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The King's Legacy, All Shook Up

By Julie Bosman - New York TimesMar 6, 2006
The New York Times did a feature on the future of Graceland. It describes the changes Robert F. X. Sillerman, the new owner of Elvis's name and likeness, has in store for Graceland. And when the change is over, Graceland may look a lot like Disneyland.

The 128-room Heartbreak Hotel, which stands across Elvis Presley Boulevard from Graceland, will be demolished, along with the visitors center. In their place, Mr. Sillerman plans two 400-room hotels, convention space, an entertainment complex, restaurants, shops, an outdoor amphitheater and a spa.

Winter is the off-season at Graceland, Elvis Presley's home from 1957 until his death there, at 42, in 1977. On a recent weekday, only a few visitors wandered through the home and its 13.8-acre grounds, wearing headphones and listening to a recorded tour guide. In the colonnaded "Meditation Garden," a middle-aged man in an Elvis T-shirt perched on a bench next to Elvis's grave.

Not much has changed at Graceland, a reverentially preserved 21-room Colonial Revival-style mansion, since Elvis's former wife, Priscilla Presley, opened it to the public 24 years ago. Video projectors beam low-tech videos of a sweaty, singing, hip-swiveling Elvis onto walls. In a racquetball court behind the house, dozens of his gold records, along with various sequined jumpsuits and trophies, are on display. And, of course, there is the Jungle Room — the wood-paneled den famously decorated in skins and skulls and green shag carpeting.

Revenue at Elvis Presley Enterprises, which operates Graceland, has barely changed in recent years, either. It has been stuck at about $40 million annually since 2000, and money for improving the property has been scarce.

That is all about to change. And when the change is over, Graceland may look a lot like Disneyland.

Starting this month, Robert F. X. Sillerman, the billionaire media entrepreneur who paid more than $100 million in 2005 for control of Elvis's name and likeness — but not his music — plans to overhaul Graceland from a run-down tourist attraction into a sparkling destination resort.

The 128-room Heartbreak Hotel, which stands across Elvis Presley Boulevard from Graceland, will be demolished, along with the visitors center. In their place, Mr. Sillerman plans two 400-room hotels, convention space, an entertainment complex, restaurants, shops, an outdoor amphitheater and a spa.

Moreover, if Mr. Sillerman has his way, Elvis will become a big presence again in Las Vegas, in an interactive museum exhibit and Elvis theme show that Mr. Sillerman hopes will attract millions of visitors a year. Tapping Elvis's international popularity is next: Mr. Sillerman envisions a 15,000-square-foot exhibit that will travel around the world.

And you thought Elvis was dead.

"He has sort of been in a holding pattern," said Mr. Sillerman, 57. "He has maintained the status as the icon that he is without any thought about his legacy, his legend and how we could take advantage of that."

With all the enthusiasm of a new homeowner, Mr. Sillerman, wearing cufflinks stamped with an image of Elvis, zipped through Graceland on a mission of his own last month, rapidly pointing out the things he wants to do once the renovations begin. He wants to expand the museum space, which is cramped. He is irritated by small details, like the jumbled layout of the house tour, which can lead visitors to a dead end.

But most important, Mr. Sillerman, who made his fortune by building and selling a chain of radio stations and then a concert-promotion business, wants to make Graceland a "multiday experience," not the two-hour walk-through it is now. He wants people to "stay as long as possible" — and, of course, to spend as much as they can.

Mr. Sillerman says he believes that Elvis Presley Enterprises has not used Elvis to his full potential, by a long shot. And now that Mr. Sillerman controls 85 percent of the company — Lisa Marie Presley, Elvis's daughter and sole heir, retains the remaining 15 percent — he now has power over Elvis's name and likeness as well as his house, its grounds and about 65 adjoining acres.

What Mr. Sillerman does not have are the rights to Elvis's music, which Elvis's manager, Col. Tom Parker, sold back to Elvis's record label, RCA, which was later acquired by Sony BMG. Colonel Parker and Mr. Presley split $5.4 million from the sale but gave up all future royalties — a mistake that Mr. Sillerman called "colossal."

If the plans materialize, the new Graceland compound will be very different from the one already visited by millions of fans. The small gift shop may be expanded into a retail complex full of Elvis memorabilia. CKX, Mr. Sillerman's entertainment company (the letters stand for "content is king"), says it has warehouses groaning with 600,000 pieces of Elvisiana, including a barber chair from Graceland, a jukebox from his home in Palm Springs, Calif., and movie contracts he signed.

Because Mr. Sillerman's company, which is publicly traded, also owns the "American Idol" franchise, it has a ready supply of musicians who could perform at the planned amphitheater. A CKX spokesman, Edmund Tagliaferri, said that Mr. Sillerman was prepared to spend "whatever it takes" to improve the compound.

The promise has excited many Graceland veterans. "We've been thinking about this stuff for so long, but now we can actually do it," said Jack Soden, the chief executive of Elvis Presley Enterprises, whom Priscilla Presley hired to oversee the family's business in 1981, a year before Graceland opened to the public.

While mapping out the renovations, Mr. Sillerman has been courting Graceland's guardians, including its second-most-famous former resident, Priscilla. When her daughter, Lisa Marie, struck the deal with CKX, Mrs. Presley gave up any commercial rights to Graceland and the Presley name and received $6.5 million in return. She is involved with plans for the renovations, though she has no financial stake in the project.

"It's very emotional for my daughter and for myself," Mrs. Presley said in a phone interview. "It's our baby. It's an emotional ride. We've grown with it, and it's a very personal experience for us."

While in Memphis two weeks ago, Mr. Sillerman met with local officials, including Willie W. Herenton, the city's mayor, and AC Wharton Jr., the mayor of Shelby County, to sell them on his plan, which has been drawn up by Bob Weis Design Island Associates, an Orlando firm that also designed the revamped observation deck at the top of Rockefeller Center.

HE was warmly received. The Memphis Regional Chamber, a business group, invited him to breakfast, and Representative Harold E. Ford Jr., the Memphis-area Democrat, invited him to lunch with some prominent businessmen. (Between glances at his BlackBerry, Mr. Ford praised Mr. Sillerman's "vision and commitment.")

One local business leader, Fred Jones Jr., a part-owner of the Memphis Grizzlies basketball team and the president of SMC Entertainment, a concert organizer with offices down the street from Graceland, was particularly enthusiastic. "The effect it's going to have on everybody's business in Memphis is tremendous," he said. "We've never had the resources to actually get it done."

So far, opponents to the plan, if there are any, have been quiet.

Even though Elvis's original fans are aging, the brand is still potent, said Robert K. Passikoff, the president of Brand Keys, a research firm in New York.

"You're not talking about a celebrity whose time came and went," Mr. Passikoff said. "You're talking about a real icon. You may have to update the environment in which you position him, but I think you're still looking at something that has very visceral and resonating values among people today."

For tourists on foot, crossing the buzzing traffic on Elvis Presley Boulevard is a dangerous proposition. Mr. Sillerman wants to tear down the existing visitors center and build a ne
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Reactions

gmahounddog (profilecontact) wrote on Mar 14, 2006report abuse
Graceland was Elvis' home and the place he went to to have peace and quiet. It should never be turned into an amusement park. Making the Memphis area more appealing is one thing, but leave Graceland alone and keep the area around it as he left it. One should always behave with respect and dignity when visiting-just as you would at any home where you are a guest.
SendToTodd (profilecontact) wrote on Mar 11, 2006report abuse
Don't worry folks. These are only proposals, the same proposals which have been discussed on and off by EPE and others for over 10 years. Personally I cannot see two hotels supporting up to 2,000 visitors a day, a convention centre, spar, and theatre being viable in Whitehaven. The once famous Memphis convention and entertainment business has moved out of town now into Mississippi 20 miles down the road to Tunica, where there are 15 magnificent hotels, spars, casinos, and convention facilities, all at give-away prices, with the opportunity for free food and booze. A non-gaming facility even boasting the fantastic "Elvis Presley" branding would find it very difficult to compete for corporate business. Hotels in Memphis have suffered badly since the expansion of Tunica, and it is fair to say that those properties within 5 miles of Graceland run on empty outside of the Presley season. Tunica also has snapped up the best staffing because of higher salaries and benefits, which often means that service in Memphis hotels, restaurants, and shops is sometimes below standard. I wish EPE well with their development plans and for these to succeed they have to aim for the highest of standards.
efan4ever (profilecontact) wrote on Mar 11, 2006report abuse
Lisa Marie does own the Mansion and the property that surrounds it. I went to the Elvis web site to look at the faq. It explains every thing. He can touch the property.
Lex (profilecontact) wrote on Mar 10, 2006report abuse
Sorry Jesper, not everyone is as intelligent as you are (or your as you would say). I think I understand Sillerman's plans perfectly. And from my own experience I know that any change in that neighborhood is an improvement. I don't know Elvis' last will by heart, but I will be surprised if he did put anything about such things in it... so surprise me with your knowledge!
byebye (profilecontact) wrote on Mar 10, 2006report abuse
Your not the sharpest knife in the drawer, are you Lex? Have you ever heard of "consideration to last will"? A disrespectful remark on people who are not able to make their voice heard anymore. I also believe that the significance of the Sillerman deal is beyond your comprehension.
Lex (profilecontact) wrote on Mar 10, 2006report abuse
Lisa "... should have considered more carefully what lies in the interest of her father..." . Hi, hi, what a b.s. her father is dead, as if he has any interest... She only has to consider her interest, and it looks like she is doing pretty well. If Sillerman makes it happen that the surroundings of Graceland are upgraded... Memphis might benefit a lot from it. It can't get any worse than it is now.
Lefty (profilecontact) wrote on Mar 10, 2006report abuse
Elvis is big business, and business survives on growth and profit. So goes the Corporate America mindset. Improve Graceland? Yes, it needs to be improved. Market Elvis in new ways? Sounds like a way to expand the business. But I wonder, how much is enough? Elvis is more than an icon; more than another Mickey Mouse! Behind his image is a person, someone we love. I feel that the person may be lost in the transition. There is so much talk about protecting his legacy, hence the footage from In Concert will not be released. Yet, I can buy a degrading rubber ducky of the fat Elvis in a white jumpsuit straight from the Graceland catalog. Sillerman needs to be very careful. Was it a mistake for Elvis to sell the music rights in 1973? I'd rather have RCA in control of the music than Mr. American Idol.
byebye (profilecontact) wrote on Mar 9, 2006report abuse
Elvis did not take care of business... And do you know why? -Becouse he was all about music. Now Pricilla however took care of business to insure Lisa´s future financially after Elvis´death. Lisa deserves a joyfull life outside of all this, but should have considered more carefully what lies in the interest of her father when it comes who has the right to use his name I believe. Outside the Graceland area... I think Elvis would have preffered a beautifull peacefull park.!
lray (profilecontact) wrote on Mar 9, 2006report abuse
This all sounds good. The area around Graceland is pretty low grade and tacky. It is time for an extreme makeover. It will be good for Memphis, Graceland, Elvis and Lisa. As Elvis would say, "Taking Care of Business."
Aarons (profilecontact) wrote on Mar 8, 2006report abuse
I hate Mr Sillerman, if he builds Ferists Wheel on the Graceland's ground I hope someone shoots him. I have never slandered not one word against Priscilla or Lisa but now they've just giving me a reason. You two have sold Elvis out to a money grabber who is almost like Tom Parker. If Elvis was still alive he would smack you both. Priscilla you can go back to Mike Stone. Mr Sillerman will ruin Elvis's image further by having Elvis Impersinators on American Idol, and what is he on about when he says, "If you walk through Graceland, it screams to you, 'Take me to Vegas! Take me to Vegas!' " When I toured thru Graceland it never screamed 'Take me to Vegas'. Graceland said to me 'Stay here for a while your welcome, don't go to Vegas.'
byebye (profilecontact) wrote on Mar 8, 2006report abuse
This is all so very insane! If people aren´t thrilled by just being on "holy ground", walking along Beale street and just consuming the historical music atmospere at "Sun" etc, then why go there?! Sillerman wants to drive attention to all "those others" who aren´t interested a bit in Memphis culturaly. Change CAN be good if a person with TRUE AIM comes along, having respect and knows the value of preserving historical places. Instead of finding such a "fire soul", I believe Lisa and her mother was fooled by smoke and mirrors, making a mistake in class with the one Elvis did in "73 when he sold the entire music publ back catalog to RCA. To WHO you sell is much more important then to HOW MUCH. They could have chosen to give everything away to the State of Memphis or a museum org with trust worthy credibility. That would have been a signal to the world that they were untouchable about their legacy, being billionairs as they already were. Who would like to see their fathers family name being used to its full potential for the cause of making more money????? Doesn´t "the girls" realize that fans respected them for not doing so in the past?! And now they´ve sold away their control to a person who´s only goal is just that.
Tcoil (profilecontact) wrote on Mar 8, 2006report abuse
They are actually planning to build on the grounds of Graceland!! What are they thinking! It doesn't take two bits of horse sense to realize that this is a no, no. No one that I know wants to see his property changed from the way it was when he left us. If they are so worried about people crossing the street, build a bridge over, or a tunnel under the blvd. but don't build on the grounds. It's the most beautiful thing in the area, and Lisa, if you sold the house to this money hungry schmuck, you're either stupid or a traitor to your fathers legacy.
nrbl (profilecontact) wrote on Mar 8, 2006report abuse
I was also under the impression that Lisa Marie had kept the house and all of its contents. Isn't that what she said on Larry King and other interviews?
jcorley (profilecontact) wrote on Mar 8, 2006report abuse
' Ready, Set, Go Man Go ' - The best news I've heard in a long time. Anything you can do just to improve the surroundings of Graceland, will be astounding and well-received by most, if not all. I really hope some improvements are ready for next year's 30th anniversary, and with the proper press and ad campaigns, and the like, it can be a truly memorable experience. It doesn't hurt to update to the 21st century in many ways either, but from what I've read above, I'm somewhat puzzled. I'm a little weary about the actual changes inside our #1 man's house and the immediate grounds. From what I understood til now, I thought Lisa Marie retained full control over Graceland itself. But, again, might be good...not sure. Maybe someone else here on the board can inform on that alot more than I can, or read the article different than I did and I misunderstood. I'm just a newbie here, with this being only my 2nd comment post, so I'll take my seat now and listen to the next. Oh, I just wanted to say. I enjoy this site very much, and always have. The critiques, reviews, rebuttals, opinions, comments, and all the other jargon, is what makes it more entertaining and complete. Take care and have a nice week. ~ Jay

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