Happy Days with Kurt, Frank Jr., et al
After Elvis died there was a rush to cash in on his fame. The glut of items bearing his likeness was testimony to creativity and greed. The networks got into the act, along with some indie producers. Leo & Solt, whose likeness can be found in most dictionaries (one next to “arrogant,” the other “sanctimonious,” but I can never remember which is which), came up with a documentary; America’s oldest teenager, Dick Clark, used his cachet to produce a TV movie.
After that fateful meeting at J.R.’s house with “Cary,” I became good friends with J.R. So much so, that he authored the liner notes for the “New Year’s” LP. The summer of ’77, on July 4, Vicki and I were invited to J.R.’s house for his annual cookout. Everyone met at a local park for a midday softball game; then we all headed over to J.R.’s for burgers, dogs, all the trimmings, and homemade ice cream. Since J.R. was a writer, and had worked on a number of TV shows, everyone there, except “Cary” and us, was involved in some way with television or motion pictures. As with any group, most were regular folk; a few were complete boors. Vicki was delighted, and a bit awed, to see faces she had watched many times on TV. I have never been impressed by fame, seldom watch TV, and let a person’s actions reveal their true self. We met Ron Howard, Donnie Most, and others from the cast of “Happy Days.” A finer group of people might be on the planet somewhere; don’t ask me for the location. I played horseshoes with Ron and his dad, Rance, and cooed and clucked at the Howard’s twin daughters. Adorable redheads, of course. Frank Sinatra Jr. was there, unassuming as could be. I can still picture him behind the wheel of his showroom–new ’50s Buick convertible talking on his mobile phone. It was a truly memorable day, one that would be repeated annually for the next three years.
We had our own star attraction in tow; Lisa was just over two weeks old and slept almost the entire time while the famous and those behind the scenes marveled, as we all do with infants, at how tiny she was. We assured everyone that her big brother, Patrick, was keeping close watch on her and she would grow up just fine. Patrick beamed, just as he was supposed to, and our plan to credit him with every new trick Lisa learned for the first couple years made certain there was never any sibling rivalry. No, I’m not that smart; I read about it in one of the baby books.
Just a couple weeks before that happened, J.R. invited us to attend a special screening of Ron Howard’s new movie, “Grand Theft Auto.” It was held at a venerable throwback movie palace in Beverly Hills; one of those old–time star–studded galas complete with searchlights on the sidewalk, a red carpet, and limousines aplenty. Vicki looked stunning in a new gown from Sak’s; there were va–va–voom starlets everywhere, but the girl on my arm outshone them all. The movie was hilarious, Ron’s directorial future was assured, and we filed out into the spacious lobby after the showing looking for J.R. to thank him for asking us to come. Vicki said, “Oh, look, there’s Dennis Weaver.” He was one of her favorites, she never missed an episode of McCloud, and I knew she would love to say hello. Not known for being shy, I took Vicki’s arm and steered her toward Dennis Weaver; he was standing by himself against the wall under a giant poster of “Casablanca.” “What are you doing?” Vicki said, but before I could answer we were there and I thrust out my hand and said, “Mr. Weaver, I’d just like to say thanks for the many happy hours I’ve spent watching you on TV. And, I’d like you to meet one of your biggest fans.” With that I introduced Vicki to Dennis Weaver and the smile that lit his face was genuine, as were his words, “Pleased to meet you, ma’am. I’m sure I’ve seen you in the movies or on television, but I just can’t remember where.” I never did hear Vicki’s answer; I glided away in search of J.R. to tell him what just happened. My search was unsuccessful, but when I went back to “Casablanca” five minutes later, Vicki and Dennis were chatting away like old friends; Vicki had gone from starstruck to relaxed in no time. About that time Dennis’ wife, a striking beauty, came alongside and took his arm. Dennis introduced her to Vicki and I, said they had to be going, and we all shook hands and left. As we walked away Vicki gushed, “He’s just the nicest guy in the whole world. And so good–looking.” As for me, I was glad Mr. Weaver was married, even gladder that I was, too.
Before July 4, 1978 rolled around, I was asked by J.R. if he could borrow a few items from my depleted Elvis collection. Most of the records had been sold to friends; I had kept pristine copies of Elvis’ 1957 Christmas album, the original version of “A Date with Elvis” that had a gatefold cover with a 1960 calendar inside, and a few EP Enterprises memorabilia items: boy’s and girl’s wallets, a scrapbook, a 45rpm record box, brown and blue overnight cases, and some assorted trinkets. It so happened that Dick Clark was going to dedicate an entire upcoming Saturday American Bandstand show to Elvis. The set would be strewn with Elvis posters, records, movie stills, lobby cards, and one–sheets, and bits of Elvis paraphernalia. J.R. was Assistant Producer for the special and was tasked with gathering material to decorate the “American Bandstand” stage. RCA, J.R. mentioned, was absolutely no help. They claimed they had nothing except album covers. That sounded familiar: a couple years earlier, at the beginning of my collecting frenzy, I had sent RCA a letter, on Brian Burney’s A–1 Record Finders stationery, notifying them the store would be having an “Elvis Month” and asking them for promotional material. They sent two boxes of album covers. That was all. The joke was on them, however, for included in the assortment were the six out–of–print movie soundtracks. That gave me mint covers when I found one of those records in great condition with a thrashed cover.
I gave J.R. everything I had and he promised that my name would be in the credits. Vicki and I watched the show a couple weeks later and, as the credits rolled, up popped the name Sam Theaker under the headline “Special Thanks to.” I was jazzed. The next time J.R. needed something I was even more excited. No credits, just a simple thanks, but it came from Kurt Russell himself.
J.R. needed 16mm prints of Elvis’ appearances on the Ed Sullivan and Steve Allen shows, along with the ’68 TV Special. He went on to explain that he was working with Dick Clark again, this time on a TV movie about Elvis’ life. They had spent a couple frustrating months screen testing Elvis imitators who could sing but not act, and finally decided to go with an actor who would lip synch the songs (to be sung by Ronnie McDowell). Elvis was going to be played by Kurt Russell; he wanted to study film of Elvis to get a feeling for the role. I brought the prints over to J.R.’s house, hoping Kurt would be there but he was not. J.R. thanked me and said I would get a chance to meet Kurt later. The movie was terrific, thanks to Kurt’s spot–on portrayal of Elvis. Kurt had been acting since he was a child; one of his early roles was in the Elvis movie, “It Happened at the World’s Fair.” How fitting that one of his best roles would be playing the man he idolized in his youth. Paul and I were given jackets that were made for the cast and crew of the movie; they were black satin with “Elvis” embroidered in pink on the back and a small “Dick Clark Productions” on the front.
I met Kurt Russell July 4, 1979. I never knew he had been a child actor and a top–flight baseball player. J.R. told me that when he was eighteen Kurt had a choice to make—continue with his acting career or sign a contract with the New York Yankees. He made the right decision, but his baseball skills had not eroded much, as I soon found out. Someone had brought a hardball with them and, after some cajoling, induced Kurt to take a couple swings. He smacked one that went well beyond four hundred feet and we all just stood there in awe. Later on, during the softball game, with Kurt playing centerfield, someone drove a ball into the gap that looked like it would roll far enough to be a home run. Kurt loped over, picked it up, and fired a one–hopper to third base that had the surprised hitter out by ten feet. Speed, power, and a rifle arm; it was easy to see why Kurt had been coveted by the Major Leagues.
It was also a cinch to see why he was so popular. Kurt had a boyish charm, a way of talking with you that made you seem special and completely at ease, and a warm smile never left his face. J.R. introduced me as the one who made the films available and Kurt said, “Thanks. They really gave me a feel for the character. I don’t think I could have done the job nearly as well without them.” I know he was being overly modest, but it sure was nice to hear. Vicki talked with Kurt for a bit and gave him the same high marks as Dennis Weaver. Kurt and Goldie Hawn had been an item for some time and we hoped she would join the festivities. She was working on a movie, and Kurt said that maybe next year they would both come.
The 1980 gathering was the last one we attended; we never did get to meet any more screen idols, but all those we did meet were special folk who, one could tell, could have been successful in any career they chose. Those brushes with fame were a nice bonus, but the greatest pleasure of all was the happiness we brought to Elvis fans around the world. We had had a great run so far, plans were being laid for four or five more albums, and lurking in some obscure Hollywood recording studios were hours and hours of tape just waiting to be resurrected. Why RCA, or even Graceland, who had shown their unabashed greed by licensing every sort of folly imaginable so long as they collected royalties, never showed any interest in releasing outtakes is unclear. We were glad they didn’t; we showed them the way and, albeit a bit slow on the uptake, RCA finally responded by giving the fans a bit of what we had been offering for years—and darned if it wasn’t some of the same material that we had bootlegged. RCA finally issued six albums in a series called “Essential Elvis” that featured loads of previously unreleased material, but it was almost a decade after we retired. Years later, under the guise of the FTD label, Elvis fans finally started to get what they had been denied for all those years. By then, Vic and LPs were a distant memory; it was a CD universe. And the big companies still missed the boat by fighting Napster instead of allying with them—just further proof that the record business’ Neanderthal approach to marketing has always been their weakest link. Now, as then, they wring their hands and moan; the very behavior that always thwarted them when it came time to roll up their sleeves.
There were two things that separated Paul and I from RCA: our relentless pursuit of exciting material that the fans had never had a chance to hear, and our determination to make each LP better than the last in design and creativity. Posters, booklets, ticket reproductions, gatefold covers, extensive liner notes, special inner sleeves, and striking photos complemented the recordings. The only time we raised our standard price for an album was for the 1961 Hawaii Show. The costs incurred in putting together that booklet, along with the fold–out cover and special full–color inner sleeve, added over a dollar to the usual cost of a single LP. We charged an extra buck, but since that went to “Cary,” we made less on that album. We were making money, having a ball, and greed does not pay. Remastering the Dorsey album to improve sound quality meant spending money we would not recover; we did it because we wanted our albums to be as good as we could make them and we wanted the fans to have the best quality available. We also did one other thing I am quite proud of: in 1979 we sold “Got A Lot O’ Livin’ To Do!” at a special price of $5 and all the money received went to the American Cancer Society (Elvis’ favorite charity). We sold almost 500 LPs, added some of our own money, and sent the ACS a check for an even $5,000.