Graceland turns on the most famous Christmas lights in rock ‘n’ roll this evening in Whitehaven, and country music star Martina McBride will be in Graceland Plaza to throw the switch on the rows of blue lights.
The year at Graceland ends with the release of a Christmas duets album that features McBride as well as other female crooners trading lyrics digitally with Elvis Presley.
But 2009 will begin with some uncertainty about broader plans for the worldwide business of Elvis including an expansion of Graceland into a tourist zone taking in Elvis Presley Boulevard from Brooks Road to Shelby Drive.
CKX Inc., the company that bought 85 percent of Elvis Presley Enterprises in 2007, announced the $250 million project, but there have been complications with the economic downturn.
CKX was in the process of going from a publicly traded company to a privately held company this year. CKX chairman and chief executive Robert F.X. Sillerman had hoped to complete the sale of CKX to 19X, a company also controlled by Sillerman, by the end of October. But two weeks ago, 19X Inc. announced in a U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission filing that it has ended its bid to buy CKX.
“19X cited the extraordinary national and global economic conditions that made it impossible to consummate the transaction,” read the SEC notice. The notice also said Sillerman would “continue to pursue an alternate transaction for the acquisition of the company.”
All but $500,000 of the $37.5 million termination fee will be paid in CKX stock owned by 19X. The remaining $500,000 will be paid in cash.
EPE Chief Executive Officer Jack Soden was asked about the impact at a meeting this month of the Metro Memphis Attractions Association at Graceland’s Chrome Grille.
“Everything is not without a question mark,” Soden said, referring generally to national economic conditions. He said he couldn’t be more specific about the Whitehaven plan.
“There’s an awful lot of behind-the-scenes work done,” Soden said. “It’s going forward. I’m not sure you could say it’s going forward at breakneck speed, right now. But it is definitely going forward.”
A Las Vegas casino to feature a Cirque du Soleil Elvis-themed show is under construction as the year’s end nears and will still open despite economic conditions, Soden said.
Sillerman told the annual Elvis fan convention Downtown in a taped appearance in August that his attempt to spread the Elvis brand will not seek to change Graceland but to keep it as it was in 1977, the year Presley died.
Soden confirmed that as well this week.
“Everything else needs to change,” he said, referring to plans that include using land beyond Graceland Plaza and north and south of Graceland that EPE has been buying up over an 18-year period.
With nearly 25 years at the helm of EPE, Soden said he frequently hears proposals to “reinvent” the late entertainer. It’s a term he doesn’t care for.
“He just needs a reintroduction,” Soden told the group of 25 people. “You don’t need to change anything about Elvis. All you have to do is introduce him to new young eyes and ears and get out of the way. Let the introduction happen.”
Things to come
Like other attractions, Graceland’s attendance has leveled off at between 500,000 and 600,000 visitors a year. Soden’s goal is a million visitors a year and to break a “five-year cycle” of focusing on the anniversaries of Elvis’s death or birth.
2007 was the 30th anniversary of Presley’s death. The year before, Graceland produced a concert featuring Presley’s backing band from the 1970s performing live with a digital big-screen image of Presley singing the same songs. Soden estimated it cost about $700,000 to produce.
“It’s not the kind of things we can do every year. That’s why we’ve gotten into this rhythm,” Soden said. “One of these years we’re going to have to cut loose and produce a $500,000 show that we may not make money on. But it will get people out of their five-year rhythm.”
Another attempt will be more of a focus on anniversaries of career milestones. Next month will mark the 40th anniversary of Presley’s 1968 comeback special. In January and February, Soden said, there will be commemorations of the recording sessions at the old American Recording studio. The sessions at the now demolished studio at Chelsea Avenue and Danny Thomas Boulevard in North Memphis produced some of Presley’s biggest hits during the 1970s in about a week and a half of recording. August will mark the 40th anniversary of Presley’s landmark 1969 show opening the International Hotel in Las Vegas.
A new exhibit next year will be a first for Graceland in that Elvis Presley won’t be the sole focus of it. 2009 will mark the 70th anniversary of the construction of Graceland, which was built in 1939 as a house for Whitehaven’s Moore family. It replaced an older farm house on top of the hill of what was then a 500-acre farm in rural Shelby County.
The original plans and an early drawing of the house were found in a shed on the property years ago. The drawing had been hanging in Soden’s office until archivists discovered its value and began planning the exhibit.