ETERNAL REVENUE : Elvis’ Millions Were Disappearing When Priscilla Presley Took Charge and Rebuilt the King’s Fortune
THREE DAYS AFTER HER former father-in-law, Vernon Presley, died in June of 1979, Priscilla Beaulieu Presley sat in a downtown Memphis office and tried to comprehend the sobering news she had just heard: Without drastic action, everything that Elvis Presley had left their daughter, Lisa Marie, could be lost. Even his beloved home, Graceland.
Joseph A. Hanks, the Presley family accountant since 1969, is a conservative, soft-spoken man not given to dramatics. But the facts he had just outlined for Priscilla spoke for themselves: Income was dropping while expenses were rising, and at some point the lines would cross.
Priscilla had never gotten involved with budgets during her six-year marriage to Elvis, but she knew that the only thing Elvis ever did with money was spend it. He didn’t just buy things for himself. He also loved giving friends--and even strangers--Cadillacs and other things he knew they couldn’t afford. If his father or Joseph Hanks complained that money was running low, Elvis just did what he had done since 1956, the year “Heartbreak Hotel” kicked off the most successful career in the history of recorded music. He made more money.
He would call his flamboyant manager, Col. Tom Parker, and ask Parker to book another tour (Presley’s average concert gross in the mid-'70s was $130,000 a night) or schedule another recording session (each new album would mean at least $250,000 in royalties) or line up another film (usual fee per picture: $1 million).
But after Elvis died on Aug. 16, 1977, there were no more concerts, films or records. There was an estate valued at $4.9 million, and there were mounting bills. The cost of maintaining Graceland was about $480,000 a year--most of it going to taxes, insurance and 24-hour security for Elvis’ grave site. The estate was generating an annual income of about $1 million in 1979, and, with no new albums or movies to release, that figure was expected to drop below $500,000. What’s more, royalties from the vast majority of Presley’s recordings were going not to his estate but to RCA, which had bought the rights to them in 1973.
In his will, Elvis had named Vernon executor of the estate and Lisa Marie his sole heir. Two years later, Vernon’s will passed the responsibility to Priscilla and Hanks, along with the National Bank of Commerce in Memphis. It would be their job to oversee the estate until Lisa Marie turned 25 on Feb. 1, 1993. As Priscilla flew back home to Los Angeles after the Memphis briefing, she was consumed by the unthinkable: By 1993, there might be nothing left to oversee.
“A million things flashed through my mind,” Priscilla says now, remembering the weeks after the Memphis meeting. “I worried about my daughter’s future and about Graceland and the people who had worked for us for 20 years. I couldn’t comprehend them not having jobs or a place to stay. The question I kept asking myself over and over was, ‘What are we ever going to do?’ ”
TEN YEARS LATER, Priscilla, 44, is sitting in a Westwood hotel room, the financial fears of 1979 long past. The Pres- ley estate, under her guidance, is now worth more than $75 million and brings in an estimated $15 million a year in gross income. That’s more than Elvis himself made in any one year of his life.
It’s also the most income generated last year by a dead entertainer and, according to Forbes magazine, enough to put Elvis in the Top 10 moneymakers among pop music stars. Presley dead earned more in 1988, Forbes says, than Sting, Neil Diamond or any of the four members of the Irish rock band U2. More than two-thirds of the $15 million is generated at Graceland, with other revenue sources ranging from licensing of souvenirs to royalties from records, music publishing and videos.
The estate under Priscilla is doing so well that the Memphis probate court that oversees the executors has decided to leave it in place until Lisa Marie turns 30. Priscilla hasn’t achieved this dramatic turnaround in the Presley finances single-handedly. Since that 1979 meeting, she and Hanks (with Bank of Commerce representative Fletcher Haaga) have hired a management team of Los Angeles businessmen and Memphis lawyers and bankers to guide the estate’s operations. They are Jack Soden, executive director of Graceland; attorney C. Barry Ward; business manager Joseph F. Rascoff, and creative affairs director Jerry Schilling.
The management team talks regularly by telephone and gathers formally six to 10 times a year, usually in a Los Angeles hotel. On days when there is a lot of paper work, the committee reserves a conference room, but most of the meetings are held informally--in shirt sleeves around a coffee table--in one of the four visiting Memphians’ mini-suites. Lisa Marie, now 21, married and living in Los Angeles, frequently joins the sessions.
On this April day in Westwood, the agenda includes a progress report on “Elvis: Good Rockin’ Tonight,” a TV series on Elvis’ early life that the estate is developing. The team also discusses an Elvis home video featuring some of the singer’s key concert performances and a $1-million museum of cars the singer owned that is being added to the Graceland tour.
The turnaround in finances has been about as unexpected as Priscilla’s role in it. Whoever would have imagined that this woman--who moved in with Elvis when she was just 17 and let him shape her personality and appearance--would assume the financial responsibility that her former husband never did?
Priscilla has come a long way since the Elvis years--she is confident and sophisticated, no longer the tentative young girl of two decades ago, hidden beneath beehive hairdos and smudged eyeliner. Since her 1973 divorce from Elvis, she has built a career as an actress and lives in Beverly Hills with screenwriter-director Marco Garibaldi; they have a 2-year-old son, Navarone.
Members of the management team say outsiders frequently assume that Priscilla is just a figurehead. “Reporters are always asking about Priscilla’s real role, and sometimes they’re very skeptical,” Soden says. “They don’t expect her to be very active, but she is involved in every decision. I’ve met a lot of Harvard MBAs that I’d be far less inclined to want to be in a partnership with than Priscilla. I’d take her common sense every time when it applies to business.”
Although part of Priscilla’s motivation in guiding the estate during the past decade has been protecting the interests of her daughter, she has had a second, less-tangible goal: preservation of the Elvis legacy. She’s talking about more than money when she says, “We are into preserving Elvis’ name and image.” She’s also speaking with a pride in her former husband’s accomplishments. It’s as if she feels a cultural responsibility.
“First, there’s his talent . . . his individuality, his charisma,” she says. “I still don’t think I have met anyone who has as much charisma as he had. I think he was very misunderstood in the beginning, when he started out. I’d like to have people know him mostly for those early years . . . because of that raw talent. We’d like to preserve that.”
Elvis’ importance in the ‘50s went far beyond music, and that influence continues to be felt today. Born in poverty in the South, he had barely reached his 20s when he touched off a one-man cultural explosion that brought him a life of unending adoration and massive wealth; he was a living symbol of the American Dream. It was a sign of Elvis’ phenomenal connection with his fans when thousands of mourners from all over the country gathered in front of Graceland in the days after his death. And, 12 years later, 650,000 people visit his house and grave annually. In the words of one recent Graceland visitor, “I just wanted to be close to him.”
However absurd the “Elvis is alive” rumors of the past year, Elvis’ legacy is very much alive for millions of people--and the seven members of the estate’s management team are its life-support system.
THE LAST THING Priscilla wanted to do when she became a co-executor of the Presley estate was open Graceland to the public. She was a Southern Californian, but Graceland was still the family home. Some of Elvis’ relatives lived there, and Lisa Marie might choose to move in someday. Priscilla recoiled at the idea of visitors trampling through the house, stealing pieces of wallpaper and dripping ice cream on the carpets.
“Graceland was the only thing Elvis and I had that wasn’t (on public view),” Priscilla says. “To open up your home was like being robbed.”
Elvis bought Graceland and 13.8 adjoining acres in suburban Whitehaven in 1957 for slightly more than $100,000. By the time of his death at age 42, the house had been expanded to 23 rooms, including eight bathrooms, a den with a soda fountain and three TV sets placed side by side on a wall and another den--the Jungle Room--decorated in what has been described as Tahitian Provincial.
Priscilla and Hanks realized just days after Vernon Presley’s death that opening the house to the public was the surest way to raise money. For almost two years, however, Priscilla explored alternatives. Maybe, she hoped, merchandising would raise enough money. Maybe the record royalties would rise again. Maybe . . . .
But in the end, there was only Graceland. The final blow came in 1981: The federal government, taking into account the money made since Elvis’ death, reappraised the estate at $22.5 million, up from $4.9 million, and slapped on a $10-million inheritance tax.
In the fall of 1981, Priscilla visited famous houses and museums around the country. “Hearst Castle was the one that impressed me the most because there was nothing (commercial) on the grounds. It was kept exactly the same as when people had lived there. That’s what I wanted, too, so that if Lisa wanted to move in right now, she could go in with a toothbrush and that’s it.”
It was the opening move in Priscilla’s businesswoman makeover. She decided to keep direct control of Graceland, establishing Elvis Presley Enterprises Inc. to represent the estate. In late 1981, she hired Soden to oversee the project. A former Kansas City investment banker and stockbroker, he had no experience in show business or running a tourist attraction, but Priscilla had been impressed by his “intelligence and sensitivity” when she met with him to discuss her personal finances.
After two years of trying to avoid turning Graceland into a tourist attraction, the race was suddenly on to open the doors. Soden met with experts in tour management, most of whom came up with elaborate $2.5-million-to-$3-million proposals that would, he says dryly, have left “Graceland with all the warmth and charm of your average airport.” They also advised yearlong surveys to determine just what the average Elvis fan would want to see in a Graceland tour.
But Soden wanted to take advantage of the summer tourist season. He and Priscilla decided to open Graceland right away on a minimal $560,000 investment. The estate only had about $500,000 in liquid assets at the time (the colossal tax bill made it impossible to borrow any more money), and it would take all of that, plus about $60,000 in advance ticket sales, to get the house ready. Soden says now that putting the $500,000 on the line wasn’t exactly reckless--he was confident that Graceland would eventually pay for itself--"but still it was one shot, for all the marbles.”
The estate didn’t have to hold its breath for long. Opened to the public in July, 1982, just before the fifth anniversary of Elvis’ death, the tour earned back the $560,000 investment in 38 days.
PRISCILLA Presley’s life with Elvis was a little like a modern fairy tale. Elvis--the prince of rock ‘n’ roll--spotted his 14-year-old Cinderella in 1959 while stationed with the Army in West Germany. A much-traveled Air Force brat, Priscilla was living in Germany because her father, a captain, was on duty there.
After returning to Graceland in 1960, Elvis missed Priscilla and eventually persuaded her parents to let her come live with him so that she could finish high school in the United States. They married in 1967, and Lisa Marie was born in 1968. A few years later, Priscilla began to want a life of her own, something apparently impossible in Elvis’ world. They divorced in 1973.
Life with Elvis was unpredictable, but the one thing Priscilla didn’t expect was money problems. Even knowing Elvis’ spending habits, she always thought Lisa Marie would, financially speaking, live happily ever after. It was impossible to think of the world’s most popular entertainer being in financial trouble.
How could it have happened? The answer eventually leads to Col. Tom Parker, the colorful and eccentric ex-carnival barker who managed Elvis’ career from the mid-'50s until his death. No one debates the promotional genius of Parker, whose military title is honorary, but questions have arisen over Parker’s financial dealings with his star.
Joseph Rascoff, whose business-management firm represents such acts as the Rolling Stones, David Bowie and Pink Floyd, has a reputation in the record industry as a tough businessman. But he refuses to criticize Parker’s handling of Elvis’ affairs. You can’t apply ‘80s business sophistication to the ‘50s and ‘60s, Rascoff says. Back then, the business of pop stardom was uncharted territory. Still, he does suggest that Parker’s decisions over the years cost Elvis and the estate “an inestimable amount of money"--certainly in the hundreds of millions of dollars.
The most flagrant deal was the March, 1973, agreement with RCA Records, which controlled the rights to all of Elvis’ recordings. For $5.4 million, Elvis waived his right to future royalties on the estimated 700 recordings he had made up to that time. To make matters worse, Presley’s contract with Parker--which gave the manager a whopping 50% of the star’s concert and record income--meant that Elvis only received $2.7 million of the RCA payment. After taxes, that left him with $1.35 million for the rights to what is arguably the most valuable body of work ever recorded. One statistic demonstrates what Elvis gave away: He had 66 Top 20 hits before March, 1973; after that date, he had two.
The shortsightedness of the deal is especially clear when you consider what happened after Elvis died. Pressing plants throughout the United States worked around the clock in the weeks afterward to fill the demand for his albums. Estimates of Elvis’ sales during the year after his death range from tens of millions to hundreds of millions. If, for example, 50 million Elvis records were sold, at the average royalty rate of $1 per record at that time, the estate would have received $12.5 million after taxes and the colonel’s cut. Instead, it received virtually nothing.
And then there’s the matter of percentages: Why, when most managers received 10% to 25% of their artist’s income, did Parker receive 50% from Elvis? The co-executors were beginning to ask themselves this question, but in 1980 they decided to continue the arrangement anyway. When they submitted plans for managing the estate to a Memphis probate judge in a routine court review, his reaction turned the Presley world upside-down.
Judge Joseph W. Evans questioned the agreement and named Blanchard E. Tual, a Memphis attorney, to protect Lisa Marie’s interests in the case. Tual undertook an extensive review of the Parker-Presley relationship. In a 300-page report filed in December, 1980, Tual charged that Parker, since Elvis’ death, “violated his duty both to Elvis and to the estate . . . (by charging commissions) that were . . . excessive, imprudent . . . and beyond all reasonable bounds of industry standards.”
The report also accused Parker of failing to strike the best deals for his client during the singer’s lifetime and of not organizing Presley’s finances to minimize his taxes.
When contacted by The Times, Parker, 79 and living in Las Vegas, referred all questions about the estate to Soden or Priscilla. But he did defend himself in 1981 against the Tual accusations. In a phone call to the Memphis Commercial Appeal, he said: “Elvis and Vernon were well pleased with my services and desired to continue them over the years. Detailed explanations were regularly made of the transactions pertaining to Elvis and the companies with which we dealt.”
Tual, in his report, chided Presley for his role in accepting the arrangements: “Elvis was naive, shy and unassertive. Parker was aggressive, shrewd and tough. His strong personality dominated Elvis, his father and all others in Elvis’ entourage.”
At the court’s direction, estate lawyers filed suit to recover money from Parker and to recapture from RCA royalties that Rascoff felt were outstanding on post-1973 recordings. The result was a 1983 settlement in which Parker agreed to sever all ties with the estate and RCA agreed to pay the estate $1.1 million. RCA continues to pay the estate royalties on recordings made after March, 1973, but none on the infinitely more valuable pre-1973 products.
All parties were ordered not to discuss the settlement, so Priscilla and Hanks will speak about the Parker days only in general terms. “I don’t think I was angry as much as I was disturbed,” Priscilla says now of Parker and Elvis’ financial affairs. “I saw how Elvis lived and saw his relationship with Col. Parker, so I think I have a much better understanding of it than the outsider who comes in and says, ‘Oh my God, this was robbery.’ ”
Another record company insider is less generous: “You can talk all you want about ‘60s business sophistication and ‘80s business sophistication, but Parker seems to have been pretty sophisticated when it came to his own contracts.”
IN THE MONTHS AFTER Graceland was opened, Soden called Elvis Presley Boulevard the DMZ. On one side was Graceland and on the other was a string of souvenir shops that represented, to Soden and Priscilla, a gross exploitation of Elvis’ legacy. Fans could buy everything from a copy of Elvis’ death certificate to bottles of “Elvis sweat.”
“At times, we start to sound like old war veterans when we talk about all the battles we’ve been through, but nothing was a bigger nightmare for me than those shops,” Soden says, sitting in his office in a converted church next door to Graceland. A bubbly, enthusiastic man with twinkling eyes, he all but hops from the chair to the window when he wants to point to the strip of land that used to be occupied by the “enemy.”
“They were sitting over there selling everything you could imagine with Elvis’ picture on it, and Lisa Marie’s trust (the estate) was picking up the tab on the carrot (Graceland) that was bringing people from all over the world,” he says.
Part of the solution was obvious: Get control of the land on which the shops were situated. Soden speaks of the conquest with the pride of a military strategist. He arranged for a group of investor friends from Kansas City to bid on the property and instructed them not to mention the Presley estate. Soden knows that the price always goes up when Presley’s name comes into play: “Everyone thinks there is no end to the money.”
Sure enough, he says, the Kansas City group ended up paying $2.5 million in 1983 for the 7.3 acres--$1 million less than the price the owner was reportedly quoting the estate. When the last of the leases expired last year, the estate built a $1.5-million strip of buildings to house the Graceland ticket booth and its own souvenir shops.
Some of the “enemy” souvenir sellers moved to another mini-shopping center next door to the Graceland shops. Soden wasn’t pleased to see the rivals stay in the neighborhood and he built a big fence between the properties, but he feels that the competitors will eventually go out of business because tourists can get anything they want in the estate’s shops. But if the estate hasn’t been able to wipe the shops off the landscape, at least it can control what they sell.
It wasn’t always that way. In the early ‘80s, when the estate was battling for its financial life, Priscilla and Hanks were frustrated to see merchandisers and Elvis impersonators making millions of dollars off Presley’s fame. The estate maintained at the time that one asset Elvis had left his daughter was his image and name. If Presley’s name was valuable, then Lisa Marie should not only share in the rewards but also determine how the name could be used for commercial purposes.
The law did not support that view. Estate attorney C. Barry Ward said rulings supported the contention that celebrities have an exclusive right, through copyright laws, to control and profit from the commercial use of their name and image during their lifetime. But there was debate in legal circles about whether that right was passed on to heirs.
To complicate matters, the estate no longer had even a legal basis to sue copyright infringers. During his lifetime, Elvis had assigned the exclusive right to market souvenirs carrying his name or likeness to Boxcar Enterprises, a company controlled by Parker. Two days after the singer’s death, Boxcar and the estate issued a license for $150,000 to exploit those rights for three years--with options to renew--to Factors, a New York-based firm.
In 1979, Factors tried to establish its exclusive right to merchandising, as granted by the estate, by suing a nonprofit corporation that wanted to erect a statue of Presley in downtown Memphis. To help pay for the statue, the Memphis Development Foundation gave donors who contributed $25 or more an 8-inch pewter replica of the proposed statue. Factors maintained that the Foundation couldn’t “sell” the little statues without its permission.
The U.S. District Court in Memphis agreed with Factors, but the 6th Circuit Court of Appeals reversed that decision. In effect, the appeals court said that once a celebrity died, his name and image passed into the public domain.
“It was a terrible blow,” says Ward, who was already working on behalf of the estate to regain the licensing rights from Factors. “The court was saying it didn’t believe the law of Tennessee passed the right of publicity to someone’s heirs.”
In 1983, the estate began lobbying for a Tennessee law to guarantee that a celebrity’s commercial rights would be passed on to his heirs. The estate won a major victory when such a law, the Personal Rights Protection Act of 1984, was enacted by the Tennessee Legislature; it was later upheld in both state and federal courts. (Eleven other states, including California, have similar laws.) The estate, which ultimately did regain the licensing rights from Factors, has brought violators to court more than two dozen times, Ward says. “The law of the state of Tennessee,” he says, “is now extremely strong for Elvis Presley.”
Ward echoes Soden’s war-veteran imagery when he talks about the management team’s work during the past eight years. “The co-executors had to affirmatively change the law and draw their own map. But the estate now has this tremendous bundle of rights that it can and does exercise for the benefit of the estate, including copyrights and trademarks throughout the world. We view (the estate) as literally a sovereign state with alliances, a gross national product and a mission.”
Sometimes that mission is a little hard to figure. Licensed Elvis souvenirs often invite employment of the word tacky . The Graceland shops offer everything from a clock sporting Elvis in a gold lame suit ($19.95) to a sort of Elvis-in-ice sculpture that lights up ($49.95). The licensing of such souvenirs brought the estate $750,000 last year.
Soden shakes his head when the matter of taste is mentioned. “I can see how someone might hear us talk about our horror at what used to go on and then go to the gift shop and think maybe the left hand doesn’t know what the right hand is doing,” he says. “We’ve got almost 2,700 different things, if you count all the different post cards and T-shirt designs as separate items. I look at our inventory sheet and ask, ‘What are we, Sears?’
“Well, I’ll tell you. I had this great soapbox philosophy about how we were going to change the world’s attitude about Elvis souvenirs. We were somehow going to hypnotize them and change their tastes so they’d buy better stuff.”
Soden actually had some “better stuff” made--such as cocktail glasses with gold-leaf rims--that now sits in a warehouse. Elvis fans just didn’t want them. So, Elvis Presley Enterprises adopted a more playful posture.
“Remember,” Soden says, “we’re not marketing a President of the United States. Elvis was an entertainer. He brought happiness and smiles to people’s faces. He also had a great sense of humor, as you can tell by the history of Elvis merchandise, clear back to ’56. We’ve got some of it on display in the trophy building--the little overnight bags that girls took to slumber parties, the Elvis record players, Elvis lipstick and dog tags. That stuff was fun, and it should have been. It was the ‘50s.”
One of his own favorite souvenirs is a pair of fuzzy slippers with Elvis heads on the toes. They showed up on the David Letterman TV show one night. But the media made such fun of them that the co-executors refused to renew the manufacturer’s license. “Now, they are collectors’ items,” Soden says. “Everybody wants them. . . . Let me take a look, I’ve got a pair around here somewhere.”
SODEN ADMITS THAT he sometimes loses track of the fact that he is not helping guide the career of a living person. “A lot of what we are doing is like managing a live entertainer,” he says. “We’re doing these things a manager or agent or public-relations person would be concerned with--positioning, imaging.”
The difference is that Elvis’ career was cut short; the challenge for the estate’s brain trust is to package and repackage that finite career in creative new ways.
One recent idea is “Elvis: Good Rockin’ Tonight,” the docudrama series being developed as a mid-season replacement for ABC-TV. “The series will deal with what, to me, is the most untapped and most exciting part of Elvis’ career,” says creative affairs director Jerry Schilling. “It is about the early days of rock ‘n’ roll, and Elvis will be the focal point. In the pilot, we start with Elvis as a young kid who is just getting a little noise around Memphis on ‘That’s All Right, Mama’ in 1954--and is taking his first trip on the road to see the reaction. It’s like a band on the run, like ‘Route 66' with a touch of ‘The Waltons.’ ”
And if Elvis isn’t alive to produce anything new and repackaging reaches the saturation point, there are still corners of the world where he is nearly unknown. For example, the management team hopes to build a new audience for “Hound Dog” in China later this year. As Rascoff says, “It will be a whole new Elvis Presley career.”
Although the brain trust is concerned about the political situation in China, it still plans to introduce Elvis through Chinese television, using both Elvis videos and vignettes (“little bicentennial minutes,” Rascoff says, “except it is a little snippet about Elvis”). This will be combined with the sale of records, movies and videos. “We hope to introduce Elvis to China and let it build, just as it did in the rest of the world,” Rascoff says. “Western culture and entertainment are coming there, and we hope to be in the forefront.”
One thing Chinese and American pop fans alike won’t see for a long time, apparently, is footage of the tragic, bloated Elvis of his final years. Although all of Elvis’ other TV specials--including the 1968 NBC-TV “comeback” program--are available on home video, the estate has not released the CBS-TV concert special that was taped just weeks before Elvis’ death.
Committee members reject the notion that they are trying to rewrite history by not re-releasing unflattering footage. They say they are simply trying to put Elvis in proper perspective. “One of the goals is to humanize Elvis, . . . make sure people remember him as a human being, not as a caricature,” Rascoff says. “That’s hard enough to do when you are dealing with (a generation) that actually saw Elvis. But 20 years from now, it will be even harder, because those people won’t have had that opportunity. To me, that’s the greatest challenge.”
Adds Schilling: “We don’t want to try to change history. At the same time, we don’t want history to be concentrating on a small portion of his career that may not be as illustrious as the rest of the career. We don’t want the image of Elvis in future history to be that he was an overweight guy eating a cheeseburger in a white jumpsuit. We want it to be the Elvis as the world knew him for the first 20 years of his career.”
ONE OF THE MOST popular souvenir items along Elvis Presley Boulevard is a T-shirt that has fun with the notion that Elvis is alive. The front reads: “Elvis Tour 1988 / 89.” The back of the shirt lists alleged sightings of Elvis during the past year:
Burger King / Kalamazoo, Mich.
Walking Around Town / Encino, Ca.
Donald Trump’s Yacht / New York Harbor
On a Parachute Ride at a Carnival / Denton, Tx.
Passing By a Bathroom Window / Syracuse, N.Y.
In a ’60 Plymouth with Colorado Tags / Pigeon Forge, Tn.
The shirt isn’t licensed by Elvis Presley Enterprises because it is considered to be in bad taste. Soden won’t necessarily sue the manufacturer; he picks his battles, preferring to go after more flagrant, widespread violations. Besides, he is as fascinated by the whole “Elvis is alive” issue as the shirt buyers may be.
“Now, everyone knows (it’s) crazy because Elvis died in 1977, but the media started calling us asking for a serious comment, which I always thought was amazing because Elvis didn’t just vanish like Jimmy Hoffa,” Soden says.
“He died, was taken to this busy city hospital where all kinds of people who knew him dealt physically with him. They also opened the casket and let (thousands of) people walk past it in the living room in Graceland and see him lying there. Elvis’ death was anything but quiet and mysterious.”
He pauses and shakes his head.
“I don’t know exactly what is going on, but there is something deeper than just music that keeps this Elvis-is-alive business from going away. Johnny Carson still can’t get through a week of monologues without doing an Elvis-is-alive joke. Elvis represents something (special) to people. . . . He represents an era and someone’s dreams, a memory of a time in postwar America when maybe life was at its best.”
It’s an important part of any explanation for the success of Priscilla and company. It is what they exploit and seek to keep alive as a cultural legacy--and for future exploitation. The businesslike approach, savvy fiscal maneuvers and legal battles wouldn’t mean much without the basic appeal of Elvis and the way it creates fans and consumers. Like Soden, Priscilla and the rest of the management team shake their heads at the Elvis-is-alive rumors; they refuse to directly condone them through licensing. But the whole notion validates their success as Elvis estate managers and keepers of the Elvis flame.
Consider Ben and Thelma Ritter. They are typical of the 650,000 tourists who spend about $20 apiece on souvenirs and tickets when they come to Graceland. The retired couple, from Texas, wanted to “pay respects” to Elvis, so they made Graceland the first stop on a three-month tour of “places we always wanted to see.”
“You know, I never liked Elvis when he first came out--all that rock ‘n’ roll stuff,” the husband says, sitting on a bench near the area where tourists board the shuttle van to Graceland. “But then I heard his gospel albums, and I tell you, that boy could sing. We became two of his biggest fans.”
The Ritters certainly do not buy into the notion that Elvis is alive. But they did buy into Elvis Presley Enterprises: Their deluxe-tour tickets cost $12.50 each, and they spent $61 in authorized souvenir stores for licensed memorabilia: a replica of Elvis’ 1953 high school yearbook ($29.95), four Elvis place mats ($4.99 each) and an “I Love Elvis” ink stamp ($4.95).
As the pair gather their purchases and head for the parking lot, Thelma looks back across the street at the mansion and unwittingly assesses the accomplishment of Elvis Presley Enterprises. “We never got to see him in person, but there’s something about that place that makes me feel real close to him. I know that sounds silly.
“There were times,” she says finally, “when I expected to turn around and have Elvis standing there.”