It was 45 years ago to the day, on June 24, 1977, when Bruce Frey, on his birthday, saw The King halt a fight at a local gas station.
“It was a really particular moment, I recall, and it was so obscure and it grew to be part of a legend in Madison,” said Frey, a former Madison police detective who retired from the force about nine years ago after a 30-year career.
“I was able to contact people in the know, the insiders, the security people that were with him,” he said. “I got all their versions of the story and compiled it for an article.”
The incident happened when Elvis came to Madison to perform at the Dane County Coliseum, less than two months before his death, on Aug. 16, 1977.
According to a Wisconsin State Journal account the next day by reporter Tom Still, Presley flew into town shortly after midnight on June 24, was picked up at the airport by his security escort, and was traveling on East Washington Avenue on his way to The Edgewater hotel.
While his limousine was stopped at East Washington Avenue and Stoughton Road, Presley noticed two young men hassling Keith Lowry Jr., then a 17-year-old La Follette High School student working as an attendant at the Skylane Standard Station owned by his father.
“(Presley) said, ‘Look at those two punks; I don’t buy this two-on-one deal’; so he told the driver to wait because the attendant might need some help,” Thomas J. McCarthy, then a Madison police detective and part of the Elvis security detail, told Still. “A couple of minutes later, they started fighting and out of the car goes Elvis.
“He (Presley) was willing to fight, that’s the bad part,” McCarthy said.
All three youths were stunned, to say the least, Still wrote. “It’s nearly 1 a.m. and Elvis Presley — still wearing a blue jumpsuit from his Des Moines concert a few hours earlier — is ready to kick-box. It was like a scene from one of those bad beach movies Elvis made in the 1960s.”
“If you want to fight, let’s fight,” Elvis told the two young men.
“When they saw who he was, there wasn’t any more fighting,” McCarthy told Still. “Then (Elvis) said, ‘I found you as enemies; I leave you as friends,’ and got back in the car.”
In the article, Frey told Still that Elvis then asked, “Is everything settled now?”
Then, Presley shook hands with several bewildered onlookers before climbing into his limo, McCarthy told Still, and several photographs were taken to commemorate his biggest rumble since “Jailhouse Rock.”
McCarthy said afterwards that Presley seemed amused by the whole thing. “He said, ‘Did you see those guys’ faces?’”
Today, a plaque at the scene commemorates the event. The plaque is set into stone, and surrounded by flowering plants in front of Schoepp Motors, at the car dealership’s eastern edge.
But the details on the installation vary slightly from the news account and state that Elvis was staying at the Sheraton instead of The Edgewater.
Joseph Reque, 26, a Schoepp salesman, said that a fair number of people visit the marker and take pictures of it.
“It’s pretty neat,” said Reque, who, like his grandfather, loves Elvis.
Reque said he’s not a diehard fan, but might go see the movie.
“I know quite a bit about him,” Reque said, “but it’s not like I’ve got like posters in my room or something.”
No mistaking him
Frey, who lives in the Door Creek neighborhood on Madison’s Far East Side, remembers driving to the airport with his sister to see Elvis’ plane come in.
He soon realized that they weren’t going to be able to see the star because they were too far away. When they headed back on Stoughton Road to East Washington Avenue, they were behind a limousine, but Frey said he never suspected it was Elvis.
Frey said he noticed a disturbance next to him with “two guys basically beating up a gas station attendant.” He then saw the limo stop.
“What I remember most is a foot coming out first to make the car stop, because the car was slowly rolling,” Frey said. “I learned later they were arguing about whether to stop or not. They didn’t want to stop.
“Then I remember seeing Elvis jump out of the back of the car. You immediately recognized him as Elvis. I don’t know how to even explain it. You knew it was him right away.”
Elvis went into a karate stance to get the boys’ attention, and said, “I’ll take you two on,” Frey remembered.
A story with legs
Frey said he’s been interviewed many times over the years and his account is in numerous Elvis publications.
He was recently contacted by a Dutch author who interviewed him for a book, “In search of Elvis.”
The event is also in two books, “Weird Wisconsin” and “Wisconsin Curiosities.” Mentions of the fight are in most Elvis books that came out after the event, Frey said.
However, the incident doesn't make it into the two-and-a-half hour movie.
Frey said his wife walks away when people ask him about the fight.
“She’s just like, ‘OK, I can’t listen to this again,’” he said. “It’s always humorous, but she’s heard it so many times.”
Art of the Everyday: A recap of May in photos from Wisconsin State Journal photographers
Wisconsin State Journal feature writer Samara Kalk Derby writes about the arts and brings you the latest news on the Madison area's eclectic restaurant scene. She can be reached at email@example.com or 608-252-6439.