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Elvis Presley at 69: Richer than ever

However, in 1980, a court appointed a guardian ad litem to look into Parker's business dealings on behalf of Elvis' young daughter, Lisa Marie Presley, and two years later ordered the estate to challenge Parker's hold. Graceland was loath to do so, not only for the certain financial drain, but also because Parker was such a crafty character, and would likely make a legal battle long and difficult.

"Let's put it this way, it was very intimidating," says Priscilla. "He had definite ideas of how to run the quote-unquote business, and he was very fixed in his ideas. He was definitely a force to contend with."

The estate and Parker eventually came to an out-of-court settlement, which eliminated the Colonel's future share of Elvis' income, and prevented him from commercially exploiting the Presley name for five years. In June 1982, Priscilla opened the doors of Graceland to the public, and helped build Elvis Presley Enterprises into a $15 million-a-year business.

"Like Scarlett O'Hara," Priscilla says, "I had to save Tara. The Colonel's philosophy was to keep Elvis separated from his fans. My philosophy was to reach the most people possible. It's probably a woman's touch."

While Priscilla is often derided by Elvis fan clubs -- they hold a variety of grudges against her, from divorcing their idol to trying to regulate the fan club -- she deserves a lot of credit for where the Elvis industry is today, says Nigel Patterson, president of the Australia-based Elvis Information Network, and head of the coalition of Australian Elvis Fan Clubs.

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Mixed stream of Elvis income
"Had she not had the foresight to open Graceland as a tourist attraction, the level of interest in Elvis would be less today. The integrated mix of tourism, new releases, a robust fan club network, and savvy marketing ... ensures Elvis Presley is 'alive' at a level higher than any other deceased celebrity, and of most celebrities still with us," Patterson says.

Still, he insists EPE would not be as successful if not for the business acumen of Jack Soden, EPE's chief executive.

Elvis tries playfully to lift Colonel Tom Parker's wallet in an undated photo from author Alanna Nash's personal collection. Source unknown.
Click image for larger view

In the past two years, 35-year-old Lisa Marie, Presley's sole heir and chairman of the board of EPE, has become more involved in the decision-making process.

"As a member of a younger generation, she injects more contemporary views and ideas into how to promote Elvis and maintain Graceland as a premier tourist attraction, with a spin-off effect of wider interest in Elvis," says Patterson. "The fact that not a single day goes by when you don't see a reference to Elvis- -- his name, image, likeness, or icon -- in the media or society, is testament to Elvis' incredible impact. Elvis literally is everywhere."

Keeping Elvis before a wider audience -- especially a younger one -- is paramount on EPE's priority list, since for the past three years, the estate has calculated that at least 53 percent of Elvis' fan base is 35 or younger. That's why EPE cooperated with the 2002 Disney movie "Lilo & Stitch," a huge hit with youngsters, and put their stamp of approval on the dance remix of last year's "A Little Less Conversation." Both projects served to keep Presley contemporary, even as his jumpsuits of the '70s date him.

Skinny Elvis only, please
For that reason, and because the bloated Elvis of his latter years is an image EPE hopes everyone will someday forget, EPE has adopted a policy that "The King" may be depicted only in his pre-1973 form -- that is, trim and handsome, says Burk. "Elvis is a marketing product now, not so much a human being, and I don't say that harshly."

While Priscilla and the board of directors have gone a long way to license memorabilia in good taste -- doing away with such tacky items as vials of "Elvis Sweat" and grass allegedly plucked from the Graceland lawn -- the estate is beefing up the role of the gift shops in the overall EPE economy.

"The estate is forever looking for new products to be sold in its shops," says Burk. "In addition, far more products that are licensed to sell to the general public never see those shelves."

At least some of those will doubtless be shipped overseas in 2004, when Memphis joins with the Beatles' hometown of Liverpool, England, in celebrating both the 50th anniversary of Elvis' first release and rock 'n' roll in general. Dozens of projects are planned for the year, from a Thanksgiving television special, to books, to updated DVDs of Elvis' most celebrated TV performances, to a new compilation of Elvis' Sun Studio recordings. That's a big a hunka, hunka love for the man from Memphis. Even people who look like him will likely profit.

"Aside from the official Elvis industry, there is a thriving impersonator business and a bourgeoning underground Elvis market," reports Patterson. "Not bad for a man who has been dead for more than a quarter of a century."


-- Posted: Jan. 8, 2003
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