It over took two intense weeks’ work but they renovated (exhibits), reorganized (the gold and platinum), replaced (mannequins) and restructured museum inside out. The Smithsonian was “the Bob Vila answer to Graceland’s prayers”. It was an “Extreme Makeover”. Smithsonian’s work in the field of exhibition is awe-striking and Graceland - the museum is a prime example. Today, it is one of the most successful attractions in the US known worldwide. Graceland could now open. Next, a media preview ...
A media preview day set for early May. I busily helped plan individual photo shoots, media coverage and interviews for Priscilla Presley all-day long. She worked tirelessly. The property was a full day of tourists, TV cameras, freelance photographers, print journalists, fans, townies and international news crews. Time Magazine shot an exclusive photo of Priscilla with Flaming Star. More interviews, local TV, national live broadcasts, radio promotions, magazine assignments and wire syndicate photos were scheduled back-to-back. Priscilla did every interview and posed for each photographer non-stop.
The worldwide media preview of Graceland opening its gates - Elvis’ private sanctuary - was a news event watched by millions. The subsequent media coverage opened the gates but before that happened, Elvis’ Graceland playground had to mature into “Graceland – the museum” at an 11th hour. The preview would be icing on the cake.
The one “no invite - must to avoid” dictated by “R&C Beverly Hills” was “no paparazzi”. I managed that - well, except for one exception. Priscilla did every TV interview and photo shoot on the schedule. By mid-afternoon, she asked, “How many more interviews?” I told her we were finished for the day and Priscilla said she was going to take a break. A “break” she more than earned. A half hour later, I had to ask Priscilla a quick question and I was told Priscilla was out on the front lawn.
I found Priscilla holding a visitor’s twin babies in her arms and posing for famed paparazzi photographer Ron Galella. It was a classic “Ron Galella photo”. Priscilla knew what she was doing and so much for Beverly Hills’ “must to avoid”. Priscilla grasped promoting Graceland whole-heartedly, you see. Instead of some “odd out of focus tabloid shot”, Priscilla “created an image” that would uniquely feature Graceland. Ron Galella, the king of paparazzi (at the time), was lucky enough to capture it all on film. No one seemed to mind and if Priscilla approved, that was all that mattered.
Graceland continues to benefit from its “home-to-museum metamorphosis” and the “chipped mannequins” gave way to the $100 million museum of today. Say what you will about Priscilla Presley. I have to applaud her vision and work ethic. She understood promotion better than any “celebrity” I had ever met. If it were not for Priscilla and Jack Soden, Graceland could have been another rock star’s debt-laden property on the block. Shrewdly, they built it into its own brand empire - “Graceland”.
Earlier in the morning, before the gates opened on preview day, I was waiting for the media/event/tours to begin and a massive crowd had gathered already. I walked out the front door of Graceland and was waved over by a reporter for the Memphis daily newspaper. From behind the ropes, he asked if I “felt a presence in the house”. I said laughing, you mean, like “is Elvis’ in the house”. No, I didn’t but it’s a good one if it were true”. The reporter shrewdly laughed and added, “You can’t blame a guy for trying”. I didn’t feel Elvis’ presence but I sure understood his legend.
I returned to New York and from that point on Graceland was represented by David Beckwith out of the Rogers & Cowan Beverly Hills office. I did not realize until recently what a “special day” that was. I contributed turning a financially-struck Graceland into a famed American museum known worldwide that attracts millions. It is a museum fans pilgrimage to and a destination some spend entire vacations visiting. Graceland added to Elvis’ legacy and his enduring celebrity.
I had an opportunity to re-visit Graceland years later when I represented Toy Caldwell, founding member of the Marshall Tucker Band. I had left R&C opening my own independent public relations company. Toy Caldwell was a new client and one of the most lovable musicians you can imagine meeting. As a solo performer, his career was promising and just beginning. His relationship with Marshall Tucker was an ongoing feud at best. It’s the business of music and usually emanates from songwriting, copyright royalty, band personality conflicts, “dirty laundry” and the disbursement of money.
Toy, our families and I roamed Graceland and marveled at how the museum and the property had prospered. Toy was a huge Elvis fan and for him to visit “Elvis’ house - Graceland” was an achievement in his life. Toy Caldwell died accidentally about a year later unfortunately – just before Christmas. I’ll bet Toy and Elvis (RIP) have jammed together since then – at least, I like to think so.
With any great media event there are people behind-the-scenes, who make the event work as flawlessly as possible. Graceland is “a prime example of the perfect event launch” and my behind-the-scenes story is dedicated to all of Graceland’s “unsung heroes”.
We often see a film’s “behind-the-scenes” and occasionally, special events’ “behind-the-scenes”, but Graceland’s preview day was “an American public relations grand slam” with a solid assist from the Smithsonian’s makeover team and their precise logistical museum expertise.
Graceland opened its noted gates officially to fans on June 7, 1982 and it was thankfully, in retrospect, “a Smithsonian (and Elvis) D-day to remember”. The promotion of, and the campaign that planned the “opening of Graceland” is a story that had to be told.
Graceland just didn’t open. It was an “extreme make-over” like no other.
The story is © George Dassinger. You can contact him directly at email@example.com.
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