Monday, March 14, 2011

Elvis at the Port, 1964

The Potomac, looking somewhat the worse for wear, at the Port of Long Beach in January 1964. Port of Long Beach photo.

Famous vessels and famous faces are no strangers to the Port of Long Beach. The Port has welcomed the USS Constitution and the Queen Mary, for instance, and notables including Ronald Reagan, Jimmy Carter and Arnold Schwarzenegger, just to name a few. But only one chapter in the Port's 100-year history involved both a president and a king, or rather The King.

For a short time in the early 1960s, the Port of Long Beach was home to the Potomac, a 165-foot-long vessel that from 1936 to 1945 was the presidential yacht of Franklin Delano Roosevelt. For part of the Potomac's brief stay in Long Beach, the yacht was owned by someone arguably even more famous than FDR: Elvis Presley.

After FDR's death in 1945, the Potomac passed through a number of hands and ended up in early 1964 -- in a somewhat dilapidated condition -- here in Long Beach.

Danny Thomas and Elvis Presley aboard the Potomac for handover ceremonies at the Port of Long Beach, February 3, 1964. This was the only time Elvis set foot on the yacht. Photo courtesy of the USS Potomac Museum,
Elvis Presley bought the Potomac in January 1964 for $55,000, intending to present the vessel to the March of Dimes, the charity founded by FDR in the 1930s to fight polio. The March of Dimes ended up refusing the gift because of the upkeep involved.

Elvis then offered the yacht to the Miami Seventh Coast Guard Auxiliary, who accepted; presentation ceremonies were planned in Long Beach. But then the Navy got wind of the Auxiliary's plans for the Potomac, which were to sell it for scrap and purchase a new clubhouse, and blocked the donation.

With two avenues closed, attention turned to a favorite charity of Elvis': St. Jude Children's Research Hospital in Memphis, Tenn. February 3, 1964 was set for a ceremony to hand the vessel over to another famous name, Danny Thomas, founder of the hospital.

From Walter Jaffe's book "The Presidential Yacht Potomac":

After months of neglect the Potomac was in poor condition and had to be cleaned up for the ceremony. A few days before the event [Elvis' manager] Colonel Parker contacted [the Port] asking how much it would cost to have the boat cleaned up and painted for the dedication. He was told it would take at least three days and $18,000 to make the Potomac presentable. There wasn't that much time. The Colonel then asked, "How much if you just paint the side that faces the dock?" He was told that for $8,000 they could do what he wanted and rope off the unpainted parts. The Colonel said, "Do it."

The handover ceremony was held in Long Beach as planned on February 3, with Elvis (the only time he set foot on the boat), Thomas, members of Elvis' "Memphis Mafia," the media and fans in attendance. St. Jude's originally planned to take the yacht to Memphis and turn it into a floating restaurant, but the logistical and financial impracticalities of that led the hospital to sell the yacht, which left Long Beach and continued on its unusual journey.

The vessel passed through a succession of owners -- at one time it was seized as a front for drug smugglers -- before being abandoned in the East Bay Estuary near Oakland.

Shortly before the one-time "Floating White House" was due to be sold for scrap, it was purchased by the Port of Oakland and turned into a museum; today you can tour the vessel and even go on cruises aboard what's now a National Historic Landmark.

We'd like to extend a special thanks to the Potomac Museum in Oakland for providing much of the material for this article. For more information about the museum and the historic vessel, visit their website at


Pamela Winter said...

The actual hand over ceremony was held on February 14, 1964. If there were more photos of the ceremonies and autograph signings during the the ceremonies, I'm certain I could spot myself. I WAS THERE!!

PortofLB said...

You might look in our other post that links to some video of the event if you think you might be able to see yourself!

Anonymous said...

Not arguebly, but in fact more famous than FDR (LOL).According to an MIT study Pantheon, which can be accessed online, Elvis ranks 2nd, to MLK, amongst all people ever born in the US.

christopher thomas said...

I find it either strange or a coincidence the last post should have been posted on Feb 6 which was my father's birthday. I remember my dad telling me a story about how when Elvis, who was our neighbor, gave my dad the boat to auction off. He asked the painter how much to paint her and he replied $15,000 so my dad said, well just paint the side the people will see. Of course he was just kidding. Elvis was just making too much money so he bought the boat and donated it to my dads hospital.
C. Thomas