Backstage with Ron Onesti:
‘It’s pronounced Grace-lind’
In last week’s column, I told you about my preshow call with Priscilla Presley. In this week’s installment, I want to describe my actual face-to-face with another one of those larger-than-life celebs, the ones we have grown up with who, for better or worse, have become iconic. In this case, it was the former Mrs. Presley.
As planned and right on schedule, Ms. Presley’s assistant called me upon their arrival at O’Hare International Airport. We arranged for an escort through the airport and a member of our Arcada Theatre Transportation Department to meet her at the gate.
As I awaited her arrival while pacing back and forth in front of the Hotel Baker, I began to go over in my mind those familiar video clips I had seen numerous times over the years.
There is the grainy Elvis and Priscilla wedding video, the black and white torso-and-up shot of Elvis on “The Ed Sullivan Show,” the classic Elvis/Frank Sinatra duet and the one where he is on an outdoor platform swiveling his hips completely across the stage.
Then there are the many film scenes that came to mind including the love scenes with Ann Margaret and the jailhouse dance number in “Jailhouse Rock.”
That famous photo of Johnny Cash, Jerry Lee Lewis and Carl Perkins with Elvis at the piano at Sun Records is also an indelible image in my rock ‘n’ roll brain.
The slim and trim, black leather-clad Elvis in his 1968 “Comeback” TV special and the Hawaiian jumpsuit also came to mind. And the somewhat overweight, later-in-life image of Elvis popped up in my head, too.
The limousine slowly approached. Her team popped out of the vehicle with a warm hello. “Would you mind helping Priscilla out of the vehicle?” her manager asked me.
“Uhhhhh, yeah,” I responded in a somewhat unprofessional, yet respectful, manner.
“Ron, so nice to finally meet you,” Priscilla said.
As it has happened before, my Ralph Kramden shudder ensued. I responded, “Yes it is,” which made no sense, but it drew a smile from her anyway.
She took my arm and we slowly walked and talked about our plans for dinner. Since it was the night before her presentation at The Arcada, I invited her and her team to dinner at our new speak-easy and restaurant, Club Arcada, located on the third floor of the theater.
Upon their arrival later that evening, she found herself speechless as she marveled at the more than 400 antiques and multiple rooms of the speak-easy.
“This is exquisite, I have never seen anything like this,” Priscilla said. “Elvis would have loved this.”
“Gulp,” I blurted.
After the grand tour, we set up a private dinner in our Charlie Chaplin “Little Tramp” Room. She invited me and my wife to join them, not knowing that was a given as soon as they arrived in St. Charles.
After a tip about her love of red wine from her assistant, she was welcomed by an amazing bold cabernet, which she simply fell in love with in the Chaplin Room. For the next three-plus hours, the eight of us traded stories and lighthearted Elvis jokes! She loved our costumed “Flapper Girls” in the speak-easy, remarking: “It’s better than the usual guys with pork chop sideburns chasing me!”
She sat immediately to my right, laughing, joking and telling stories. Every time I glanced at her, I could not stop looking into her eyes; they were so deep, beautiful and so Elvis-like. Then I realized they were the same as her daughter Lisa Marie’s eyes, whom we had hosted at The Arcada a couple of years ago. They were unmistakably Elvis-esque eyes. I knew I had seen them before!
Then came the grand interview on stage the next evening. I had the utmost honor of conducting the interview and had a slew of questions ready.
She was very open and quite interesting. I was shocked to find out her real father died in a military plane crash when she was 6 months old, and that she only found out about it as a young teenager while she was snooping around her mother’s things one day. I had never heard that fact before, and neither had her brother and sister for years!
Priscilla was quite concerned about clearing up a rumor that her father forced Elvis to marry her. “Nobody told Elvis what to do,” she proclaimed.
She spoke about his depression, especially as the British Invasion happened, forcing his music farther and farther down the music charts. He really thought he was finished.
One of the most interesting points of the night came when she said the first time she saw him perform live was his 1968 “Comeback” special. “He had always been doing films and television,” she said. “It was several years before I saw him do his thing on stage. But when I did, I truly understood why his fans went so crazy about him.”
We spoke about affairs with Ann Margaret and Nancy Sinatra. “He definitely had his Hollywood ‘friends,’ but I did not want to deal with it and kind of put it out of my mind,” she said. “Nancy actually threw me my baby shower when I was pregnant with Lisa Marie!”
I asked her if she EVER felt he was truly “hers.” “The only time I was with the man I met truly was in the delivery room with Lisa Marie. That day, he was the man I fell in love with. After that, it all got diluted and blurry,” she said.
It was a great evening with many questions answered about Elvis as well as her career on television and film, including many commercials and five years on the television show “Dallas.” But more importantly, it was a chance for me and the audience to really get to know this person who is credited with saving Graceland (or Grace-lind, as I was corrected).
The shocker of the evening was when I asked her about O.J. Simpson, with whom she had worked on the “Naked Gun” movies.
“Oh, I definitely saw it in his eyes, even then,” she said. “He and Nicole were constantly fighting, and he would turn to me and say, ‘We are fine,’ very sternly and with eyes practically bulging. It was scary,” she said.
My final question to her was, “If Elvis was sitting next to you right now, what would you say to him?”
“Welcome home,” she said.
The love she still has for “The King” is still evident. There are those who hold her leaving Elvis against her, but I thank heaven for her commitment to keep his music and his legacy alive.
“I did it for our daughter,” she said.
How lucky are we that the love Elvis had for his daughter has blossomed into a legacy that is bigger now than ever? Generations past, present and future will never be able to help falling in love with Elvis Presley.
• Ron Onesti is president and CEO of The Onesti Entertainment Corp. and The Historic Arcada Theatre in St. Charles. Celebrity questions and comments? Email firstname.lastname@example.org.