Elvis Inc., Enjoying A Sweet Hereafter

By Melinda Newman
Special to The Washington Post
Sunday, August 12, 2007

The King is still dead. Long live the King!

Thursday marks the 30th anniversary of Elvis Presley's death, but in many ways the keepers of his estate are only starting to take care of business. Get ready for a Cirque du Soleil show featuring Elvis's music in Las Vegas; the prospect of Presley hotels and casinos opening around the world; and a $250 million overhaul of Graceland and its environs in Memphis.

Until recently, Elvis Presley Enterprises, the Memphis-based company that oversees all things Elvis, promoted the rock-and-roll icon primarily by opening his modest mansion to an adoring and curious public -- and through licensing his image for everything from Pez dispensers and Reese's Cups to chess sets and Harley-Davidson motorcycles.

In October, Presley placed No. 2 on Forbes's list of top-earning dead celebrities, with an income of $42 million. That's a slight stumble from his perennial placement at the top of the annual survey since its inception in 2001, but his representatives stress that the drop was because of the one-time sale of a portion of former Nirvana frontman Kurt Cobain's publishing catalogue, which temporarily propelled the grunge god ahead of the King.

But much as the late-era Elvis was in his spangled jumpsuit, the Presley brand is expanding. It's the result of the purchase of 85 percent of Elvis Presley Enterprises for $100 million from the King's sole heir, daughter Lisa Marie, three years ago by New York-based CKX Inc. (In addition to the remaining 15 percent, Lisa Marie retains ownership of Graceland and of her father's personal effects.)

"It occurred to us that a good business to be in was the icon business, where you didn't need to describe who you were and what you stood for," explains CKX Chairman Robert F.X. Sillerman. CKX has also snapped up 80 percent of the rights to Muhammad Ali's name and likeness and bought "American Idol" parent company 19 Entertainment -- hence the contestants' trek to Graceland two seasons ago and Celine Dion's "duet" with Elvis this past season.

"It's a steal," Business Week marketing analyst David Kiley says of the EPE purchase. "No one comes close to Elvis."

If Sillerman has his way, by the 40th anniversary of Presley's demise, annual income from Presley dealings will be at least $150 million. Much of that money will come from Las Vegas, a town whose fortunes are intertwined with the entertainer's (so much so that ABC will air a special about Presley's influence on Vegas in September).

Following the wildly successful "Love," Cirque du Soleil's extravaganza featuring Beatles music, the Quebec-based acrobatic troupe plans to open a spectacle built around Elvis's songs and image in November 2009 at the MGM Mirage's new $7 billion CityCenter Las Vegas resort. Across from the CityCenter will be the first Elvis Presley hotel and casino, slated to open in 2011.

Presley never toured outside the country, but Sillerman predicts the expansion of Elvis properties casinos into Europe, the Middle East and Asia. "There are more Elvis Presley fan clubs in Japan than in any other country," he notes. Fan No. 1 is former Japanese prime minister Junichiro Koizumi, who made his own pilgrimage to Graceland last year with President Bush.

Asked if there's anywhere Presley is not a star, Sillerman dryly replies, "I haven't been to the moon yet."

Closer to home, the area around Graceland is getting a pricey facelift. EPE has gobbled up 100 acres surrounding Presley's 14-acre estate over the past 18 years for an expansion that will include a retail, entertainment and restaurant village as well as a new visitor center. The development will also include a 500-room hotel that, upon completion, will replace the 128-room Heartbreak Hotel, which sits at the end of Lonely Street (naturally) off of Elvis Presley Boulevard.

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