Las Vegas Sun
Tuesday, April 21, 2015 | 11:21 a.m.
The core question for fans of the King of Rock ’n’ Roll has long been: “How can we bring Elvis back to Las Vegas?”
Priscilla Presley has long asked that herself.
“This is something we’ve been thinking about for years because Elvis loved performing in Vegas. He loved it, and it was such an important part of his career,” Presley said during a recent phone interview.
“So when this opportunity came up with Westgate, it was just right. It was the International, the Las Vegas Hilton, and it just came together. I said, ‘Let’s go for it. Let’s take this opportunity.’ ”
Like the Elvis hit of the same name, it’s now or never (ha) for Elvis Presley Enterprises and the new regime at Westgate Las Vegas to pay proper homage to the King. Opening to the public at 10 a.m. Thursday is “Graceland Presents Elvis: The Exhibition, The Show, The Experience.” Officials representing Elvis Presley Enterprises — including Lisa Marie Presley — Graceland and Westgate will be on hand Thursday afternoon for a ribbon-cutting at the hotel.
This is the most extensive permanent Elvis attraction anywhere (including the original Graceland, if you add the 1,600-seat Elvis Presley Theater at Westgate).
The Elvis fortress covers 28,000 square feet and is laden with hundreds of never-made-public artifacts (his high school yearbook, first gold album and assorted stage attire, vehicles and contracts), and the Graceland Wedding Chapel. Featured, too, are such delicious additions as a video and photo trek through Elvis’ career that features a nearly half-hour film of his greatest performances.
Set for “Today” on NBC is the first wedding at the new chapel for a couple who has won a national contest to be so honored. That event is set for the 8 a.m. hour Thursday on KSNV Channel 3.
Following is the conversation with Presley, a member of rock ’n’ roll royalty who remains fiercely protective of Elvis’ image and legacy:
In this attraction is the show “Elvis The Experience,” and we have already had a lot of Elvis shows in Las Vegas. Why try this one?
We had the Cirque show (“Viva Elvis”), which was a good show, but it wasn’t really the show we, ourselves, managed. We’re going to be rotating shows, and this will be the first show, and it’ll be there for six weeks, very similar to what Elvis did in playing twice a year, so hopefully people will see it and come back later in the year.
You’ve given this show approval, obviously. Why was it selected?
Well, it’s starring Martin Fontaine, and I discovered Martin for the first time last year. ... I haven’t really spent much time around impersonating shows or tribute artists, as you call them. I’ve kind of kept my distance, and I think our objective is to kind of keep that (impressionist) caricature of Elvis away and put in shows that will do Elvis a lot of justice in his legacy to maintain the feel of him.
… This is just called “The Elvis Experience,” and with Martin, I was so pleasantly surprised, and I recommended to our partners that we introduce this show so you can truly get the experience of Elvis.
He’s not Elvis, of course. No one can ever, ever replace him, but you get the feel of what it was like attending an Elvis show.
Living in Las Vegas for a long time, I’ve seen Elvis everywhere. I see him at the grocery store. I see him at the airport, driving around the city in his jumpsuit …
Right, yes. I’m sure that’s true.
And I need to ask how you feel about that. It seems, in its purest form, the motive for a lot of these people is somewhat noble. But has it become too kitschy, and you need to remind people of what he was really like? I think that's what I’ve heard from you over the years.
Yes. Thank you, thank you, thank you. That’s exactly what it is. My daughter and I want to preserve who Elvis was as a man, as an entertainer, as a performer, as an actor, as a human being, and to have this image out there, you know, for even the next generation — the generation that we’re in — to preserve who he was and not a caricature that we see out there, especially in Las Vegas.
It is what kids see, and they say, “What was so exciting about him?” You know, when you see all the different forms and looks people use to portray him, and we want to address that. We’re trying to clean up the merchandising, too. We’re trying to clean that up, as well.
I was going to bring that up. I was on Fremont Street the other night and was looking at these, like, gold-plastic $10 Elvis-styled sunglasses, with the fake sideburns glued to the frames. I was thinking, “Is this really how Elvis would want to be remembered?”
It makes it like a joke. The thing is, Elvis’ look was of its time. It was of that era, you know, sideburns were in (laughs). They really were. Look at pictures of the stars of the time, Burt Reynolds and different people who wore sideburns in that period. But now, it is so exaggerated, you see it in that form and image, it is sickening to us. He had so much more depth than this.
I think this is the moment that we can start this, and there will not be any impersonators or tribute artists at the show. We’re cleaning it up. If someone wants that, well, they’ll have to go searching somewhere else. We’re keeping Elvis authentic.
So the discussion about the wedding chapel not incorporating an Elvis impressionist — that doesn’t sound like it was too difficult a decision.
No, no, no (laughs). Let me tell you a story. My nephew got married in Memphis recently. He’s young. He picked out the wedding chapel. He lives in Texas and went online and booked a chapel for the wedding, and I was of course invited with the rest of my family. My mother, my father, the siblings who could make it.
We get there and my cousin says, “Should I go in and take a look first?” I said, “Yes, can you please do that?” So, she walks in, and who greets her?
An Elvis impersonator.
My cousin tells me that he has the long sideburns, the long hair, very bizarre looking. She says, “I don’t think you’re going to want to go in,” and explained it all to me.
So did you go in?
No. Can you imagine if I had walked in? I mean, it would have just been … it would have been all over the news. I just made the decision not to do that. It made me realize what we wanted to do with this chapel, which is going to be the first chapel in Las Vegas that we are going to operate. We’re going to make it a great experience for someone, but if they’re expecting to see that, then it’s the wrong chapel for them.
But there is still a lot of Graceland effect to the chapel?
It’ll feature a photo of the backdrop of Graceland, so it appears they are being married on the front steps. It’s really beautiful. It’s a high-definition photo and looks very authentic, and it’s going to be designed as a very classic little chapel. And in working with the “Today” show wedding planners, the first wedding is going to be a really fun event, and I’m going to be the matron of honor! So exciting.
This attraction has a lot of memorabilia from his life and peripherally from yours, too. Do you have to kind of grow into being comfortable with your personal effects being on public display?
Yes. Absolutely. In the beginning, it was very difficult, actually. In that time period, we tried to be very private, and the times that we could be private, we cherished. It was tough because his life was such a public life in every way, but whenever we went back to Graceland or would visit certain places, we did try to keep our privacy, and I did have to grow into losing some of that.
At first, some of these items were made public without your permission. I remember that being a big problem.
At first, my gosh, when he passed, about a year after he passed, there was a souvenir shop across the street from Graceland, and everything was going in there about Elvis, they were taking things out of our trash. They had my eyelashes, you know, back in the 1970s, huge eyelashes of mine. There was a pair of pajamas that I wore that they got a hold of — it was ghastly, my gosh. I thought, “This is not right.”
And this was right across the street from Graceland?
Yes, oh, yes. Locks of Elvis’ hair, from the barber, they had somehow collected. All of that sort of thing. It was a shock that I was in for, and we had to be very careful about things we threw away, and to watch the people who were putting up shops all over who said that Elvis had given them something, this or that.
That is why we have now our own authentication process. Now, in a whole new time, especially because we are displaying it and it’s under our control, then I’m much happier with our artifacts, and they are truly authentic.
Is it possible to pick your favorites?
Oh, there are so many things — so many things from Vegas. The American Eagle jumpsuit that Elvis wore from 1972. The opening night tunic from July 1969. A telegram to Barbra Streisand wishing her well on her opening night at the International.
We have coveralls from “Viva Las Vegas” because he was a mechanic. We have all five Sun Records. It’s going to be pretty amazing, this exhibit, and it’s going to be much bigger than people think because it’s 28,000 square feet. It’s not a small exhibit.
I’d love to know what you thought of “Million Dollar Quartet.” You’ve seen it, right?
I’ve seen it with Cody Slaughter playing Elvis, about two years ago, and he was the first tribute artist I’ve ever seen performing. And for the younger years, he did a nice job. I actually enjoyed the show, to be honest with you. It was entertaining. It was an interesting moment in time, I have to say (chuckles).
You brought up “Viva Elvis” earlier. Is there any existing partnership remaining with you and Cirque?
No, no, there is not. I mean, that’s one reason we are so proud of this show because we are managing it. We have a say in it. “Viva Elvis” was basically Cirque du Soleil’s show, and their vision, and we had no part of it. That was very difficult for us.
Our prior partners (Cirque) felt they were good, which they are, at all of their shows, but this was the first with a solo artist. They had the collaboration with The Beatles when they did “Love.” Just thought they’d done a great job with “Love,” they would do a great job with Elvis and give them the right to create their own show.
But what’s happening at Westgate is all your idea?
Yes. It’s all us, and it’s all Elvis.