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Graceland about to get all shook up

Plans for a three-year, $250-million overhaul are underway at the shrine to Elvis Presley.

August 11, 2007|Woody Baird | Associated Press

MEMPHIS, Tenn. -- The thousands of Elvis Presley fans descending on Memphis for the 30th anniversary of his death Thursday won't see much sign of it, but plans are moving along for big-time changes at Graceland.

Managers of Presley's famous home want to overhaul its tourist complex -- with a new visitors center bigger than a football field, a convention hotel and high-tech museum displays that can give a new, digital life to the King himself.

All it will take to bring about those wonders is $250 million or so; the total reorganization of CKX Inc., the New York-based company that controls all things Elvis; and a publicly supported face-lift for Graceland's struggling neighborhood.

The obstacles are far from small, but the people behind the plans, led by CKX Chairman Robert F.X. Sillerman, have a history of putting together big deals and making money for investors.

Sillerman, a multimillionaire dealer in media and entertainment assets, took over Graceland in 2005 when he bought the rights to Elvis' name and image from daughter Lisa Marie, Presley's sole heir.

When Presley died, his finances were in sad shape. Led by his ex-wife Priscilla Presley, the estate formed Elvis Presley Enterprises, opened Graceland to the public and solidified the legal rights to make money on Elvis' name and image.

Last year, Graceland took in $27 million in revenue, and the overall Elvis business brings in more than $40 million a year. That made him the second-highest grossing dead celebrity in 2006, behind only Nirvana's Kurt Cobain, according to Forbes.

"As great as it is," Sillerman said after a recent visit to Graceland, "it can be so much better."

Graceland's current visitors center, souvenir shops and museums were cobbled together by renovating a small strip mall across the street from what the Elvis faithful call "the mansion."

The new plans call for leveling all that and building an 80,000-square-foot visitors center designed to handle big crowds and high-tech exhibits.

The center will be equipped for the kind of technical wizardry that enabled singer Celine Dion to recently perform what appeared to be a live duet with Elvis on the "American Idol" TV show, which CKX also owns.

For years, Elvis Presley Enterprises, now a CKX subsidiary, has been buying land for expansion and has put together 100 acres needed for the renovation, which would move the tourist center to the same side of Elvis Presley Boulevard as Graceland.

Graceland's 128-room Heartbreak Hotel, also on the opposite side of the four-lane street, is to be replaced by a convention hotel, on the better side, with up to 500 rooms.

No timeline for the expansion has been set, said Jack Soden, EPE's top executive and a major player in opening Graceland to the public in 1982.

"We're probably looking at something in the neighborhood of a three-year process," he said.

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