Annett Wolf – in her own words. From the book “The Wolf and the glass eye”.
Translated by Christian Rantsén
Los Angeles, 1977
When I was asked to come to a meeting with Elvis Presley’s two producers Gary Smith and Dwight Hemion I felt really lucky. A couple of weeks earlier they had asked me to sent them a demo tape, so they could watch my work – but they didn’t tell why they wanted to see it.
Don was the first person I called and told the great news – we should go on tour with Elvis Presley, The King of Rock’n’roll.
On a journey through the american bible belt to Ohio and Indiana, where Elvis was scheduled to perform.
The TV company CBS was behind the big production, which was scheduled to the aired in the fall of 1977, first in the USA afterwards in the whole world. Smith-Hemion was chosen for the production of taping of the concerts, we should film everything else that going on behind the scenes. From interviews with the fans to his infamous “Memphis mafias” activities. Most importantly, we should try to tell the real story and describe the feeling when “God had landed”.
The grey freeways of concrete was rising towards a poison and dirty horizon. The sky around Indianapolis looked like a plate with mashed potatoes which was getting cold. Street signs with great number of names of suburbs, hotels and gas stations became diffuse pictures through the windows of the car. Don sat with clenched teeth behind the steering reel and hum the melody again and again: “Are you lonesome tonight? Do you miss me tonight? Are you sorry, we drifted apart?”.
He could only remember the the first three lines of the lyrics, so he kept on repeating until Peter, my sound engineer, leaned towards him – with his big hands on Don’s shoulders and yelled through the noice of the air condition: “If you don’t stop now, you won’t get any sound work done tomorrow.” But Don conteniued: “Are you lonesome tonight”. I stopped the discussion and suggested, that we all should go out to dinner that night. My mediation worked for a short while and the atmosphere in the car got better.
The local DJ in the radio annouced in a booming voice that within 24 hours the legend would be landing in Indiapolis.
Afterwards we could hear Elvis’ soft voice trough the radio and – believe it or now – singing “Are You Lonesome Tonight?” Don lighted up in a big smile, now he could get to the next lines in the song. Peter fell backwards into the back seat, relieved, while sipping at his water bottle, while thinking of cold showers and Jack Daniels.
We headed towards downtown Indianapolis and the moment of truth became clear to me. I was in this very moment on my way to go on tour with The King. I would be getting a opportunity to get an insight in the universe of Elvis Presley and his huge crowd of followers and thousands of screaming fans. After many weeks of preparation I should finally meet the icon.
Indianpolis was almost empty of people and without much traffic. The town was holding back it’s breath while waiting for The King.
The hotel was not that exciting, but as for now it appeared to be 5 star luxury. While Don and Peter took care af the bags and equipment, I did the check in procedure at the reception. There was a message waiting for me at the hotel from Colonel Parker, Elvis’ manager. It didn’t sound very promising – he wanted to see me the very next morning at 7 am at his suite. I suddenly felt a bit overwhelmed thinking of the upcoming task. A bad habit that kept repeating when facing a new big challenge. This wasn’t just a big task, this was Elvis and a american million dollar production. How would I act, feeling the pressure facing CBS’ bosses and Colonel Parkers well known temper.
While showering, I felt the great feeling of water washing away the dust of the day of the body, I was thinking what Parker really wanted. Was he the military and arrogant type of person, as the title of his suggested? At the same time I came to realize, that Parker has never set a foot in the american millitary. But whatever type of person he was, I would be depending on his co-operation for the next two weeks.
The reception called and woke me up at 6 am and half awake I only heard the words: “Colonel Parker”.I suddenly sat up in bed, as hit by a electric chock and yelled into the phone: “What is it with Tom Parker, what does he
want?”. The lady at the end of the line repeated the message from the Colonel. “You’ll have to be at the sports arena at 10 am and not at his suite, as you had agreed on.”
I ordered breakfast and started studying the local mornings shows, which all kept on repeating the same pictures from the local airport, where fans waited with patience for at glimpse of The King. On the TV the pictures of the empty runways, where the many hundred fans and a euphoric reporter repeated “Now I think it’s happening, I can see his jet, now it won’t be long before he is landing” forever.
When the plane finally landed the reporters voice was drowning in the yelling of the crowd. The big jet, that was named after Elvis’ daughter, Lisa Marie, stopped in front of the waiting limousines. Elvis appeared at the steps of the jet and the noise from the crowd kept rising to higher levels: God had landed.
Market Square Arena was a gigantic big grey colossus. We found a parking spot and headed to the security office. We were greeted by a big guard who looked at us with a sluggish look while he slowly lay down his greasy doughnut on his desk.
I presented myself and showed our papers from CBS. He looked at the letter and stared at us before mumbling: “Wait here”, he turned slowly to a door in the back of the office and disappeared. We waited – a clock behind the desk was at 9.30, the meeting should begin within half a hour and nothing was happening. We started to panic – I decided to take control and walked towards the closed door. In a small very warm office behind a small air conditioner sat the chief of security. He remined me of Rod Steiger from the classic movie “In the Heat of the Night” and Steiger himself was chewing on a gum fiercely. The look in his
eyes was full of misbelieve and disrespect of female authorities. “Mam, before I have talked to your boss I cannot give you any Access Passes”. The time was running out, I could not wait for for more delays and that he should get hold of a CBS representative. I decided to take a chance and send him my best Mona Lisa smile and said: “You don’t have to worry about that – I’m the boss”.
His smile disappeared, he was furious. But I had won. He took the folder and found the three plastic cards. When he has turning them over to me, I gave him a smile of an angel and rushed out of the door before he would change his mind. We hurried through a labyrinth of corridors, indoor parking lots and streets full of merchandise stands, being prepared before the nights concert. People was running back and forth between parked cars, coffee maschines, hot dogs and beer stands. There was a high level of activity, before the sun would go down over Indinapolis the voice of God would give the 15.000 souls the relief they wanted.
I was like we were landed on another planet. We were in the biggest room I had ever seen. Thousands of chairs were everywhere, hundreds of technians were preparing the placement of cameras. Sound engineers walked around on stage, preparing microphones, while the light designer and his staff worked on hundreds of spots. Four follow spots were in place and two cameras were being mounted on cranes. I was almost stumbling across the many cables on my way back. It was exactly 10 am.
I recognized one of our producers Gary Smith at one of the cameras. He was in a conversation with a big cigar smoking man. Don whispered: “Say hallo to Colonel Parker – and good luck. You need it.”. All knew about Parkers exploitation of Elvis Presley. All that had started Elvis’ depressions and the beginning of the abuse of medication could almost be directed back to Parker and his bad management. All the years where he persuaded Elvis into trivial movies and held him back from developing his natural talent of acting. Besides that, Elvis helped Parker pay his enormous debt for gambling in Las Vegas.
When Gary saw me he seemed relieved, maybe he could away from talking with Parker. Parkers handshake was like a wet, soft cloth, his eyes seemed distant without any firm look. His body was rolling back and forth while chewing on a cigar.I tried to say a nice “Good morning”, but I didn’t come further than taking a deep breath. His voice came trough the air. “Now, little lady. Listen carefully, because I’m not gonna repeat this. It is stricly forbidden to take any form of contact with Elvis. Not one meter of film may be used without my permission. Is it understood little lady? From tomorrow and on you will call me and then I will give instructions what you may or may not do. Is it understood, little lady? When you need to talk with Elvis or his father, you have to go through me”. All the noice around us became silent. I could not recognise the vice, which in a cold way asked: “Is your name Colonel Parker?”. “Yes, it’s true”. “Well, you have probably heard my name is Annett Wolf, and just to clear up any confusion – I AM a lady. And the following is not to be repeated eather. This is the first and last time you have talked to me in that way. I expect that you show me and my employees respect and I hope you are set up for co-operation with the team, so we can get the best result. That’s why we are here. I hope we understand each, Colonel Tom Parker?”
Everybody froze and was waiting for the reaction. Parker and myself was surrounded by the smoke of his cigar and were starring at each other. He turned 90 degrees around looked at the hundred of technitians, before he turned to me and said: “OK, let’s meet tomorrow morning at 7 AM, I will have a look of Elvis’ daily schedule and you get a notice about what can filmed. He was on his way to the stage as he turned around and look at me for at moment. Then he added: “Elvis leaves his jet in two
hours. See you at the runway, then we can decide what to do. If the situation allows it, you can film Elvis, his girlfriend and his father when they leave the airport. Afterwards you can follow the limousines to the arena and follow the sound checks.”
It felt like being in the boxing ring with Muhammed Ali. I was sweating and my body was shaking.
After the verbal fight Parker and I found a way to communicate, which in the two weeks we followed Elvis, ended up being a reasonably partnership. We met every night to talk about the next days shooting. As time went by my crew and I came closer to Elvis and his nearest family.
It was late afternoon when i returned to the arena. The straggling heat was going away when I got out of the taxi. The audience was already started to assemble in front the doors to the arena. There were a lot of police and firemen in front of the closed doors.
I was walking around, studying the audience and choose people to be filmed. Suddenly my eyes stopped at what appeared to four mummy like figures. Their faces was completely covered in roll bandages, only their eyes and mouths were to be seen. I presented myself for the tallest of them and asked if he would answer a few questions about Elvis. He knotted and we found a quiet corner and I said: “It looks like you’ve been in an accident – could you tell me what happened?” “Our house was in a fire”, the man explained. “When I woke up, the flames were so big that I could only hurry to get my wife and Whchildren out in safety. When the firetrucks arrived, our home and everything we owned was gone. Only our station car was left. We all got badly burned and have been in the hospital since the fire.” Indianapolis is very warm and humid so my next question was: “How can you cope with these warm conditions?”.
“Well, we have saved money and the tickets bought a long time ago. And the whole family have been looking forward to see Elvis Presley – my wife and I have grown up listening to his music and our children have heard it, since their childhood. Even though the doctors were not happy about it, we agreed on that nothing should prevent us from being here today”.
The shooting began that night, when Elvis left his dressing room. Don was following him with the camera all the way to the back of the stage entrance. He kept a super close up, which revealed every detail in Elvis’ face. Elvis knew the camera was present, but at that point he knew he could trust us and in those few minutes he allowed us to see what he felt.
In the minutes before he went on stage I could feel his respect for his art and the anxiety off loosing control. His life was about to end. He knew, but would not admit, that he had a hard time remembering the words to the songs he had sung for years.
He asked his assistent for a cola, while the last minute details of makeup was being done. He lifted the plastic cup to his lips. His hands were shaking a little bit while he drank and turned back the cup with a smile. Everything became silent and the orchestra waited for his signal. He bent he head down and prayed. This moment became tv-history. After the prayer he smiled at us, lifted his hand and gave the signal. Also Sprach Zarathustra boomed away. The camera followed him to the stairs of the stage.
When people were leaving the arena and before the echo of “My Way” was gone, I felt an icy feeling going through me. Was it just tiredness or was it a queue about, what was about to happen?
Back in the hotel we talked about the unforgettable experience of the night. We had all been witnessing how Elvis in the moment he stood in front of the thousands of fans, was awakening from the state of zombie and was lightening like a torch. When he lifted his head and sang “Are you lonesome tonight” was his voice stronger and more beautiful than ever this very night.
The audience wouldn’t let him go.
The next night we flew to Tennessee to make the final interviews with Elvis in his home Graceland. He was there in person and could recognize us, but in mind he was gone. The only thing we could do was to show respect and not do the interview. Between the shows in Indianapolis and Cincinatti I had the opputinity to talk to Vernon Presley. Like his son he was a friendly man who only wanted to protect his son. It was hard to tell if he was living in a state of denial.
August 1977, Los Angeles, CBS studios.
We were in the middle of editing. The many TV-screens showed different cuts of pictures of Elvis, from both concerts as all the other films that were shot in the two weeks in June. Here in the cutting room we could see, if the material did live up to the expectations. It was clear how tired Elvis looked at some of the recordings. We looked at the scene from backstage, when the telephone rang. I heard a voice telling: “This is Parker, Elvis is dead”. Then the line was disconnected. Everybody in the room felt something had happened, they all just waited for me to say something. I began to cry, but told them
“Elvis has died”. In the very moment I was telling the words I was looking at the pictures of Elvis on the screen. Suddenly all the screens froze.