The song that people at Seven Angels Theatre in Waterbury are singing this week is "Don't Be Cruel."
But Elvis Presley Enterprises Inc. got all shook up when it found out that a small, nonprofit theater was planning a musical tribute to the singer titled "The King of Memphis: The Music of Elvis." It charged that the theater was using the Presley name, image and songs without the approval of the licensing organization.
For now, the King has left the building.
The sudden exit of the show threatens the existence of the theater, says founding artistic director Semina De Laurentis. Seven Angels is in its 12th season.
The Elvis show was set to play May 8 to June 8, but the theater received a cease-and-desist letter Monday, saying legal action against the theater would be taken if it opened the show. The theater notified The Courant in a fax on Friday.
"This comes up from time to time," said Gary Holbey, vice president of the Presley organization, adding that there was legal action pending this week against an unauthorized show in Munich.
The Memphis-based organization, created by the Presley Estate and the Elvis Presley Trust, is the exclusive owner of the trademark of Elvis Presley and protects the authorized use of the Presley image for commercial profit. It also owns the publishing rights to many of Presley's songs. "Commercially exploiting his name, image or likeness in a stage show involves our rights," said Todd Morgan, director of media and creative development for the Presley organization. A Broadway musical featuring the music of Presley is being planned.
"It never occurred to me that you can't even say `Elvis' on stage without permission," said De Laurentis, who added she was in the process of obtaining the performance rights to the music when the Presley group presented her with the threat to shut the show down. Holbey said his organization was not in communication with the theater about the rights of songs it holds.
The Seven Angels show was created and staged by De Laurentis and features five performers and a pianist telling the singer's life through narration and his songs. No one "played" Presley, said De Laurentis: "This was not an Elvis impersonation show."
The theater canceled the production and is looking at another show to put in its place. Although the theater entered the season debt-free, this season it was struggling with a "five-figure" deficit that De Laurentis hoped the Presley show would ease. With the cancellation of the show, the theater's red ink is now more than $100,000.
De Laurentis said she feared that the loss of the Presley show could force the theater to close for good, because it does not have an endowment or a reserve.
"We're looking for another angel or two," she says.
By FRANK RIZZO, Courant Staff Writer