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by Brian Robin

Who Was the Real Dyanne?

Marilyn Evans considered her brush with history nothing more than a life’s footnote. And yet, every time Million Dollar Quartet is performed, she’s center stage, in the spotlight.

This is what happens when you become a character in a popular musical years after the fact. Of course, dating the biggest icon in rock-and-roll tends to dent one’s anonymity a bit.

And yet, as Jason George wrote in a 2008 Chicago Tribune story, uncovering Evans as the real-life “Dyanne,” Elvis Presley’s girlfriend and the fifth voice you hear singing in Million Dollar Quartet, “For 52 years, she has hidden in plain sight, a living missing link to one of America’s most magical musical moments.”

So who was the real “Dyanne?”

She grew up in Fresno, an avid dancer. In the summer of 1956, a promoter from a new Las Vegas hotel, the New Frontier Casino, called her and asked her join the chorus line for $135 a week, the equivalent of $1,451 in today’s money.

This was the Vegas of yore: the Rat Pack, Mickey Rooney, George Chakiris—along with two shows a night, seven days a week at the New Frontier. For a 19-year-old from Fresno, this was another planet. Especially one day when a young Elvis walked into the employees-only coffee shop and sat down with Evans and her showgirl cohorts.

An hour later, Elvis gave Evans a napkin. On it, Elvis asked her out for a date.

“He called backstage that night (and) set a time,” she said in the story. “I think he probably liked that I wasn’t ‘out there.’ I was respectable. I still am respectable, you know!”

The New Frontier is the answer to the trivia question: “What was the first Vegas hotel Elvis performed at?” Not long after his New Frontier gig ended, Presley called Evans and asked her to come out and visit him at his Memphis home. She stayed with him—in separate rooms—spending their days riding motorcycles, eating and watching rented movies at Presley’s house.

On Dec. 4, 1956, Evans went cruising with Presley’s friends. Only that day, they stopped at the Sun Record Studios. Jerry Lee Lewis, Carl Perkins and Johnny Cash happened to be there and Evans had a front-row seat for music history—one she barely remembers.

“I remember that outfit I was wearing was all wool,” she sheepishly told George. “A lot of water has passed under the bridge since then.”

A photographer from the Memphis Press-Scimitar captured her with the Quartet. The caption for the photo read, “That lovely creature sitting on top of the piano is Marilyn Evans, who dances at the New Frontier in Las Vegas. She is Elvis’ house guest through Friday.”

She wasn’t Elvis’ house guest for much longer. Their relationship cooled and ended a few weeks later. And Evans was sanguine about the whole experience of being Elvis’ girlfriend. Even to the point of downplaying her front-row seat to music history.

“We were just into different things, not that one’s better than the other,” she said. “It was great. I loved it, it was terrifically exciting and wonderful, but I had other things I wanted to do.”

In Evans’ case, that meant earning a bachelors and masters from the University of Utah, marrying Larry Knowles, having a son and beginning a dancing career that included 13 years as the artistic director of the Fresno Ballet. Into her 70s, Evans—known as Marilyn Knowles-Riehl—ran her own belly dancing troupe.

She and Knowles were married for 31 years, until Knowles died of Alzheimer’s. She married Jeffrey Riehl a decade-plus later and at the time of the Tribune’s article, the couple lived in Carmel. At 84, she's been an enthusiastic supporter of the arts in the Monterey area.

“I always preferred classical music,” she said in the story.

Hiding in plain sight, indeed.

Directed by James Moye, Million Dollar Quartet runs July 30-August 21 at the historic Mission San Juan Capistrano. It is the lone Outside SCR production in 2022.

Learn more and buy tickets.

About the author

South Coast Repertory

South Coast Repertory is a Tony Award-winning theatre is known for producing classics, contemporary hits and world premieres, for having the largest new-play development program in the nation and for advancing the art of theatre in service to the community. 

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