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.