My name is George Dassinger and I was a VP - Rogers & Cowan Public Relations’ Corporate Entertainment division - based in New York City from the late ‘70s through the mid ‘80s.
It was 1982, early spring, when I received a phone call from the West Coast office saying the company signed a new client. I would help launch the account under the guidance of the Beverly Hills office. Elvis’ home and entourage refuge was being turned into a “museum”. It was going to be “Graceland – the museum”.
I was told to fly to Memphis to visit Graceland. Report back after my visit, be fair and objective and provide an evaluation of media, promotional options and “a preview day”.
To digress a moment, being a New York area kid, Elvis was cool in his black leather suit. “Jailhouse Rock”, “King Creole” and then a “comeback NBC special was a defining Elvis”. The in-the-round network telecast rooted rock ‘n roll on TV and his music icon celebrity was enhanced forever more. Years and years later, his death impacted fans worldwide and his passing became Graceland’s nightmare and a media “field day”.
Elvis’ “Las Vegas persona” reigned – he was “The King”. After Elvis passed, his empire was cost-laden and his prized Graceland faced massive tax liens. A looming debt was “caving in the roof of The King’s domain”. Thankfully, with termination and business panache Priscilla Presley and Jack Soden saved Graceland. It succeeded thanks to a desperate vision, lots of prayers, darn good pr and stroke of “Smithsonian luck”.
This is the story of “Graceland – the museum”. It’s also a story of how the Smithsonian was a “Bob Vila answer” that Graceland – the museum needed. The next time you tour Elvis’ “platinum and gold wall of LPs”, think of them as originally “following the yellow brick road”. It’s true. The “the wall of LPs” were at first, utilized as the museum’s road-markers. As you strolled by store mannequins in need of repair (scraped noses, facial dents and scars) the LPs led the way exhibit by exhibit. Elvis’ tour trunk was open for all to see and stuffed with “The King’s clothing, jewelry and belongings”, Priscilla’s wedding gown was exhibited. Sorry, I’m getting ahead of myself.
Flash back to early spring 1982, late March I think, and I’m flying to Memphis and Graceland. Memphis is a part of Tennessee I had not yet visited. Nashville, sure, but Memphis was new to me. In the last 30 years or so, I have a true fondness for Memphis and a number of long-time friends, who live there still, like rock photographer Ebet Roberts. Graceland is also a memory I take some degree of pride in.
My time in Memphis was a “New York eye-opener” back then. I could not get a taxi half the time. I’d call in advance, talk to the dispatcher but the taxi would never come. I was staying at a Howard Johnson’s no less. The orange roof was a landmark. So, I would walk to Graceland along EP Blvd. – no sidewalks – just a dirt path leading to Graceland.
For two or three days I would walk down EP’s boulevard as the cars of Memphis whizzed by. Jack Soden laughed when he heard I walked that morning and made sure I had a taxi when I left that day. He said, “Welcome Memphis and next time, tell the taxi dispatcher it’s an airport run. They come every time.”
Graceland was closed to public and the “museum” was awaiting its first fans. Graceland’s opening was set - June 7, 1982. Priscilla Presley and Jack Soden were trying to turn Elvis’ estate into a bonafide museum with thin finances and a tax debt amounting to $500,000. They did what they could and as I walked down the museum’s “platinum and gold yellow-LP road”, it was apparent the museum needed a miracle. Everyone knew it but there was no more money to invest or borrow. Graceland was going to open as is – broken mannequins, estate blemishes, damaged goods and all.
Graceland held all of Elvis’ treasures (and secrets) but it needed to become a “museum” in order to succeed. Priscilla redecorated the main house to “recreate the era” when she lived in Graceland. Elvis’ vehicles were parked near the house. Some of the exhibit mannequins were damaged and the museum overall, third rate. In fact, many of the “original mannequins of Graceland” were acquired from a downtown Memphis department store now, out-of-business. It was “catch-as-catch-can” museum in with “Charlie Arquette exhibits”. Graceland needed a professional make-over, bad
Aside from the soon-to-open museum’s debt and cosmetic problems, there was an assortment of small retail stores selling the most absurd “Elvis items” one could imagine. For, example, there were mini-bottles of Elvis’ sweat, $1.50 last will and testament Xerox copies, dollar bills with Elvis’ likeness superimposed over George Washington’s and the worst of all, a paper bath (death) mat. In mid-1982, these parasitic shops hawked “Elvis souvenirs” from one end of Elvis Presley Boulevard to the other. Graceland bought out these tacky shops thankfully and expanded the Graceland complex to include its own official retail stores, a movie theater, Elvis’ tour bus and his private jet airliner.
The tackiest “Elvis store” of all had to be (what looked like) an old converted ’60s Chevron station - pointed arch and all, A huge sign in the window proclaimed to have “Elvis treasures” on exhibit and remarkably, it was just a few minutes walk from the gates of Graceland. Elvis was Memphis’ meal ticket. The parasitic stores were entrenched back then and reminded me of a carnival show. The show was at Elvis’ expense.
Mid-spring in Memphis 1982, Vester, Elvis’ uncle, was still manning the “noted gates of Graceland”. He lived in a trailer located on the property and Elvis’ two aunts were still living in the main house. I was told that the two elderly aunts (Delta was one of them) disliked one another and their respective lap dogs carried on as rivals, too. The two aunts would snap at one another and the dogs would yap and nip while they argued. The bouts created a family scene but no one paid much attention to their antics. Priscilla just smiled and waved them off whenever they would argue. Vernon kept his distance on the property and preferred to “hang” with the security guards – gate-duty - every day.
The public would not be allowed go up the inside stairs of the house for concern that the second floor could not handle the excessive traffic of fans. The stairs were narrowly built and the aunts/family still lived in “the house” at the time. Today, the stairs have been refortified and the aunts have passed. You see, Graceland’s main house was not as big (a house) as it seemed. It was more house than mansion.
I was expecting a “grand front entrance”. It wasn’t. It could be my impressions of Graceland were created by TV movies like the old Don Johnson/Elvis movie or vintage news segm