Priscilla Presley saved Graceland and turned it into the second most visited home in the U.S. (after the White House). She knew what the place meant to Elvis and, she tells Travelgirl Publisher Renee Werbin, “I rose to the occasion and that was my mission.” Since then, our esteemed covergirl has risen to the occasion repeatedly as an actress, entrepreneur, animal rights activist and philanthropist. Read on, as she shares some insight into her amazing life and her latest endeavor: the first-ever Elegant Southern Style Weekend at Graceland, happening in September.
Travelgirl: It’s a pleasure to catch up with you. We’ve been fans since you married Elvis. You met Elvis when you were young. You married and moved into an exhilarating and captivating life, which you handled with grace and humanity.
Priscilla Presley: That’s so nice to hear. When you look back at your life it’s nice to see what you’ve accomplished. I look back and wonder how I managed to find my way. Obviously there was no prototype for me. Day by day life was an education and sometimes I felt very much alone.
TG: In 1979, you became co-executor of the Presley estate. You took over from Elvis’ dad, Vernon Presley, and turned the estate into an extraordinarily successful organization. What are some of the obstacles you faced and how did you overcome them?
PP: That’s a very good question and thinking about it I realize that negativity was the biggest obstacle I faced. I realized the estate was running out of money and I wanted to keep everything operating as it was. I was able to accomplish this. I kept all the maids, all of the people we already had on staff, even the gate guards and the cooks. I never let anyone go. I was informed right off that we were running out of funds to support Graceland and I was told that it should be sold. That was the last thing in my mind; I wasn’t going to sell Graceland. Elvis really loved that home. I was determined to keep Graceland and to make sure that Elvis would never be forgotten. We had the IRS after us; we owed estate taxes and there were a lot of unpaid bills. I went on the road by myself, trying to find someone to help me with this task. It was quite a journey and no one seemed to understand the importance of saving this beautiful home that was owned by one of the world’s most iconic entertainers. I went to bankers, to museum officials, to concert promoters — but it was indicated to me that these people would not help me save Graceland.
I saved all that Elvis had, all of his suits and clothing. Thank God for Vernon Presley; he didn’t throw away anything and I’m talking about anything including old lawn furniture. He was always afraid that someone would take it, steal it or sell it so he kept everything, even receipts.
TG: How did you manage back then as a woman by yourself with such a Herculean task?
PP: I rose to the occasion and that was my mission. I was not going to accept ‘no,’ and I wasn’t going to accept that Elvis would be wouldn’t be remembered in six months, that was unfathomable. Eventually I found someone in Kansas City who is still with us today, the remarkable Jack Soden, our CEO since 1982. He gave us the money and we worked together from the very beginning. We had only a little over $100,000 left in our bankroll and we got it all back in a month from people visiting Graceland. It was very rewarding showing all those naysayers that we could do it, and here we are today.
TG: It’s an iconic stop; Graceland should be one everyone’s bucket list. Elvis Presley was a phenomenon and the world will probably never see anyone like him again. Elvis meant so much to so many people.
PP: People all over the world know about Elvis and love him. They listen to his music still, and I know that for a fact because I’ve been on tour with the Royal Philharmonic Concert Orchestra and other very famous orchestras around the country and we are playing his music with videos of Elvis singing up on screen. I’m going to the UK in November and elsewhere. We’ve sold over 12,000 seats in the arena thus far. People still want to hear Elvis sing and they want to see him perform; thousands and thousands of people still want to see Elvis Presley.
TG: You’ve kept Elvis’ legacy alive. He would be amazed at what you’ve accomplished in his memory. I admire your tenacity.
PP: Thank you. Well, as I think about it, for me this is fulfilling Elvis’ dreams. One of his dreams was to perform with a full orchestra, which we’ve now done with the Royal Philharmonic. Another was to go to other countries with the orchestra. I’ve been able to accomplish both of those dreams and I have a few more to go. All of this comes from knowing Elvis so well and knowing what his dreams were.
TG: You are an entrepreneur, an actress, an activist for great causes and a philanthropist. Let’s start with acting. We loved you on Dallas. What can you share about your acting career?
PP: I never started out to become an actress; it was never in my DNA shall we say. Colonel Parker introduced me to Norman Brokaw who became chairman and CEO of William Morris Agency and Norman took me under his wing. The Colonel told me after Elvis passed that people would be approaching me and wanting me to do a lot of things, and he basically put me in Norman’s hands and Norman guided me. That was how my acting career started.
One of the first things I did was Those Amazing Animals, which I did with Burgess Meredith and Jim Stafford in 1980 and ’81. I loved it; it was a wonderful show and very educational and as you know, I love animals. It was very successful and that was the start for me. From there I did a movie with Michael Landon; we filmed Love is Forever in Thailand and that was my first experience as an actor. It wasn’t the greatest experience. We worked under difficult conditions and it was uncharted territory for me, the food being the biggest challenge. Michael was very sweet, very nice; it was a learning experience. From there I became the spokesperson for Wella Balsam Shampoo and then went to Dallas and starred as Jenna Wade.
TG: I loved Dallas and watched it every week.
PP: I loved that show too. It was nothing I had ever expected. With all of the tabloids stating that no one got along I didn’t know what to expect; I wondered what I was getting into. I started watching the show and found it to be really exciting. There weren’t many television stations at the time we were filming. People would tune in and Dallas was exciting; to viewers it was bigger than life. It was the first insight into the lives of the rich and famous with conflicts, greed, jealousy and betrayals. It was well written and on Friday night at 9 p.m. the country tuned in to see what happened with J.R., Cliff Barnes, and the other stars. Now you can TIVO but back then people didn’t go out on a Friday night; they stayed home and watched Dallas. Patrick Duffy was marvelous as was Larry Hagman and the rest of the cast. We were often invited to Larry Hagman’s home.
TG: You became Priscilla Presley – on your own. You became your own person and not just Elvis’ wife.
PP: I did have to separate myself and even today I still do things that show who I am as a person. I have my own projects as well. I know that I am very much attached to the Elvis name, but it is important to do other things that are important to me.
TG: We applaud your dedication to the Dream Foundation. Tell us how we can donate to this most worthwhile foundation that helps adults suffering with terminal illnesses fulfill their dreams.
PP: I met Tom Rollerson who was the founder of the Dream Foundation back in 1994. I went to one of his events in the Bahamas and I was blown away. Tom was raising money to help terminally ill adults fulfill their final dreams. I had heard about the Make a Wish Foundation; the Dream Foundation starts for people at age 18; we pick it up after Make a Wish ends. I became part of it; I became an Ambassador and helped fulfill wishes and make dreams a reality. It’s been so rewarding and I’m learning so much. I often go to hospices to work with people and I keep up with them. Their dreams can be so slight; they might need a wheelchair or a computer or a trip to Disneyland. It’s so worthwhile. More info can be found at Dreamfoundation.org. Please donate to this worthy cause.
TG: You are dedicated to many other worthwhile causes including animal rights. How did you first become involved? I know you are also incredibly interested in the PAST Act.
PP: I was rescuing animals when I was only five years old. I used to hide them in my closet because my dad didn’t want animals in the house. I brought them in anyway. I had dinner on the table and would take food from the table, excuse myself, and go feed them. My dad finally found out a month later because I had to clean up after them. That was the start. We kept some of the animals but we moved a lot so I would have to find homes for my beloved animals. I had six dogs at one time; three English bulldogs, a French bulldog and two Boston Terriers. They were great and I was their pack leader. I inherited Lisa Marie’s three bulldogs and I was so happy to take them.
I am in favor of The PAST Act that was introduced in the House in January. The PAST Act is trying to end the painful practice of soring – putting chemicals on the front legs of a quarter horse. Tennessee Walking Horses already have a natural gait and soring makes their gait more pronounced. This is potentially hurting the horses and this is a very, very cruel act. For the first time we have 290 sponsors; it’s overwhelming to have so much support. I’ve been to Washington to lobby Senators and Congressmen to co-sponsor in support of the PAST Act. Elvis surprised me with a three-year-old black Quarter Horse named Domino for Christmas once and I would ride every day. I want to protect these horses from harm.
TG: You are hosting an “Elegant Southern Style Weekend” at Graceland September 27-29, which will celebrate the American South. What do you have planned?
PP: This is truly exciting for me. It’s going to be our first-ever “Elegant Southern Style Weekend.” We’ve been talking about it for a while. It’s going to be a unique celebration of the American South. I’m going to be joined by premier chefs, event planners and lifestyle experts. It will be a real southern culture type of experience. We’ll have guest speakers and panel discussions and we will be answering questions such as, “Why is the South so embraced?” and, “Why do people come to the South?” We know all about that because we have so many guests at Graceland who come back again and again for our Southern hospitality.
TG: Please tell us what Graceland means to you.
PP: Graceland means home to me; every time I come back it’s as if I never left. All the memories are sitting there waiting to be told over and over again. I can hear Elvis’ laughter as he walked down the staircase; I can hear him singing in the piano room. It means preserving Graceland to how Elvis loved it and wanted it to be. Elvis was so gracious and so kind. When I meet some of the actresses he worked with they talk about how nice and gracious Elvis was. Graceland is like home; as if I never left.
TG: You travel often; do you have a favorite travel destination? What’s on Priscilla Presley’s bucket list?
PP: Oh dear; I’ve traveled all over. I travel with the Royal Philharmonic Concert Orchestra and Elvis is up there on screen. We’ve taken the orchestra all over the world including Costa Rica, Buenos Aires, Brazil, Australia, Europe, all over. I love to travel and Israel is on my bucket list. Everyone who has gone says they come back a different person.
TG: Is there any item you never leave home without?
PP: Photos, I always pack my photos. Oh my gosh, I still look at photos and I miss having photos in a picture frame. I’m always showing photos on my iPhone these days.
TG: What’s next for the illustrious Priscilla Presley?
PP: The event at Graceland is my focus now. We are working with top people and the event is going to be phenomenal. Please join us; it’s a unique time to be able to get personal with very dedicated, capable and skilled people and I’m looking forward to making this a yearly event.