By Gary White
Published: Friday, April 18, 2014
August 6, 1956 was the day Lakeland got all shook up, if you'll pardon the grammar.
Perhaps the most noteworthy musical event in Polk County history occurred that day when 21-year-old Elvis Presley played three shows at the Polk Theatre. The performances created indelible memories for those who paid the $1.50 ticket cost and stood in line to see Kid Dynamite just seven months after he first topped the charts with his single, "Heartbreak Hotel."
Though nearly 58 years have passed since then, the president of the Polk Theatre and two local filmmakers know that many memories of that day remain vivid. They want to record those memories in a documentary.
The trio is inviting all who have stories to share about Elvis' appearance in Lakeland to attend an open house at the Polk Theatre on Tuesday at 6 p.m. The event is a preliminary meeting to find interview subjects for the planned documentary.
The documentary is the brainchild of Leslie Sikora, president and CEO of the Polk Theatre, and the film-production team of Shane Lawlor and Spencer Rubel. Lawlor and Rubel produced a musical gathering, the British Invasion, last summer at the theater, an 86-year-old structure listed on the National Register of Historic Places.
After that event, Sikora said the three talked about what their next project might be, and the discussion turned to Elvis Presley. At first they talked of staging a cabaret show similar to the British Invasion tribute, but Sikora said she would prefer to create something more lasting.
"So Shane came up with the brilliant idea of interviewing these people and putting them on film to last forever before we don't have the luxury of interviewing these people," Sikora said.
Lawlor toured as a professional musician for years, leading such bands as Electric Touch and sharing stages with the likes of Bon Jovi and Foo Fighters. Two years ago, the native of England moved to Lakeland, where his wife, Laura Manning-Lawlor, had grown up. The couple has a young son. Lawlor, 36, said his wife told him about Presley's celebrated appearance in Lakeland before the couple had even settled here. He said he was skeptical until Laura took him to the Polk Theatre, an opulent movie palace restored in the late 1990s after falling into disrepair. As he talked to Lakeland residents, Lawlor came to appreciate the exalted status Presley's performances at the Polk Theatre holds in the local consciousness. Rubel, 26, is a graduate of Full Sail University, an entertainment arts institution in suburban Orlando. He worked as a production assistant on "Sunlight Jr.," a movie starring Naomi Watts and Matt Dillon that was shot in Clearwater.
Sikora said she has been meeting weekly with Lawlor and Rubel to refine the scope of the documentary. Sikora said they have already made contacts with many people who either attended one of Elvis' concerts at the theater or have relatives or friends who did.
She said former Lakeland residents living out of the area are invited to share their memories by email (email@example.com).
Tuesday's gathering is intended only for people with direct or indirect memories of Presley's time in Lakeland, Sikora said, and not for those merely curious about the project.
"We're trying to find some stories that maybe have never been shared before," Lawlor said. "We want to put them on the big screen so they won't be secret any more."
Lawlor said he expects the film to be 60 to 80 minutes long. He said the filmmakers tentatively plan to finish the documentary by the end of this summer. Of course, a screening will be held at the Polk Theatre.
"All three of us are so passionate about making this happen that it's a real deal," Lawlor said.
Lawlor said he and Rubel have no intention of making a general documentary about Presley, whose story has been told many times in various media. Instead, they plan a film tightly focused on the intersection of Elvis and Lakeland. Lawlor said the Polk Theatre itself will be "a protagonist" in the documentary.
Sikora said two sponsors whom she declined to name will cover the film's production costs. The filmmakers expectinterview subjects to share their memories without being compensated.
Among the enduring artifacts from Presley's performances in Lakeland is his signature on the wall of a third-floor dressing room. That wall sustained water damage following a roof leak in 2008, and Sikora said she hopes proceeds from the film can be used to have Presley's signature treated by a professional art conservator.