ELVIS AT THE CROSSROADS

Elvis is back in the building.

On March 14 at the Cinerama Dome,
Elvis will return, one more time, in a special 40th anniversary screening
of the “Singer Presents Elvis” special from 1968, or “The Comeback Special” as
it is more popularly known, as the kickoff event of the Paley
Center for Media’s PaleyFest 2008.
A panel discussion afterwards will feature Priscilla Presley, his widow; as
well as Steve Binder the producer and director of the special – which is the
reason I’ll be attending the event.

The Elvis
special is far from Binder’s greatest accomplishment. A complete list of his
film, TV, and record productions would dwarf this column but suffice to say
that when Entertainment Weekly listed “The Top 100 Greatest Moments in
Television,” six were Binder’s work.

So who is
Steve Binder (beyond being my friend Dana Sigoloff’s Dad) and what why was “Elvis”
so special that 40 years later people still regard it as one of the greatest
Television musical performances ever?

Binder is a
Los Angeles native. His father ran
a gas station downtown and Binder grew up in Carthay
Circle and recalls that when Disney premiered
Bambi, the Carthay Circle Theater had a live fawn penned outside that he would
pet. He attended Los
Angeles high and served in the Army. A friend told him
that working at a television studio was a good place to meet women, so he
applied for a job in the mailroom at KABC-TV, the local ABC station affiliate.
The mailroom led to the mimeograph department (remember mimeographs?), which in
turn led to being an Operations Director at KABC, which led to a summer stint
as a local director – directing local programming as well as some of the local
commercials.

Many of the non-fiction programs we
watch today, such as dancing competitions, singing shows, court shows, cooking
shows, originated as live local formats, providing Binder with invaluable
training. But the show he enjoyed most directing in those early days was “The
Soupy Sales Show.” Who wouldn’t like spending your working day convulsed in
laughter?

When Sales’
show went national, however, Binder was fired in favor of a network approved
director. Binder quickly rebounded, hired to direct “Jazz Scene, USA”
a Steve Allen produced half-hour program that featured a different single
artist in each episode, such as Nancy Wilson, Shorty Rogers, Lou Rawls, Joe
Pass, Cannonball Adderly, among
many others.

In November
1962, Steve Allen got a late night five night a week syndicated show, “The
Steve Allen Westinghouse Show,” and asked Binder to be his director. Jazz Scene
wasn’t finished so Binder, somehow, directed both shows, prompting the LA Times
to remark that Binder “has the hardest job in television” and for Binder to
reply that his job is the easiest “because the show is such a delight to do.”

Steve Allen
became Binder’s mentor and his graduate school in directing. Binder says that
Steve Allen’s admonition to “never stop shooting if anything funny or exciting
is happening on or off the stage,” became his mantra.

In 1964,
Binder was asked by showman Bill Sargent to produce and direct the West Coast
portion of a special for the NAACP, a “Freedom Spectacular,” which would be a
fundraiser and would be shown in movie theaters through a closed circuit
distribution network. The notion was to have two benefits produced, one on the
East Coast, one on the West, and show a two hour movie of both benefits as the
biggest closed circuit show in history.

Binder
assembled stars such as Burt Lancaster, Edward G. Robinson, Gene Kelly, Tony
Bennett, Nat King Cole, Bill Cosby (in one of his first filmed appearances), and
Benny Carter in a series of sketches, songs and readings that didn’t lecture
but subtly addressed issues of race in America.
The show was an artistic success, but not a financial one and as far as I can
tell, was never subsequently released on TV, cable, or on DVD.

Bill
Sargent next approached Binder with the idea of filming a rock concert as a
benefit for a foundation that awarded music scholarships to talented teenagers.
This became the Teenage Music International show, or “The T.A.M.I Show,” one of
the greatest rock and roll performance films of all times. Jack Nitzsche
recommended many of the acts and put together the house band which included
Glen Campbell and Leon Russell. Filmed at the Santa Monica Civic Auditorium,
this 1964 who’s who of artists included Chuck Berry, Marvin Gaye, Lesley Gore,
Jan & Dean, The Beach Boys, Smokey Robinson and the Miracles, The Supremes,
The Rolling Stones and James Brown and the Flames.

Soon
thereafter, Rock and Roll became network fare. ABC had “Shinding” so on January 12, 1965 CBS
launched “Hullaboo” a Gary Smith production that Binder was asked to direct and
for which he moved to New York, filming the show in NBC’s studio 8H in
Rockefeller Center (home to Saturday Live since 1975). Binder had been to LA’s
Whisky a GoGo which featured women dancing in cages and imported the idea for
Hullaboo, which became it’s signature feature along with performances by The
Byrds, The Animals, Judy Collins, Simon & Garfunkel, Sonny & Cher, and
a young English singer Petula Clark.

Binder next
took on a variety of TV assignments. Directing the Danny Kaye show was a
nightmare; a Lucille Ball special flopped, and when offered a chance to direct
an episode of a sit-com rather than scoffing, Binder accepted, leading to directing
two episodes of “Gilligan’s Island,” “Don’t
bug the Mosquitoes,” and “The Second Ginger Grant.”

Although he
enjoyed directing the episodes, Binder observed that in sitcoms the director
was not the name people remembered. Binder had stumbled into Television and
directing almost by chance and although he had found a talent, and even a
passion for making television events memorable, he now had to ask himself: What
sort of a career did he want to have?

Binder had a realization: If he
wanted to control his destiny, he would need to produce and direct unique
programs for unique talent, or as he put it “tailor-made musical specials for
individual stars.” That insight led to some of televisions’ most memorable
moments, and of course, to Elvis.

But before
we get to “The King,” it is worth mentioning the special that got Binder the
job, a show in many ways more historic and precedent setting, “Petula.”

Petula Clark was a blonde,
pixie-ish British singer, who had a #1 hit worldwide, called “Downtown” (it was
the first single record that I asked my parents to buy for me). NBC had made a
deal with Plymouth and their
advertising agency, Young & Rubicam, for a special to star Nancy Sinatra. When Sinatra dropped out, Clark
was in. Only problem was Clark had not yet agreed to do
the show.

Binder who had barely met her on
Hullaboo, got the assignment of both convincing her, and then producing and
directing the show. Once on board, Binder decided to pair her with a guest star
and convinced Harry Belafonte to sign on. Some Plymouth executives objected – but Binder insisted.

Although it was 1968, manufacturers
and advertisers were anxious about a white woman and a black man appearing in a
national Television program together. I know it sounds crazy and
hard-to-believe, but there was a moment in the show, unscripted, when Petula
Clark touches Harry Belafonte’s arm – “the touch” Binder calls it, that was
taken to be of such historic importance to race relations in America
that Newsweek sent over a photographer and the New York Times and others ran
articles about it. In spite of this (and perhaps because of it), the show was a
success. And that led to Binder receiving a call to meet “The Colonel.”

TV producer
Bob Finkel told Binder that NBC’s Tom Sarnoff had struck a deal with Colonel
Tom Parker, Elvis’ manager to do a TV special but Elvis was reluctant to return
to TV. Finkel felt Elvis and Binder
would hit it off, and that, based on Binder’s experience on the Petula special,
Binder would be able to stand up to the Colonel. Binder was not an Elvis fan,
but his partner Bones Howe, a successful music producer said he would be crazy
not to meet him.

After a
successful meeting with Finkel, Binder and his partner Howe went to meet
Colonel Tom Parker at his offices on the MGM
lot (what is today the Sony lot in Culver City).
The Colonel dominated the whole meeting, telling grotesque stories from his
carny circus roots and bragging about his deal-making business acumen (Binder
was repulsed by the former and unconvinced as to the latter). Parker ended the
meeting by handing Binder an Elvis gift box with his outline for an Elvis
Christmas special. Binder thanked him but had no intention of doing a Christmas
special (although in the end, Elvis did perform “Blue Christmas” as part of the
special).

The first
meeting with Elvis took place, Binder recalls, on May 10, 1968, at the Binder-Howe offices on
Sunset Boulevard (next to the old Tower Records store). Elvis arrived on time
with his entourage of four friends, who sat in the waiting room as Elvis met
with Binder, Howe and Alan Blye and Chris Bearde who would write the special.

Elvis was
concerned because he had not appeared in front of a live audience in years and
the few times he had appeared on TV, such as on Steve Allen or Milton Berle’s
show, he had been made fun of. It was only the controversy surrounding his
appearance on “The Ed Sullivan Show” that had served his career well. Binder reassured
Elvis telling him that if they worked together “He could focus on making
records while I would put pictures to his music.” Elvis signed on.

The
rehearsals took place at the Binder-Howe offices. One day Binder saw Elvis
looking out at Sunset Boulevard – and in what is now a legendary Elvis story –
Binder asked Elvis what he thought would happen if he walked out on Sunset by
himself. Elvis asked Binder what he
thought would happen. Binder thought about it, and said: “Nothing.” A few days
later, Elvis turned to him in the office and said, “Let’s go.”

Much has
been made of what happened next – Elvis stood with Binder on the street in
front of the office building, at first tentative, then surprised that no one
recognized him, then somewhat disappointed that no one recognized him, and then
finally, uncomfortable. Elvis retreated back to the offices.

The special
was recorded at NBC’s Burbank
studio #4. Elvis was so impressed with the dressing room suites there that he
decided to live at the studio during the recording, asking that an upright
piano be brought into his suite.

Binder
noticed that Elvis and his musicians would hang out in the suite’s living room,
before and after rehearsals, joking around, playing songs, talking about old
times. Binder realized that this is where Elvis was most comfortable, and that
the public had never seen this side of him. Binder decided that he wanted to
film these “jam sessions”, and after consultation with The Colonel, they
decided to recreate that feeling by having Elvis and his original band members
(who at first were not part of the special) seated in a circle on chairs on a
small stage, surrounded by an audience. The special itself used these
performances sparingly, but to great effect. (Over the years those
“improvisations” have taken on a life of their own, as reassembled into a
separate special aired by HBO, “One Night With Elvis”).

Watching
the Elvis special recently in my office, I was struck by how good it was.
Opening on Elvis’ face and then pulling back to reveal him on the large stage
with the Elvis imitators in silhouette behind him and then the giant ELVIS lit
up in lights still works. As do the scenes of Elvis by himself on the small
stage as well as Elvis jamming and fooling around with his bandmates. The use of extreme closeups, a technique Binder pioneered on the T.A.M.I. show, give “Elvis” a great intimacy. Only some
of the choreographed dance sequences feel dated or out of place. But it is the
vitality of Elvis, his sense of humor, his charisma, his sex appeal, and his
connection to his music and his love of performing that come through in an
indelible fashion. No one who sees the “Elvis” special can doubt his appeal or
his talent.

The special aired on December 3, 1968, and
captured 42 percent of the entire viewing audience. It was NBC’s biggest ratings
victory for the entire year and the season’s #1 top rated show. However, after
the show aired, Binder never really spoke to Elvis again (he believes that was The Colonel’s doing).

For the Elvis special Binder was paid a contractual one time payment of $32,000
for producing and directing that included the first two re-runs of the special;
and a $3500 payment for each of the third and fourth re-runs. That was it. No DVD
or ancillary rights (they didn’t exist). And certainly no “artistic rights of
control”: every re-edit or re-release of the “Elvis” show since, in regular and
“deluxe” editions, including the HBO special, and whatever will be screened at
the Cinerama dome, were done without consulting Binder (or paying him a penny
more).

Nonetheless, Binder recalls “Elvis”
fondly.

Binder
believes that during the making of the special, Elvis reconnected to making
music he believed in. Elvis told Binder he had found his “freedom” – the ability
be himself again. But that freedom was short lived.

After the
special a galvanized Elvis recorded such hits as “Suspicious Minds,” “In the
Ghetto” and “Kentucky Rain”. He also appeared for several record breaking
concert performances in Las Vegas
before embarking on a national tour.

Binder saw Elvis perform then,
saying “he was fantastic.” However, a year later, he saw Elvis perform again
and found that he had lost his spark and was bored. (neither time did he go
backstage to see Elvis). “I knew then,” Binder said, “that it was over.”

Over the next several years, Presley
did several other filmed performances including “Elvis: That’s the Way It is”
(1970) and “Elvis on Tour” (1972) and the satellite broadcast of “Aloha from Hawaii”
(1973), said to reach a reported billion viewers and which kept the show’s
album on the charts for a year. But none ever achieved the legenday status of
“The Comeback Special” he did with Binder. In his last Vegas performances, an
overweight Elvis became a parody of himself, a Liberace-like performer who
turned his back to his audience and increasingly found it hard to finish a
show, or a song for that matter.

On August 16, 1977, Elvis was found dead in his Memphis
home, Graceland, the victim of a heart attack, his
health having been compromised by drug abuse. He was 42.

For Binder
the Elvis special was but one landmark in a career that continued to expand and
unfold. Binder went on to direct many, many, many more specials for a wide
variety of stars including (to name but a very few) Barry Manilow, Diana Ross
(including the memorable “Diana Ross in Central Park,”) Patti Labelle, “Divas
2000” for VH-1 (featuring Ross, Donna Summer, Mariah Carey, Faith Hill,
Beyonce), events such as the half-time show at the 1996 Superbowl and many
years of Disney Ice Skating specials, films such as “Give ‘Em Hell, Harry” (for
which James Whitmore was nominated for best actor), and was involved in the
careers of many recoding artists, among them Seals & Croft. He is currently
managing the career of Italian singing star Nicola Congiu. He’s won Emmys,
Cable Ace Awards and the Director’s Guild Diversity Award among many others.

Binder, for one, certainly never
imagined that 40 years later audiences would still be gathering to watch the
“Elvis” special.

But people
keep coming back to the “Elvis” special. I think I know why:

“The Comeback Special” presents
Elvis at a juncture: his past, his potential, his talent – and the intimation
of the tragic path he would unfortunately choose.

In the special
it is all up there on the screen: The softness in his face that made him look
boyish, the full lips that look almost feminine (and that would appear so
strongly in the face of his daughter Lisa Marie). There he was in black
leather, with his animal grace, and his magnetism – his sex appeal as much at
his command as his laugh. His self-deprecating humor, and the easy familiarity
with which he kidded around. You see the way he responds to the audience, and
the audience responds to him. You see Elvis, in full command of his talent and
power, “The King” with the potential to remain one of the greatest rock and
roll entertainers of all time.

At the same
time, the show contains all the foreshadowing of what was to come. The face
that would bloat, the distracted manner of starting a song and not finishing
it, stopping to break into a joke, not taking his talent or his songs
seriously, changing the lyrics as a goof, wiping the sweat off his brow with a
handkerchief for a woman in the audience, the large production numbers, the
faked emotion, all the signs of his impending tragedy are present.

That’s why
the show has remained memorable. Because we catch Elvis at the crossroads. He
has emerged on Sunset Boulevard, and he has a choice, to embrace his music and
his audience, or to retreat into the “Elvis” cocoon.

Binder’s
career has been one of granting the audience memorable performances by singular
talents. However, in Elvis, he caught a legendary artist at the intersection of
his talent and his destiny, at a crossroads to which he would never return.

Elvis chose
to go back in the building.