On April 4, 1977, Ed Bonja sat on the edge of the bed in his fourth floor Hilton hotel room. He was sick. He had just stayed up all night and lost $12,000 gambling with "The Colonel" Tom Parker. And his girlfriend had left him for his hometown preacher.
"I really felt terrible," said Bonja. "And after about 15 minutes, I almost mechanically, just got up, picked up my briefcase [and] I left all my clothes and all my personal things there. I walked down the hall and one of the security guards was there. I put my room key down on the desk and said to him, 'Tell The Colonel I said good-bye.' I took a cab to the airport. I got on a plane and I went home. ... I left the world of Elvis for 20 years after that."
But Bonja, the tour manager and official photographer for Elvis Presley from 1970 to just a few months before his death, didn't quite leave all of that world behind. For years he moved from place to place with several boxes of coiled rolls of undeveloped film -- hundreds of Presley photos that had never seen the light of day -- that wouldn't get sprung for decades.
Eventually the world of Elvis would call him back -- and help save his life.
Dressed in his simple light-blue, short-sleeved shirt and polyester navy pants, Bonja doesn't look like a man you'd notice on the street waiting for the bus. Hunched over like a reincarnated Fred Mertz, today Bonja, 60, shuffles from room to room of his northwestern Las Vegas apartment. He had a quadruple heart bypass operation in August and still gets winded after too much activity. But when he starts talking about his years with Elvis, the quiet, soft-spoken man becomes by turns proud and thoughtful. Sometimes he tilts his head back in his well-worn blue-and-red-striped recliner and laughs at the memories, a gleam in his eye like so many aging jocks reliving their touchdown glories.
As Presley's tour manager, Bonja made the daily show arrangements for the entire production, making morning calls to everyone (including Elvis) and keeping the nearly always on-time, tight schedule moving to the next stop. But it was his serendipitous role as official photographer that gives his name such importance to the throngs of Elvis fans still clamoring for a piece of "The King" today.
Growing up outside Los Angeles in the 1950s, Bonja knew the man behind Elvis, Tom Parker, long before he was "The Colonel." Back then, Parker was simply "Uncle Tom" to Bonja and his family. In fact, Bonja grew up listening to Parker's stories about touring the country in a western act with Bonja's uncle.
Then one day in 1956, on one of Parker's routine trips through California, Bonja recalls Parker sitting back from the dinner table, lighting up a cigar and saying, "I signed a new boy this week and I think he's going to be pretty big. His name is Elvis Presley."
"Boy, was that ever an understatement," Bonja says with a chuckle.
Soon Parker was sending Bonja and his nine siblings Presley records and photos, something that young Ed loved.
Every once in awhile Parker would recruit Bonja for Presley errand-boy duties. While Presley was filming Girl Happy in 1964, Bonja worked as Parker's secretary and driver at MGM Studios. That was the first time Bonja, briefly, met Presley. Then again in 1968, as Elvis filmed his iconic television special, Bonja was allowed to watch the taping in the back of the room.
"That was magical," Bonja sighs.
By 1970, Bonja was finishing his degree at California Institute of Technology. Around the same time, a family member gave Bonja an old German Agfa camera. He even signed up for a photography class.
"It wasn't too long after that, I think it was June, that The Colonel called," Bonja remembers. This was when Presley was gearing up to start touring and Parker wanted Bonja and his brother to help out.
"Then he said something that changed my whole life. He says, 'By the way, your mother tells me you're taking a photo class. You ought to bring your camera and feel free to take all the pictures you want,' which I did. It didn't take me long to make that decision."
Bonja was 25 and touring the country with Elvis Presley. He saw the girls who would throw themselves from balcony heights onto the stage (miraculously never severely hurt) and all those scarves handed down to the screaming fans.
"Elvis was as cool as they came. He would usually reward them for their efforts," Bonja says. "Elvis was a very special person. When he entered a room you could just feel it. There was a buzz around the hotel when he was there."
During his years with the tour, Bonja's camera clicked and flashed, the aperture letting in so many moments of Presley's past. For years Bonja's work was uncredited, although the die-hard fans knew his name -- and the back of his head.
Sue L., the president of the local Viva Las Vegas Elvis Presley fan club, says many Presley fans knew Bonja's head because he would camp out at the base of the stage shooting during shows. Growing up in Las Vegas, Sue L., 47, says she saw him at the Hilton, where her dad worked, 25 times.
"I used to save my baby-sitting money to go to the shows and buy his music," she says. "I'm sorry to see the Hilton lobby change, because it was always the same. Every time I walked in, it was like 1974 all over again."
Just a few years ago, Bonja was wooed back to the Presley fans through his undeveloped photos, which he started selling prints of (with the blessing of Elvis Presley Enterprises and paying royalties). The divorced father of four retired from real estate and started touring Europe with a Las Vegas-based Elvis impersonator. Now Bonja makes his living speaking at Elvis conventions and selling his photos.
And it was at a local Presley fan club event this summer that Sue L. and others noticed Bonja wasn't looking well. Eventually, he went to the hospital and learned his arteries were 98 percent clogged. Doctors told him he was lucky to be alive, and the uninsured Bonja had immediatesurgery. Now he has more than $250,000 in medical bills.
The Viva Las Vegas Elvis Presley fan club has organized a benefit for Bonja on Nov. 12 at Nevada Landing in Jean. A $10 donation will buy you a chance to win Elvis and non-Elvis-themed (donated) prizes and a night of entertainment by local celebrity impersonators -- some Elvis, some not.
"It's amazing," Bonja says. "Elvis fans are like none in the world. Wherever you go, the Elvis fans welcome you in. It's like immediate family. What do you say to that?"
Those interested in more information on the benefit can go to the Viva Las Vegas fan club website.