White River Water Carnival


Batesville's Stadium  c 1939
Photo courtesy Arkansas Memory Website

The Young Business Menís Association in Batesville decided to build this stadium-wharf after onlookers of the boat races and various water activities complained about the grassy conditions and poison ivy. The stadium, believed to be the only one of itís type at the time, cost nearly $16,000 and was completed in time for the second annual White River Water Carnival (Arena) in 1939.


1955 White River Water Carnival Catalog
courtesy Heritage Auction

Saturday August 6, 1955 
River Stadium, Batesville, Arkansas 

Elvis' appearance at this "12th Annual White River Carnival" elicits an indignant letter from local promoter Ed Lyon, who writes to the Colonel that Elvis was guilty of unprofessional behavior, told off--color jokes, and "stormed off stage" after singing just four songs, thereby "ruin[ing]" the show. Lyon demands an "adjustment," and the Colonel swiftly complies with a refund of $50, writing Bob Neal a scathing letter on August 22 about the necessity of establishing professional standards. Elvis is "young, inexperienced, and it takes a lot more than a couple of hot records in a certain territory to become a big--name artist," the Colonel lectures Neal, whom he blames both implicitly and explicitly for this foul--up in the education of a young artist.*


promo photo of Elvis, Scotty and Bill Black inside catalog
courtesy Heritage Auction

550806batesvillear02bi5.jpg (181574 bytes)It looks so funny to see "Batesville" typed on that "scathing" letter mentioned by Guralnick and Jorgensen and shown in that "Day-By-Day" book.   My mother was at that Batesville performance, along with an aunt that has since passed away. Elvis was here on the second night of the carnival before the "Queen White River" beauty revue. He was contracted at $100 for two sets, but did not perform the second according to local accounts. That probably accounted for the $50 refund mentioned in the book.

The "River Stadium" was actually a poured concrete set of bleachers down on a small "slough" of the White River in Batesville. The "stadium" is still there but is no longer used. At the time of Elvis' appearance, the "stage" was actually a barge that was tethered to the bleachers on two ends and had a pair of catwalks for access.  After seeing the image of the stadium in 1939 my Mom said that image matched the layout of the stadium in 1955 at the time Elvis played at the Water Carnival. She had forgotten about the band area in the center section; she told me that ministers used to place their pulpits there for Easter Sunday sunrise services held yearly at the location.

Mom and I talked about this earlier tonight to make sure I had the "facts" straight.... or as straight as she can recall them. My aunt and a friend of hers talked with Elvis before his short performance.... he sitting on the hood of a pink Cadillac and them both perched on the front bumper. Elvis was very inquisitive about the local area; he asked them both about themselves, the local hangouts, the history of the Water Carnival, local jobs, etc. Looking back now, this was probably pretty much "standard operating procedure" for every little town he visited, but they were impressed by his interest and his down-to-earth nature. My aunt also commented to my Mom later before Elvis came on that they had met "the entertainer" and he had the "prettiest eyes I've ever seen in my life....". As she was trying to get my mother's group to come back up with her and meet him too, Elvis bounded onto the stage in front of them all.


Photo courtesy Frankie Rider, II

I took my mother back there this morning; it was her first visit back to the site since the early 1960s. The stadium was originally built the Works Progress Administration (WPA).  In reference to the picture, she told me that Elvis' pink Cadillac was parked right under this light pole pictured at the top of the bleachers. The street shown was then only barely two car lengths wide and concessions covered the far side for several yards. Her seat was directly down the row of steps from the front of this same pole; she sat about seven or eight rows up from the stage in the center.

Mom said he came on stage hollering, grabbed the mike, and hit his knees sliding across the front of the stage; they all thought he was going off into the river. He was wearing a white Western-style jacket, a white Western shirt with red piping and a bolo tie, and a pair of red pants with a red stripe. The stylish outfit was finished off with white socks and shoes.

She recalls hearing only four songs: "Good Rockin' Tonight", "That's All Right", "Blue Moon Of Kentucky", and "Baby, Let's Play House".... plus after each song she said Elvis claimed he was going to do "I Don't Care (If The Sun Don't Shine)" next, but he never actually sang it. Their group of three got up and left after "GRT" and returned to the carnival across the street; she said her and her friends all thought Elvis was crazy or drunk.... or maybe both. They'd never seen somebody dressed so odd trying to sing with their hair all down in their face.... in fact, she called it kind of "scary". I'm sure our little town was wondering "what the Hell...?"

She's not certain of the middle song order, except the last one she remembers hearing that night while riding the Ferris Wheel was "Baby, Let's Play House". She also remembers hearing people in town talking later of trying to get Elvis to return for another performance at the Carnival, but was told he "wouldn't come back to Batesville, Arkansas for anything...."   The last is pure speculation and probably not even factual.... just rumors around town at the time.

Mom says she remembers no boos or heckling, but a lot of silence and a tiny smattering of no doubt exceedingly polite applause. I imagine that Elvis was probably ready to hit the road ASAP after such a poor reception.

My aunt's friend had an old Kodak camera (my Mom described it as like an old "Brownie" camera.... like an Instamatic, maybe?) and took some shots but all 4 sides of her flash bulb malfunctioned! So, no photos from us on this one.


Photo courtesy Frankie Rider, II

Everything is still as it was when I was last there and basically as it was when Elvis was there too, but it is slowly getting squeezed out by a local sand and gravel company. You can see some of the company's equipment in some of these shots. To my knowledge, the stadium hasn't been used for anything since the late 1980s.


Photo courtesy Frankie Rider, II

The bleachers are entirely poured concrete in 18 separate levels from the top down to the river's edge. The stadium consists of four sections, each one about 50 feet wide. I didn't recall it being so long from end-to-end. IIRC, the capacity was around 3,000 people fully packed. The river slough the stadium was built next to is obvious in this shot; the actual White River can be seen just behind it over that little ridge of land and trees.


Aerial Photo courtesy Microsoft


Photo courtesy Frankie Rider, II

The field across the street my Mom mentioned is now this: one of our local poultry processing plants. This is where the rides and amusements were set up for the old Water Carnival festivities each year back then.


Photo courtesy Frankie Rider, II

This view is taken looking out from the stage center back towards the west bleachers.... you get some idea of the large scale of the place here in this image.


Photo courtesy Frankie Rider, II

This shot is taken at the river level. My mother told me the concrete stage you see in this shot was not there when Elvis appeared; it was built in later years. The lighting system dates from the 1950s.... not sure on the exact year, but it would have been "period correct" for when Elvis was here. In 1955 the entire length of the bleachers extended all the way down to the flat sidewalk/walkway you see next to the river. 


Photo courtesy Frankie Rider, II

The barge that functioned as the stage was tethered right next to this drop-down dock edge.... some remnants of that capability still remain as well. Cut off with what looked like a chainsaw, but still there in the concrete....  Mom recalls the barge being moored with two large ropes like those seen on sailing vessels and the catwalks connected with the walkway seen in the photo.

I really enjoyed going back to this place after such a long time away. It was nice to just go and sit there.... and just think about what took place so many years ago.... and be thankful that somebody in my family was there to see it and take it all in, even if she was across the street most of the time.


Photo courtesy Frankie Rider, II

But one star WAS there today.... with me: My little girl just had to go onstage after I told her that Elvis was once on that very stage a long time ago (OK, technically it was a little white one, but she'll never know ).... and naturally she had to strike one of her best rock-star poses. BTW, she was singing "That's All Right, Mama" too when I snapped this photo! 

She was so upset because she didn't have her guitar with us, though, that she made me promise to take her back again this weekend.... 

Frankie Rider, II
Arkansas USA

page added April 3, 2008

This was originally posted on the FECC by member Frankie Rider II and with his permission we thought this would be a nice addition here on the site in the Venues section.

Batesville newspaper article courtesy Brian Petersen

* excerpt from "Elvis Day by Day" by Peter Guralnick and Ernst Jorgansen


Newport, AR

For those of you familiar with the Jorgensen/Guralnick "Day-By-Day" book, all through 1954 and 1955 there are many Arkansas communities listed as show sites for Elvis and his crew. One that shows up fairly regularly among the Arkansas dates is this particular establishment:


Photo courtesy Frankie Rider, II

This is the Silver Moon Club in Newport, Arkansas. Newport is about 25 miles from where I live.  Unfortunately, this is not the same building where Elvis performed many times in the early days. It is here:


Photo courtesy Frankie Rider, II

Or at least the remnants of it are. According to locals, the original club was demolished when US Highway 67 was widened many years ago. But the entire outer dimensions and much of the period tile flooring are still readily discernible on the concrete foundation. This really surprised me to find this still in place, but a trip to the Chamber of Commerce quickly told me that the locals are very proud of what is left there. In fact, there is a push to have that entire stretch of Highway 67 to the Missouri state line designated as a landmark and officially named "The Rock-N-Roll Highway".


Photo courtesy Frankie Rider, II

Here's some of the detail that is still visible from one of the restrooms in what was the rear corner of the structure. The lavatory drain and water inlets can clearly be seen in the bottom of the photo, and the floor drain was still under the dirt you can see in the center of the tile. Is that not some beautiful work? For it to still be in that kind of shape after all these years out in the open is amazing.


Photo courtesy Frankie Rider, II

More of the beautiful tile work along the north side of the old structure. This looks like it may have been separated by a wall at some point. The condition of the tile where it was still together was really nice.


Photo courtesy Frankie Rider, II

This appears to be the remnants of the dance floor/stage. The wooden runners in the poured concrete are still visible in many places. This is the only part of the old slab floor that had been visibly covered with wood. If anyone else knows anything different, please add your views.


Photo courtesy Frankie Rider, II

Not sure on this.... it appeared to have been some kind of painted walkway at some point. What for, I have no idea.


Photo courtesy Frankie Rider, II

The remnants of the 1950s-era Silver Moon Club sign. There was a large metal silver-painted crescent moon that hung on this post by the highway. No lettering or nameplate.... just the metal sign.


Photo courtesy Frankie Rider, II

This is the original U.S. Armory where Elvis performed on the night of March 2, 1955. Currently the structure is serving as the Jackson County Recycling Center, so I didn't try to gain entry. You could easily see the vast empty hall-like interior from the street through the open bay doors. But the building still retains its original appearance, which predates Elvis' visit by several years.



Porky's Rooftop Club (KNBY on right)
Photo courtesy Frankie Rider, II

The other show location on that same day proved to be the most elusive to find. Also on March 2, Elvis played a 10 PM set at the famous Porky's Rooftop Club.  Luckily, a worker at the Chamber of Commerce there was familiar with it and directed me to the local Depot Diner. The owner there purportedly had the only photo of the building that anyone in Newport that I talked with had ever seen. I went down to the diner, introduced myself to the hostess, and told her of my somewhat unique quest. She proceeded to take me over to one wall where, lo and behold, there was a B&W photo of the club hanging on the wall. Interestingly enough, they had rescued the photo from a box of trash that the C of C had put on the curb for pickup many years earlier!  But here is the location, circa 2008:


where Porky's Rooftop Club used to be (KNBY on right)
Photo courtesy Frankie Rider, II

As you can see, the radio station is the exact same building with slightly different signage.


Photo courtesy Frankie Rider, II

The drive-in/dance club stood between the drainage ditch in the foreground and the guide wires for the old radio station's tower that are seen in the background. A unique place, it featured a full drive-in/restaurant on the lower ground level and a full dance floor and live music stage on the roof. Most all of the famous 1950s "country" and "rockabilly" stars played there. The KNBY/KOKR radio station used to be the only one in our surrounding area; my Mom recalls listening to Elvis 1950s sides on it regularly.


Photo courtesy Frankie Rider, II

It is believed that this is the remnant of the illuminated roadside sign for the club along US 67.

I met some nice folks today knowledgeable about the musical boom in our parts back then. I left some numbers with folks, so maybe some of these contacts will yield still even more info about those "glory" years. I've looked here online for any photos of the two clubs but have not found a single image so far. I was told at the Chamber of Commerce that most all of the old clubs that Elvis played along US 67 are still there.... Bob King's in Swifton, AR, and others as well. So even more Elvis spelunking may be in order in the future.... who knows?

Frankie Rider, II 
Arkansas USA 

 

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