In 1960 Paramount Pictures released the musical comedy ‘G.I. Blues’ starring Elvis Presley and Juliet Prowse. Elvis played a tank crew soldier in West Germany who forms a band and pursues a nightclub dancer played by Juliet Prowse. Some scenes were shot in Germany but most of the picture was filmed at Paramount studios in Hollywood.
In real life Elvis served in the U.S. Army from March 1958 to March 1960 with the 3rd Armoured Division in Friedberg, West Germany. Elvis was worried about the career break but returned home a bigger star thanks to Colonel Parker and his RCA producer continuing to issue records when he was overseas. Elvis’ military service also increased his fanbase amongst an older audience who in the 1950’s had seen him as a menace to society.
THE TWO KINGS
The King of Thailand Bhumibol Adulyadej was 32 years old when he set off on a seven-month world tour to 15 countries with his wife Queen Sirikit. First stop was Honolulu including a visit to the Pearl Harbor war memorial followed by a week in California. The itinerary included a family trip to Disneyland, meeting with Walt Disney, a tour of Paramount studios and photos with Elvis on the set of G.I. Blues. Elvis was presented with a silver combination cigarette lighter and case inscribed; ‘King Bhumibol Adulyadej – To the King of Rock ‘n’ Roll’. Although the Thai King enjoyed Elvis’ style of popular music he was in fact a King of Jazz.
Also known as Rama IX, he was born in the United States when his father was at Harvard and after school in Bangkok continued his studies in Switzerland. One of the King’s great passions was music and he became an accomplished saxophone, clarinet, trumpet, guitar and piano player. He wrote his own jazz compositions starting with ‘Candlelight Blues’, formed a jazz band on return to Thailand and peformed with Benny Goodman. At the time of his death in 2016 he was the second longest reigning monarch of all time and one of the most revered in his country’s history.
On arrival at Bangkok airport first time visitors are sure to notice the amount of royal portraits on display and signs proclaiming ‘Long Live the King’ in Thai and English. Towns and cities throughout Thailand also display the national flag alongside photos and paintings of the King and Queen. Royal images bring good fortune and those of King Mongkut (Rama IV) and King Chulalongkorn (Rama V) who were associated with the modernization of Thailand are also on display. Formal images are placed side by side but less formal images such as King Bhumibol Adulyadej playing with his pet dog are popular. A poorly colourised picture of the two Kings at Paramount studios is hung on the wall in many bars, restaurants, coffee shops and guesthouses across the country as well as Thai communities worlwide. Seen for the first time it is easy to spot when travelling around Thailand.
Thanks to royal patronage Thailand has a lively jazz scene including the Bangkok and Hua Hin Jazz Festivals founded in 2003. In Bangkok, The Saxophone, a jazz and blues pub was opened in 1987 named after the King’s favourite instrument. Elvis impersonators have been making a living since the King began his career and the more professional prefer to be called Elvis tribute artists. The famous story that Elvis himself entered a lookalike contest in Memphis singing ‘Unchained Melody’ and came third is probably a myth although some said the judge recognised him and played along. In Thailand Elvis impersonators attract audiences not only to enjoy the music but also to commemorate a famous meeting of two kings.
THE QUEEN OF THE NAGAS
Serpent like statues slithering along the contours of the entrance steps stand guard outside Buddhist temples across South East Asia. These mythical half human, half cobra like creatures are the Naga who inhabit the Mekong river, protect the gods and deter bad spirits. Every year the Naga fireball festival takes place at the end of Buddhist Lent in late October or early November on the Nong Khai riverfront. The highlight of this festival is when glowing, red fireballs shoot skywards from the river which local people believe is the breath of a giant serpent living in the depths. Scientists suggest it is a natural phenomenon caused by the release of methane rich swamp gas or tracer rounds fired by Laotian soldiers across the river. Although fierce in appearance the Naga is revered as a protector and only malevolent to humans if crossed. The Thai people pray and give offerings to many spirits and gods hoping for good fortune and prosperity in their homes and businesses. Spirit houses are carefully sited outside whilst inside images of the royal family are prominently displayed alongside their own ancestors, buddha statues, maybe a lucky waving cat or other statues and images meaningful to the home owners.
The famous Queen of the Nagas photo like the two Kings photo is another popular picture seen in bars, restaurants, guest houses, markets and homes around Thailand. The English caption on the photo reads: ‘Queen of Nagas seized by American Army at Mekhong River, Laos Military Base on June 27, with length of 7.80 meters’.
During the Vietnam war the United States Air Force (USAF) operated from eight airbases in Thailand whilst in neighbouring Laos a more secretive war was carried out by special forces troops and CIA operatives. In 1973 the Paris Peace Accords were signed initiating a withdrawal of the United States military from South Vietnam and on 30th June the last American to be conscripted into the armed forces began his training. Udon Thani not far from Nong Khai and the Mekong river was the closest U.S. base to Laos.
The Queen of the Nagas photo is real with a hoax explanation. Rumours spread that the men holding the fish died after eating its flesh and the plane carrying them and the fish back to the USA crashed. Others saw it as an omen and symbolic of defeat in the Vietnam war after killing of the Naga Queen who inhabited the river. The truth is that the picture is real and was taken on September 19th 1996 at the Naval Special Warfare Centre at Coronado in California. The body of a giant oarfish 23 feet long and weighing 300lbs was found dead on the beach by Navy SEALs out running. The picture was printed in the US Navy publication ‘All Hands’ in 1997. It was examined by marine biologists from the Scripps Institute of Oceanography who concluded from the injuries that it had been hit by a propeller.
Giant oarfish are distributed around the world in temperate and tropical waters growing to great lengths. They sometimes wash up dead or dying onto shores also being reported in Japan and North East England. Sometime after 1997 the photo was doctored and a fake caption added. It may have been intended to stir up anti-American feeling but soon gained popularity and spread across Thailand often sharing wall space in bars and guesthouses with the two Kings.