Colonel Parker is the devil to many Elvis Presley fans. They hurl a litany of accusations at Presley’s former manager—he took too much of Elvis’s money, he mismanaged Elvis’s movie career, he pressured Elvis to work when he was in poor health, he even tried to capitalize on Elvis’s name after he died.
To what extent Parker was guilty of such sins against Elvis, I’m not qualified to say. I do know that while researching for my book, Elvis’57: The Final Fifties Tours, I became increasingly impressed with how the Colonel managed Elvis during the 1956-57 period. In fact, in my book I included a chapter entitled, “The Parker Propaganda Machine.” It outlines how Parker promoted, marketed, and booked Elvis in ways that undeniably made possible Presley’s meteoric rise in show business. In their rush to denounce him for failing his client in later years, many Elvis fans forget that there may not have been an Elvis Presley were it not for Tom Parker’s work in those early days.
The purpose here is not to recap the relationship between Parker and Presley. That can be found in detail in two Parker biographies published in recent years—Colonel Tom Parker by James Dickerson (2001) and The Colonel by Alanna Nash (2003).
Instead, the focus here will be on sharing some interesting information about Colonel Parker that appeared in a rather obscure source. I offer this information without prejudice or comment, leaving it to the reader to judge whether it reflects good or ill on Colonel Parker.
Colonel Parker stands stage front in Ottawa on April 3, 1957. That year Parker often used his body as the final line of defense should police lines fail to hold back teenage girls rushing the stage.
• Colonel Parker tells how the money was split
The article in question appeared in Variety on January 15, 1964. The piece by Michael Fessier, Jr., carried the headline, “Elvis Hits $20,000,000 Gross Jackpot”. The article’s first three paragraphs broke down the various amounts and sources of Presley’s income since 1956, with the total having reached the $20 million mark by the end of 1963.
The article then turned to a lengthy interview with Colonel Parker, who Fessier called the “commander-in-chief of the Presley forces.” Parker started out by explaining how Elvis’s earnings were divided in those movie-making days. Cash was split down-the-line of 75% to Elvis, 25% to the Colonel, with the William Morris Agency taking 10% off of the top of film revenues. According to the Colonel, “We make no picture deals without the great potentate—Abe Lastfogel.” (Lastfogel was the long-time president of the Morris agency.)
Parker admitted he was a bit troubled by the public perception that he was profiting too much from Presley’s work. He claimed that at least 50% of his share went right back into the business of promoting Elvis—“office expenses, advertising and exploitation, etc.” Elvis’s cut, said Parker, “goes straight to the Memphis accountants.”
• "Look—you got a product, you sell it."
The Colonel just shrugged at the perception around Hollywood that Elvis was falling off at the box office due to over exposure. “Look—you got a product, you sell it,” explained Parker. “As long as the studios come up with the loot we’ll make the deal. Those guys complaining—some of them are not working too good. Me—I’m happy being able to buy the groceries.”
As for the reports of declining returns on Elvis’s movies, Parker didn’t believe them. “They keep asking us to do more,” he said. “Somebody must be making a buck. A producer was complaining that an Elvis picture of his didn’t do so well. All I can say is that he must like losing money. Now he’s after us for two more.”
The Colonel went on to tell a story about a producer who wanted to trim down Elvis’s film fee. Less cash to Elvis, claimed the producer, would allow the use of a “great script” to get Presley’s film career back on the right track. “I told him that if we’re doing so badly maybe next year he wouldn’t want us at all,” said the Colonel, “and we better get all we can while we can—and I hiked the price.
“Another guy says he has a script which would cinch an Oscar for Elvis and wouldn’t we do it for less money. I told him pay us our regular fee and if Elvis gets the Oscar we’ll give him his money back. We never saw him again.
• No Oscar for Elvis, but lots of money
“So maybe we never win an Oscar—but we’re going to win a few boxoffice awards. Check the list of the 10 top boxoffice stars—Elvis is right there. And here’s a guy who carries his pictures by himself—the rest of the guys on the list have three or four stars to back them up.”
Fessier pointed out that the Presley-Parker partnership was one of the few in Hollywood that confined its demands to money. The writer explained, “Once a deal is made, the studio takes complete control of a film, the Presley camp having no say—so on cast, script or production costs.”
Colonel Parker confirmed that Elvis had no creative say in his films. “We don’t have approval on scripts—only money. Anyway, what’s Elvis need? A couple of songs, a little story and some nice people with him.
“We start telling people what to do and they blame us if the picture doesn’t go. As it is, we both take bows and if it doesn’t hit maybe they get more blame that us. Anyway, what do I know about production?—nothing.”
According to Parker, production costs for the average Presley film ran between $1.5 and $2 million, “and if the studio lets it—maybe a little more.”
• Elvis could always go back on the road
The Colonel didn’t seem too concerned that Elvis’s film popularity would dry up someday. Presley had other ways of making money that they could fall back on. “For one,” Parker said, “we can do some of the personal appearances we haven’t been able to. Anytime we want—$75-100,000 a week.”
In the meantime, Colonel Parker had nixed all offers for Elvis to appear on stage, as he had for Presley to appear on TV. One of the offers he turned down was for Elvis to appear on the small screen for $150,000. Presley’s schedule didn’t allow it anyway, according to Parker.
Over the next four years, Elvis’s movie career would indeed play out. Only then did the Presley-Parker partnership make a triumphant return to television and, soon after that, to the concert stage. But in 1964 both men seemed content with the steady and dependable flow of money provided them by the Hollywood studios. — Alan Hanson | © May 2008
“A producer was complaining that an Elvis picture of his didn’t do so well. All I can say is that he must like losing money. Now he’s after us for two more.”