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ETERNAL REVENUE : Elvis' Millions Were Disappearing When Priscilla Presley Took Charge and Rebuilt the King's Fortune

June 11, 1989|ROBERT HILBURN | Robert Hilburn is pop music critic for The Times.

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.

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