LAS VEGAS (KLAS) — One of the biggest blockbuster movies of the summer explores the life of Las Vegas icon Elvis Presley and his complicated relationship with manager Colonel Tom Parker. Parker wasn’t his real name, nor was he a colonel. The journalist who wrote Parker’s definitive biography says Elvis’s manager kept deep dark secrets that may have contributed to the death of his most famous client.
The biopic “Elvis” is one of the biggest movies of the year, starring Oscar winner Tom Hanks as Colonel Tom Parker, the promotional genius who guided Elvis Presley’s meteoric career. As usual, Hollywood took liberties with the true story.
“The character is kind of a cross between Snidely Whiplash and Sydney Greenstreet,” explains journalist Alanna Nash. “Cartoonish. And Colonel was not cartoonish.”
Nash spent years digging into the life and legend of Parker, much of which she says has been obscured on purpose. Parker spent the last years of his life in Las Vegas before his death in 1997. Nash met him three times as she researched her book, entitled “The Colonel.” She also traced his family roots.
“He was not a U.S. citizen,” explains Nash. “His name was Andreas Cornelius Van Kuijk. He was from Breda, Netherlands.”
The Colonel left Europe under a cloud of suspicion involving an unsolved murder, slipped into the U.S. illegally and learned how to hustle while traveling with carnivals and circuses. By the 1950s, when he first saw the explosive talent of a young Elvis Presley, the machiavellian manager had given himself a new name and military rank. Parker’s wily ways protected the young star and helped create a mystique.
Elvis bombed during his first Las Vegas appearance in 1956 but The Colonel knew they would return. After the Elvis ‘comeback’ special in 1968, Parker cut a huge deal for his client at the world’s largest hotel — The International, which later became the Las Vegas Hilton, today the Westgate. Elvis smashed into Las Vegas like a tsunami.
“Elvis came in and people came literally from all over the globe,” Nash recounts. “He was the biggest thing happening. He brought about 100,000 people into that town twice a year. Old timers who came to the Elvis shows on opening night would remember The Colonel walked in through the lobby of the International, and later the Hilton, with a change apron on, selling Elvis albums out from under his arm.”
Parker negotiated a million-dollar per year deal for his client, and although Presley sold out every seat for the hundreds of shows he performed in Las Vegas over a nearly seven-year reign, Parker never asked for a raise for the star. Nash says the reason is pretty clear — The Colonel had a gambling habit and lost millions.
“He was good for $1 million a year but that was really for starters. They would just write it off against how many shows Elvis was playing in the showroom,” Nash says. “It got so bad The Colonel wouldn’t even leave his room, they’d take a roulette wheel up to his room.”
Parker would reportedly hire people to pull the arms of slot machines for him, and while parker gambled his client was deteriorating.
“The Colonel made sure he got his own needs taken care of, but Elvis was locked into this kind of indentured servitude,” Nash explains.
Elvis would perform two shows a night seven days a week making Presley the first star to do so, Nash says. It was a grueling schedule that, she says fueled Elvis’s inner demons. It was then, Nash says, that doctors prescribed the drugs that eventually led to Presley’s death in 1977.
“Parker should have yanked him off of the schedule,” Nash posits. “He should have insisted that he go into treatment and come out the man he wanted to be and got some rest.”
Nash says that The Colonel was more interested in fulfilling contracts than helping to maintain the health of the musical icon.
Eventually, the state of Tennessee learned that, by the end, Parker was pocketing about 80 percent of Presley’s income. The Colonel remained in Las Vegas for the rest of his life, a town that is inextricably linked to the memory of “The King.”
“He was so beautiful in so many ways,” says Nash of Elvis Presley. “A lot of people told me that when you saw him close up, he was really even more striking than he was in photographs, which is hard to imagine.”