Betty Boop was born in 1930, a sultry little brunette with a fetching, already grown-up figure and an oversized, almost heart-shaped face framed by the spit curls so fashionable in the day. She was created as the leading lady of cartoons shown in movie theaters and then starred for decades in newspaper comic strips. I was born only five years later, so naturally Daddy often called me Betty Boop although, at the time, we had little in common.
Then an artist put a picture of a smitten, almost-swooning Boop into a photo of a baby-faced Elvis Presley at one of his early performances, and we were sisters! A big print of the artwork, discovered this year by a friend at a cruise-ship auction, hangs on our kitchen wall.
But there’s another story behind the Boop-Presley-Bettye connection, and I got to thinking about that this week, because The King of Rock and Roll would have been 77 — six months older than I — on Sunday, Jan. 8, if not for his tragic death at 43.
Elvis had already become nationally famous by 1957 — had appeared on Ed Sullivan’s television show for which cameramen were supposedly barred from shooting images of him below the waist. That was the year several of my roommates and I — at least three of us were his age, 22 — made a road trip to the state fair in Tupelo, Miss. I had talked the editor of the newspaper I worked for in Jackson into letting me cover his appearance there on a Friday night; I was to return to write a story for the Saturday edition of the paper.
When we got to the fairgrounds after the long drive, my friends went to claim their seats for the performance and I made my way to the big press tent. Reporters and photographers from the BIG TIME — national news and entertainment papers and magazines — were assembled outside to wait for the Presley limousine, and right then I began to feel inadequate.
I was carrying one of those old-fashioned press cameras that was about the size of a shoebox if it were square, and had a flash attachment that seemed to stick up about 2 feet. I was hardly comfortable with it, and just as the limo pulled up a kindly but amused fellow reporter pointed out that I was unlikely to get any photos because it had no film pack in it.
As I scrambled to insert the film and tried to look more calmly professional, HE got out of the car — and so did a blonde, his girlfriend of the moment. Right there any dreams I’d had of our striking sparks died. I marched inside the tent with the others and took up a station leaning against one of the tent posts.
I cannot tell you what was asked, what was said, although I later produced a story to prove that somebody asked and said something. The news conference progressed like a White House conference, with Elvis pausing only once to indicate me and say, “Now that girl there, she looks —-” before he was interrupted. I will never know what he was going to say; perhaps we could, after all, have been.
After the press was done, I walked up to him and got an autograph for my sister, who was 15.
“Are you sure you want this for your little sister,” he said, smiling and winking, and like Boop, I almost swooned. She would have had a witty comeback; he would remember it for the 21 years left to him. He was devastatingly handsome and incredibly polite, and I was never to fall in love like that with any of the other celebrities I interviewed over the years.
The King’s actual performance outside the press tent went by in a blur for me, but it was magical, no hitches, superior to anything he had done on Ed Sullivan’s show because it was live and the crowd of mostly female fans were out of their heads. Mississippi national guardsmen standing on the ground across the front of the stage linked arms to prevent them from trying to crawl up on it.
While my roommates bedded down in a motel along the way home, I rode back to Jackson on a Trailways bus that night, holding my big Speed Graphic camera uncomfortably in my lap and trying to sleep. (As if!) In the early morning I walked from the bus terminal to the paper and wrote my story for the state edition while the woman who developed photos tried to coax prints from my overexposed negatives.
I’ve always meant to call the paper and get a copy of that story; perhaps now I will. Copies of the pictures I gave to my roommates, not keeping any for myself. Years later, one of them found hers in her attic and sent me a print from that.
My grandchildren spent their early years listening to Elvis CDs in my car; today they prefer the rock music they buy for their I-phones.
Me, I still love “Heartbreak Hotel” and “Blue Suede Shoes” and “Do You Miss Me Tonight?” Oh, I do wish he had made it to 77.
Bettye Anding is a former editor of The Times Picayune Living section, for which she wrote Silver Threads until her retirement. Email her at firstname.lastname@example.org.