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April 21, 2014

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NBT Woman of the Year Priscilla Presley on Elvis’ legacy, tribute artists and all those books

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Steve Marcus

Priscilla Presley speaks during a news conference for Viva Elvis by Cirque du Soleil at Aria on Tuesday, Dec. 15, 2009.

Priscilla Presley @Viva Elvis

Priscilla Presley and Cirque du Soleil unveil Viva Elvis at Aria in CityCenter on Dec. 15, 2009. Launch slideshow »
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Priscilla Presley poses for the cameras during the blue carpet premiere of Cirque du Soleil's "Viva Elvis" at the Aria Resort & Casino at CityCenter.

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Priscilla Presley and her son Navarone Garibaldi on the blue carpet for the Viva Elvis world premiere at Aria in CityCenter on Feb. 19, 2010.

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Priscilla Presley on Dancing With the Stars on May 4, 2010.

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Priscilla Presley.

Viva Elvis!

The wonder of Elvis

Priscilla Presley is calling from her home in Beverly Hills, and something loud and unwelcome is happening outside her windows.

“I’m sorry if I seem distracted during this, but if I pause, it’s because there is a lot of construction going on around me,” she says.

“Construction?” I ask “On your house?”

“No,” she says. “There is this unbelievable, monument-to-excess home going up. I’m beside myself.”

“Beside yourself, and beside the construction,” I say.

“Yes,” she says, with a laugh. “I’ve been here, in Los Angeles, in Beverly Hills, for 30 some-odd years. I like it quiet.”

And you imagine that those construction workers operating loud, heavy machinery nearby probably have no idea the nature of the disruption they are causing the only woman who was ever married to Elvis Presley. But she coasts along for 20 or so minutes, talking about Elvis’ life and impenetrable legacy.

Priscilla Presley still holds an active role as a consultant with Elvis Presley Enterprises, which has partnered with Cirque du Soleil in “Viva Elvis” at Aria. She visits Las Vegas frequently to check in and take notes on the show, which opened nearly a year ago.

On Jan. 29, Presley will be honored as Nevada Ballet Theater’s 2011 Woman of the Year during a gala dinner and fundraiser at Aria. This is the reason for the rare chance to interview the woman who first visited the city in 1962, was married at the Aladdin in 1967 and continues to keep an eye on the show that finally brought Elvis back to Vegas:

The Kats Report: How was it that you made the connection with Nevada Ballet Theater? We’ve had a wide variety of women honored over the years. Who contacted whom about you receiving this award as Woman of the Year?

Priscilla: I actually was contacted by them. I … Wow, I was so honored and very flattered by the company calling me. No (laughs), I would never call them. That’s funny.

TKR: I didn’t mean to imply that you were making calls, seeking to be named Woman of the Year by various organizations.

Priscilla: (Laughs) Hello! I want to be your Woman of the Year! No, I didn’t do that (laughs). They actually contacted me quite a few months ago and asked if I would accept, and I was very flattered.

TKR: This was connected to some degree to the opening of “Viva Elvis” at Aria, right?

Priscilla: Probably so, because of my involvement in the show. I got there, gosh, a few times a month to check in to see how it has evolved. Of course, the show is very important to me because it continues Elvis’ legacy of performing there, in Las Vegas, which is a place he loved very much. Plus, I’ve been a frequent visitor to Las Vegas, I have a lot of friends there, and I’m sure it came about that way, someone submitting my name.

TKR: You’re still very active in the production of “Viva Elvis,” aren’t you?

Priscilla: I’m active, yes. It’s Cirque du Soliel’s celebration of Elvis Presley, it’s in honor of him, it’s a celebration of his life.

TKR: What sort of changes have you suggested or enacted since the show opened?

Priscilla: Well, I’ve definitely voiced my opinion.

TKR: How so?

Priscilla: I’ve made a little list of things that I’ve felt needed to be elaborated on. Of course, the show is tighter now. It’s a little more fun. … You know, any time you put a show on, you have to tweak it to see what works and doesn’t work. We’re working on something right now that I am hoping will happen, a couple of song choices I felt needed to be, you know, changed.

TKR: Which songs were you looking to change?

Priscilla: What I wanted, I would like to see more gospel, more gospel songs in the show, because gospel was his roots. They’ve been very accommodating in it.

TKR: I’ve heard you just want more of Elvis in the show, what was true to his music and personality.

Priscilla: Yeah, we’re trying to get more Elvis, even though it’s a Cirque celebration of his life, some of the song choices and being tighter, a couple of the acts will be a little bit different. It’s the same show, but oh my God, it’s got so much life and energy, and Elvis is more in it, and everyone agrees that’s what it needed. It’s about Elvis, we all know all of his songs, and we can hear the songs, but we need to know why everyone was so enthralled by him and captivated by him. And that’s all happening, and that’s good.

TKR: How are people when they approach you today? I’m talking about the fans, especially those who remember him when he was alive. Are they still as passionate about him as they were when he was performing?

Priscilla: Absolutely. Absolutely. You know, Elvis had an incredible gift, and Elvis was very genuine, that’s been felt by fans from the inception. I was just over in England. Oh my gosh, we had a show over in England in September of last year, a tribute to him by top entertainers throughout Europe. And there were 25,000 people in Hyde Park. It was unbelievable, so magical. It could not have been more beautiful, just an ocean of people singing and holding candles, waving cell phones and lighters. It was if he was onstage himself. It was unbelievable.

TKR: It’s a shame he didn’t have a chance to perform overseas, isn’t it?

Priscilla: Well, that’s why I went over there. I wanted to represent him and thank all of the fans who have been a constant force of his life. He was huge in Europe, and especially in England, people who have been supporting him and going back and forth to Graceland every year. It’s unbelievable how many fans he has over there. I wanted to thank everyone, and let them know that he definitely wanted to go over there and perform for them, and that was always in his mind. They have given back so much.

TKR: This reminds me of something George Harrison said about Elvis, something he said during The Beatles “Anthology” series. There was a lot of talk about Elvis and how he was an inspiration in the development of the band, and as they became famous, George Harrison said he always felt sorry for Elvis because there was only one Elvis. Where there were four guys who could absorb the energy of that type of fame, Elvis was a singular figure. There was only one man who knew what it was like to be Elvis.

Priscilla: Oh my God, there could never have been more than one Elvis. There couldn’t have been two or three Elvises. I mean, Elvis Presley loved being Elvis Presley. He was born to be who he was. He was destined. He loved it, and I don’t think I ever knew any other entertainer or any celebrity who appreciated their fans as much as Elvis Presley did. He just always appreciated them for bringing him to the level he was.

TKR: As you’re very well aware, a lot of entertainers here in Las Vegas try to make a living capturing some version of that phenomenon. What do you think of impressionists, those who depict Elvis onstage and perform as him?

Priscilla: I think it’s keeping his name alive. It’s a huge compliment. I have no problem with that. You know, I think the ones who go a little bit overboard and make more of a character out of him, I’m taken a little aback by. But we have tribute artists out there -- we don’t call them impressionists -- who do a wonderful job keeping his name alive and image alive. Some of them do very well.

TKR: Every once in a while, I see an Elvis at the grocery store or walking through McCarran Airport. I’ve seen them on the streets hawking stuff. We’ve had a guy called Colonic Elvis, advertising that service, on the street. It’s amazing how many variations of Elvis we still see around Las Vegas.

Priscilla: (Laughs) It’s true. He’d probably get a kick out of it, actually. He had a great sense of humor. Someone had said that, as a real book reader, said, “I can’t tell you how many books that I read that have somehow Elvis’ name in it, how he’s attributed in someone’s life. Over 800 or some-odd books have been written about him.

TKR: And you’ve read them all, I’m sure.

Priscilla: Right (laughs). Well, everyone has a story. I can’t even read any of them. Oh my gosh, if someone ever met Elvis, or was associated with someone who knew Elvis, that makes them an expert. I can’t read any more books. This is heartbreaking to me, to see this. I very seldom go there, and I very seldom believe what I read.

Someone once said to me, “If I read one more story about someone playing football with Elvis here in Beverly Hills, I’m going crazy.” If he played football with as many people who say they played football with Elvis, he wouldn’t have had time to do any movies or make any music (laughs).

TKR: In that “Anthology” series, they actually joke about Ringo playing football with Elvis.

Priscilla: (Laughs) Well, there you go. I swear to God, I was there, and he did not play that much football.

TKR: You’ve said how fond you are of Las Vegas. Do you remember your first visit here?

Priscilla: Very well. Elvis took me, invited me to come to Los Angeles first, it was our first meeting after he left Germany (following military service) in 1960. He had me come in 1962, to stay for two nights, and he wanted to take me to Las Vegas. I’d never heard of Las Vegas, I’d just turned 17, it was in June -- my birthday was in May -- and that’s when he took me to Las Vegas, so I would be a little bit older (laughs).

We went on his bus, and we went to Vegas, and I’d never seen anything like it. The Rat Pack was there, the Tropicana was there, and as a young girl watching the Folies and these beautiful Tropicana girls coming down the stairs onstage, oh my gosh, in feathers and everything all over the place. The Ike and Tina Turner Review was in town, Red Skelton, George Burns, Fats Domino. It was when Vegas was so small, everybody knew each other.

TKR: It’s funny, in those days that you describe, the entertainment scene was really about star power and headliners. As successful as Cirque has been, that’s the one complaint that they’ve received, that they have taken the place of the types of headliners you described from that era. Have you seen this, that the stars have had to share the stage with Cirque?

Priscilla: Yes, absolutely they have, and Cirque is a phenomenon in itself. But it’s like Elvis said, there’s room for everyone. Everyone has their ride, and the city has to adjust a little bit. … Hopefully it’s a phase, and we’ll bring those types of entertainers back and people will appreciate them, because Vegas is full of talented artists. We can’t forget that. It is the Entertainment Capital of the World, and we cannot turn our backs on that, on the artists who are touring or the artists who have talent to share with us in the big showrooms.

TKR: I have to ask, how is Lisa Marie doing?

Priscilla: She doing great, thank you. She’s the proud mother of twin girls and is being a great mom. She’s actually recording her third album, and I’m ecstatic about it. She’s doing very well. We’re in for a big treat on this album.

TKR: Who are you still close to among Elvis’ inner circle?

Priscilla: Mostly Jerry (Shilling) and Joe (Esposito). Gosh, we’ve lost Charlie Hodge, which was an unbelievable loss (Hodge was a longtime friend, confidante and backing musician for Elvis who died in 2006). He was such a great friend.

TKR: We’re looking forward to seeing you at the event. You will stay around and say hello to a few of us?

Priscilla: Oh, absolutely. I’m thrilled by it, honestly, what the Nevada Ballet Theater means to Las Vegas, from 1972 to where they are today. It’s a very special company, and we need to support them. Yes, there are lots of star entertainers there, but we need to support the arts.

Follow John Katsilometes on Twitter at twitter.com/JohnnyKats.

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