Shook Up," "I Got A Woman," "I Need Your Love Tonight," "Don't Be Cruel," "Are You Lonesome Tonight," and "Swing Down Sweet Chariot." He ended the show with a rousing performance of "Hound Dog," which included a slide across the stage on his knees.
The concert raised about $54,000, and public and private donations poured in following the show, which received heavy publicity across the country. Hawaii's then-freshman Sen. Daniel Inouye, who today is the most senior member of the Senate, helped secure the final $150,000 to complete the construction during the fall.
"Mr. Presley's role is significant because it brought renewed interest in finishing the memorial and undoubtedly had an influence on the citizens of the United States and our government," Martinez said.
The USS Arizona Memorial was dedicated the following year on Memorial Day — May 30, 1962. The gleaming, white, open-air structure straddles the Arizona's sunken hull, where 1,177 lives were lost. In all, some 2,400 sailors, Marines and soldiers were killed in the attack on Dec. 7, 1941.
"This is one of many examples we have of Elvis' desire to use his talent to help and honor others," Jack Soden, president and CEO of Elvis Presley Enterprises said in a statement. "Especially considering his own military service, we're certain this one was especially significant to Elvis."
Today, the USS Arizona Memorial, a top visitor attraction in Hawaii, is managed by the National Park Service and includes the newly rebuilt Pearl Harbor Visitor Center.