Be careful what you wish for
I cried. Me, the tough guy who strutted fearlessly (but alertly) through the jungles of Vietnam little over a decade earlier, was now crying for the third time in less than three years. I cried tears of joy when both Patrick and Lisa were born. But these were tears of sadness and desolation. How to imagine a world without Elvis Presley? Poor little Lisa Marie Presley, her daddy was gone.
In Ruxton MD… Jean–Marc Gargiulo and nineteen members of his Elvis Fan Club had traveled from Paris to see Elvis. A new tour was to begin soon; Jean–Marc was visiting Paul and proudly displaying the tickets when Paul’s phone rang. It was his helper, Ace, and during the conversation Paul heard a shriek in the background: Ace’s wife had just seen the news on television. The call ended quickly and Paul told Jean–Marc Elvis had died as he switched on his TV. Jean–Marc simply crumpled into a red chair and sat there unmoving and silent for almost three hours.
Not ten minutes after staring dumbly at the television, the phone started ringing. I told caller after caller I could not talk just now. One call was from the recording studio in L.A. that mastered the Dorsey Show LP. They urged me to get another album out right away. I hung up on them. Greedy, callous bastards. Another album was the furthest thing from my mind.
Radio and TV were all Elvis, nothing but Elvis for the next few days. Glen Johnson sent me a letter and he sagely pointed out that we had all been cheated—we would now never get to see a sixty–something Elvis on the Johnny Carson show talking about the good old days. How true. How sad.
A couple hours after hearing the sad news I got a call from KABC, Channel 7. Someone had informed them that I had tapes and film of Elvis and they were interested in seeing it for possible use in a special on Elvis that would be aired that evening. Their studios were only twenty minutes away and I was there an hour later with each of our albums and 16mm prints of the Steve Allen and Ed Sullivan shows. I left them with them, told them they could use anything they wanted, and went back home.
Fans flocked to Memphis for the funeral; record store shelves were cleaned out of Elvis albums in hours. I moped around the house until Friday, when I finally mustered up the nerve to go to the post office and check on orders. By now we had three different post office boxes: our mainstay for regular customers was trusty 29185 in Los Angeles. To keep things straight I had sent out the flyers to untested names purchased from Brookville with a new company name: Elvis Rarities, P.O. Box 39408, Los Angeles, CA 90039. Those fan club names were coming back to Vic Colonna but to a different P.O. Box. Golden Archives, P.O. Box 4213, Glendale, CA 91202, had been set up to receive orders from names supplied to us by other fans and ones culled from fan club newsletters. When an order was received at one of the new locations, the name was added to our core list and future mailings went out from Vic Colonna. I was well known at my bank and we simply rubber–stamped the backs of the checks, no matter who they were made out to, with a “For deposit only. To the account of Vic Colonna…” Vicki had not had to endorse checks for some time; one more bit of streamlining that saved precious time.
It soon became apparent that time was something we had precious little of. That Friday, the 19, the mail was unusually heavy in each of the three boxes. It began to dawn on me that the huge mailing, those 33,000 plus flyers that had been held back because the mailing service was busy, the one that had gone out Bulk Mail the first week of August, were being delivered the week Elvis died. Oh my! If the response at the record stores was any indication, and it sure looked that way, we were going to see quite an increase in orders.
I spent all day Monday scurrying around. I visited both label and album printers, the pressing plant, the poster printer, and the company that made the stickers placed on the shrink–wrap of the Sullivan LP. I placed new orders with all of them so we would not be caught short. I never had a chance to swing by the post offices and pick up the mail. I did that on Tuesday, and the response at the nearest post office, box 4213, was more than I expected. It seemed people had held on to our flyers for some time and now were placing orders. P.O. box 39408 was my next stop. This one was a large drawer instead of the usual tiny box because that was all they had available when I applied. The drawer was stuffed full. A scant week after Elvis passed away we were seeing one result of his death: his records were selling just like they did in the fifties. No one expected this to happen, we sure didn’t want things to be this way, but it was obvious that Vic Colonna was about to become a major player in the Elvis marketing world.
Thinking about that possibility, I headed over to Hollywood and box 29185, the one that started it all. The Vermont Post Office had been relocated, the old building torn down and a new, modern one, erected some distance away. It was now closer to Glendale and that saved me a couple miles driving distance. The old boxes, the ones with the tiny windows that let you peek in and see if you had any mail, were no more. New ones with solid metal doors replaced them. I opened mine, wondering just how full it would be, and stood there dumbfounded. There was but one letter, what a letdown. Wondering how this could be, for I had hopes this would provide the largest response of them all, I picked up the envelope and was about to close the door when I noticed one of those yellow slips that meant I had a package. Terrific! Just to add insult to injury, I now had to stand in line to claim a warped record someone had returned. I glanced at the slip and saw it had but two words scrawled across it, “More Mail.”
That certainly changed my mood; this meant we had more letters than they could fit in the box. I took my place in line, naturally much longer and slower–moving than ever before, and finally made it to the counter. I stood face–to–face with my Germanic friend. He took the slip, muttered a guttural, “Ah, Colonna,” and disappeared into the back. A couple minutes later he reappeared, two bulging mail sacks in tow. He hefted them onto the counter, I lowered them to the ground, and out I skipped, dragging them to my station wagon.
I was stunned. I spent the entire ride home trying to estimate how many orders we had just received. It was impossible to guess. The only thing I knew for sure was that we were going to be very busy, and Paul and I were finally going to meet. Vic had a reputation to uphold—these orders had to be processed, packed, and shipped lickety–split. More would obviously follow; Robert and I could simply not handle it all. We needed another body, Paul was it, and he arrived a few days later.
I pulled into the driveway at 515 Clement Drive, parked, and headed for the front door. The entire ride home had been one of mixed emotions. This was where I wanted to be: orders pouring in every day from all over the country, all over the world. But I didn’t want it to happen this way. I had some vague timetable in mind, this was what the endless hours were meant to achieve, but the suddenness of the situation and the reason for it made me uncomfortable. I did not want us to be viewed as crass opportunists cashing in after a tragedy. But with all these orders to fill, I did not have time to dwell on that.
A front porch extending the width of the house greeted me at 515 Clement Drive. The front door was smack in the middle, the living room was to the left, with the dining room to the right. Our living room sofa backed up to the front wall, and thus faced the rear of the house. Vicki would be sitting there watching TV, cradling Lisa, waiting and wondering, just as I had, about the response. She would be at a right angle to my entrance and would not see me until I entered. I hefted one sack over each shoulder, having stuffed the mail from the other boxes into these two bags, flung open the door, and bounced in singing, “Here comes Santa Claus…” I dumped the sacks onto the floor, pulled open the drawstrings, and reached in with both hands. Fistfuls of letters were tossed in the air a few times while I said, “Baby’s gonna get new shoes…” Our two–month old daughter took it in stride: she burped, smiled, and went back to sleep. She was getting used to the crazy man in the crazy house.
Those antics concluded, I looked at Vicki and shook my head. “We need help. I have to call Paul right away. He has to get on the next plane. This is not going to stop for a while.” Paul was there by Friday and stayed for almost two weeks. We spent all day, every day, packing and shipping. He and Robert kept piling up boxes ready to be shipped; I scurried to our storage area and brought more albums, made trips to the post office, went back to the house and processed orders with Vicki, brought them to Paul and Robert, picked up more albums from the pressing plant, placed orders for more albums, and repeated this process every day for two weeks. We finally got caught up; or at least enough so Paul could head back home. We had sent out over 5,000 packages in two weeks. The one point two percent response we had anticipated, one that would have produced some 400 orders, exceeded fifteen percent by the end of August.
We made one concession for the sake of sanity during this time: we stopped each night around six o’clock, went home (Paul stayed at the Holiday Inn just down the street, as we had no extra bedroom), washed up, and then went out to dinner at a nice restaurant. Robert watched Patrick, and Lisa went with us. All Lisa did was eat and sleep, and since Vicki was her breakfast, lunch, and dinner, she went where we went. Robert and Patrick had bonded; Patrick was always awake when we got home despite my orders to get him to bed before nine. We always brought a big steak home for Robert and he and Patrick munched away for a few minutes each night before I put our toddler to bed and told Robert to get some rest—“another big day tomorrow” was starting to sound shopworn.
On one occasion we journeyed to La Cienega Boulevard’s famed “Restaurant Row” and ate at “The Lobster Barrel.” The restaurant, owned by TV actor Alan Hale Jr., “the Skipper” on “Gilligan’s Island,” was packed. Alan strolled through the restaurant greeting patrons, signing autographs, and wearing his skipper’s hat, just like the one he wore on the show. The mood was festive, and Paul got caught up in it in no time. The wine may have helped. About the time we were ready for dessert Paul excused himself saying, “I’ll be right back.” and headed for the lobby. His impish grin made me suspect he was up to something. He was.
Paul did not smoke, but he had taken on an affectation that was more tribute than mimicry. Elvis smoked those long, thin cigars and was often pictured holding one. Elvis looked debonair; so did Paul when he waggled one between his fingers. Paul never bothered to light one; he just liked carrying them around. While many fans wore their hair like Elvis and some even dressed like Elvis, this was the only thing Paul ever did that could be termed “Elvis–esque.”
Paul returned to the table, sat down, and proceeded to unwrap a huge cigar he had just purchased. He then leaned back and said, “My boy, my boy. I’ve always wanted to do this.” He pulled a $100 bill from his pocket, lit a match, set the bill afire, and then lit his cigar. The large flame drew the attention of nearby diners. Paul held the bill as long as he could and then set it in the ashtray where it smoldered into nothingness. We had dressed up this particular night, and the people around us probably wondered just who these “parvenus” could be. Actors or singers, no doubt, or just some nouveau riche kids. Certainly not deplorable bootleggers, the scourge of the record industry.
With all these new customers, it was obvious that Vicki could no longer handle the updating of our mailing list; it would require too much time. “Cary” to the rescue. He had a friend that could use some extra income and she took over those duties. I delivered stacks of envelopes to her a couple times a week and she checked the Rolodexes® (we went from a couple to a dozen in no time) and added new customers and kept the address changes up to date. After Christmas she found some other work; but we got lucky and that chore was taken over by someone else right away.
Before Paul headed back to Maryland we had agreed on one thing: there would be no new album until next year. We had one planned; those plans were shelved. For one thing, we would be busy filling orders. Another reason? We decided to invest our windfall in the new merchandise that was glutting the market. We planned to put together a giant catalogue. Selling merchandise that others manufactured seemed acceptable; for us to trot out a new album at that time would be tawdry. We did not want Vic to appear greedy. Plus, our hearts just were not in it. Elvis’ death was shocking, unexpected, and it numbed and hurt at the same time. We had lost someone that had been a big part of our lives since we were kids; life and business had to go on, but things would never be the same.
Christmas was not that far away and we made plans to purchase 100,000 to 150,000 names and offer much of the new paraphernalia that had appeared overnight. More was becoming available each week, and we would pick the classiest items. Our albums would be sandwiched in those pages. It would be a boutiful Christmas.