Time for another edition of “Allison in Madison,” and this entry will be one part City of Madison highlight, one part dive into the deep recessions of my memory bank. I’ll start with a little teaser question for you: How would you think the site pictured below would connect to one the greatest, most popular, and legendary entertainers of all time? (No spoilers from the Madison audience, please!)
I’ll get into the hows and whys later, but I’ll start by telling you upfront who the entertainer in question is: Elvis Presley. When Elvis hit the big time in the mid-1950s, it was with an energetic, provocative stage presence and a combination of upbeat country, rhythm and blues into a new form of popular music — rock and roll — that [A] drove the kids and teens of the time into a wild frenzy (much more of a frenzy than what the prefab pop stars of today would generate), and [B] drove the older generations into having fits when they realized that his music and performance styles were not the same as the tried-and-true entertainment they enjoyed for decades. Simply put, Elvis helped usher in a changing of the guard in popular music as well as culture: Older, more conservative styles and morals were on their way out; in its place was a new “youth culture” with its own beliefs, opinions, and political and cultural stances; combine that with the growing popularity of television and the burgeoning Civil Rights Movement and it really made the grownups’ heads spin. They needn’t have worried, though, for Elvis always seemed, to me at least, to be one who, despite breaking away from his elders stylistically, still had true respect for them. (“That’s all right now mama” indeed.)
My mother was a pre-teen when Elvis first hit it big, and I recall her record collection having quite a few Elvis albums she amassed during her teenage years (early half of the 1960s). Mom never saw him perform in person, she was still on a little bit of an Elvis kick by the mid-1970s, turning up the volume whenever a song of his (old or new) played on the radio or watching any of his films on TV whenever one was broadcast. Even as an 8-year-old, I had a firm understanding of how Mom still loved Elvis.
Which brings me to a certain afternoon 39 years ago last week: Tuesday, August 16, 1977. Mom was still at work that afternoon in her dental assistant job, and my sister and I were being babysat by a niece of our landlady. I’d say it was sometime around 4:30PM when a “TV2 News Bulletin” title card cut in during a rerun of Bewitched. The voiceover from the news anchor cut to the quick: “Elvis Presley is dead.” Our babysitter and I just turned to each other, mouths agape in shock, when we heard those words coming out of the TV set. We, and my sister who was in the other room, knew how big an influence Elvis, as an entertainer and as a person, still had on the American psyche — and adults like my mom. We figured Mom would be really saddened when she got home after 6 o’clock that evening and we told her the news. But I don’t recall her crying over the news, only that she appeared somewhat numb about it. I want to think that maybe she had a cry or two when hearing the news on the car radio on her way home.
Needless to say, there was a lot more news about Elvis’ death that night on TV. Mind you, it wasn’t a wall-to-wall, “cancel every other show so we can deliver countless retrospectives” attitude like it was when, say, Michael Jackson died a few years ago. That’s not to say the 3 major TV news networks ignored the news. On the contrary, actually; they had to cover it because they were the only major TV news sources back then (there was no such thing as the internet, social media, or all-news cable channels back then). Some of you older generations reading this (i.e. my age and older) may recall how the networks’ newscasts — at a time when people regularly turned to them for the big events of the day — handled the news of Elvis’ death. ABC and NBC led off their newscasts with Elvis and also aired full-length retrospectives about his life and career late that night (I remember seeing some of ABC’s special; I think Geraldo Rivera hosted it). CBS did not, however, instead leading off their evening newscast, by executive decision, with a story on the Panama Canal, pushing Elvis to a shorter story later in the newscast. I recall this vividly, for we, after watching Channel 2 break into Bewitched with the news, left the TV on Channel 2 (and for good reason: they had Gilligan’s Island on next!) and its airing of CBS’ newscast that evening. I don’t even need to read a story about CBS’ decision here to know how it went down.
Mom was still rather numb, or at least not showing her sadness, the next day, a day off from work. She and our landlady were still talking not so much about the situation of Elvis’ death but more about their memories of listening to Elvis’ music way back in the day. I say “way back in the day” for I recall seeing a montage of Elvis through the years that ended with a very recent headshot of Elvis in concert. “Boy, Mom,” I said, comparing his then-and-now shots, “he looks so… different.” “Yep,” Mom said, “he sure did.” She said it with a knowing, melancholic tone in her voice, for she was fully aware that the Elvis that had just left the world — one with a white jumpsuit, bushy sideburns, and, yes, a paunchy (well, paunchy for 1977) midsection — was a far cry, at least visually, from the Elvis she knew and loved growing up. Being only 8 years old at the time, it never occurred to me she and so many others her age may have felt the same way we would feel when Michael Jackson died: A part of her childhood and teen years that she adored and cherished was gone, suddenly and without warning. Sometimes you think that those you idolize will live forever.
Needless to say, Elvis Presley’s death and memory triggered a lot of emotion and fondness in those who enjoyed is music, then and now. Which brings me back to that photo, and that question about how Elvis Presley ties into the location in question. Here it is again:
This is a spot right next to one of the busiest intersections on Madison’s east side, East Washington Avenue and Stoughton Road (seriously, it’s a very busy crossing). And you’re probably saying right now, “Gee, Allison, it’s just a used car lot.” Well, it is indeed a used car lot. But look at what’s in the foreground. Yeah, it’s a dead tree, and one wishes they would plant a new one there. For look closer at what’s at the base.
Yeah, it is indeed a marker of some sort, isn’t it? And what appears to be the visage of a certain famous rock & roll star is on it. Let’s get closer, shall we?
Wow, this marker sure hasn’t had a fine time withstanding the harsh weather elements we get every winter in Madison. Heck, this isn’t even the original marker. But whatever the condition, it’s there to preserve the memory of an interesting moment in Elvis Presley’s final days. I will let the text of that marker, as weathered as it may be, do the talking for a little bit:
Elvis Presley Fight Scene
“On this site, the corner of Hwy 51 [Stoughton Road] and E. Washington Avenue around 1 am, on June 24th, 1977, Elvis Presley was riding in the 2nd of two limousines which had stopped for a red light. He was coming from a concert in Des Moines and had just arrived in Madison. Elvis noticed a young teen on the ground being beaten by two other youths here at the former Skyland Service Station. Elvis jumped out of his limo and moved quickly to the fight scene. They admitted later that they knew it was the legendary Elvis Presley who was standing in front of them in his classic karate stance saying ‘I’ll take you on.’ After a few classic karate moves by Elvis, the youths recognized him, stood and shook hands and promised to stop fighting. Elvis asked ‘Is everything settled now?’ Elvis was on his way to the Sheraton and his last Madison appearance. He died 52 days later, on August 16, 1977.”
Strange story, isn’t it? Some of you may think it’s too good to be true. Indeed, when I first heard of the tale of Elvis breaking up a fight in Madison sometime after I moved down here, I thought it was nothing more than an old urban legend; you know, a tale as “out there” as, say, alligator-sized rats living in New York City’s sewer system or, heck, even Elvis still alive and working incognito at some Burger King somewhere. But the story of the fight is true! And it’s a story noteworthy enough to have a plaque commemorating the event dedicated on the site, which was dedicated with a ceremony (complete with a reenactment and, yes, at least one Elvis impersonator) in August 2007, the 30th anniversary of Elvis’ death. And the facts are just as they were described on the plaque: Elvis came to Madison for a tour stop; his limo was stopped at a red light; he got out of his limo when he saw what appeared to be a fight, he showed off some karate moves; the offenders made peace, and that was it.
Still a tall tale, you say? Well, there are a couple of articles about the event at this link. You’re still not believing it after that? Well, there there was at least one neutral party witness to the event (a police detective), who recounted the particulars (perhaps in tall tale fashion) here and here, as well as the driver of Elvis’ limo, who recounted his story here.
And if you’re still doubting the story’s veracity (still?!), well, there is the first-person account of the intended victim of the fight Elvis broke up. The man is Keith Lowry, Jr., who was 17 years old and a high school junior at the time of the incident and gave some more particulars in this article: His father owned the Skyland Service Station, which was torn down some time before the marker’s 2007 dedication to make way for the used car dealership. One of the two older kids he had to fight off was a former station employee who had just been fired. Luckily for him, Elvis stepped out of his limo and onto the scene to challenge the kids and make peace. Keith Lowry, Jr. would move to Texas later on and own a service station just like his father once did; he came back to Madison for the 2007 marker dedication, even taking part in the reenactment.
So, you’re probably saying now, why would a marker noting a rather minor moment in the broad, memorable life of Elvis Presley be constructed? It was just a fight being broken up, not the site of his final concert or anything. Well, perhaps part of the reason was that the auto dealership who occupied the site at the time of the marker’s erection could drum up business. Or perhaps it was their way of acknowledging a little bit of weird-but-true Elvis history right here in Madison. That’s what the owner of the dealership, then known as Suburban Wheels of Madison, admitted before the marker dedication; she noted that many folks came in to tell her the story. And with that, the dealership erected the marker. It’s that dealership’s logo that adorned the original version of the marker, which can be seen here.
The dealership was sold a few years ago (it’s now one of the Schoepp Motors dealerships here in Madison), with the new owner removing that old logo and rearranging the marker to what is shown above. As you can tell from the pictures, the marker has not survived Madison’s winters very well, and I wonder if the current owners have considered repairing the marker or replacing it with a new one. Whatever the case, it’s now assured that one of the strangest occurrences in both the City of Madison and the life of one of the greatest entertainers to ever perform will never be forgotten.