Jewish Journal

At the crossroads with Elvis

by Tom Teicholz

Posted on Mar. 13, 2008 at 6:00 pm

Elvis is back in the building.

On March 14 at the Cinerama Dome, Elvis Presley 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 25th annual PALEYFEST. A panel discussion afterward 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 Presley 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 why was "Elvis" so special that 40 years later, people still regard it as one of the greatest TV musical performances ever?

Binder is a Los Angeles native who grew up in Carthay Circle. His father ran a gas station downtown. He attended Los Angeles high and served in the Army.

A friend told him that working at a TV studio was a good place to meet women, so he applied for a job in the mailroom at KABC-TV, the local ABC network affiliate. He quickly rose through the ranks until soon he was directing local programming, including "Soupy Sales." He then directed the Steve Allen-produced "Jazz Scene USA" and the syndicated "Steve Allen Westinghouse Hour" (at one point directing both at the same time).

In 1964, showman Bill Sargent asked Binder to produce and direct the West Coast portion of the NAACP 's "Freedom Spectacular," with 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 (it was shown in closed-circuit theaters) and, as far as I can tell, was never subsequently released on television, cable or DVD.

Sargent's next production involved Binder filming a benefit rock concert 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.

Over the next few years, Binder directed a variety of programs, including "Hullaboo" (he suggested having go-go girls in cages like at The Whisky), "The Danny Kaye Show" (a bad experience), a special for Lucille Ball (a good experience, but a flop) and two episodes of "Gilligan's Island."

Although Binder enjoyed directing the sitcom episodes, he observed that in sitcoms, the director was not the name people remembered. Binder had stumbled into television and directing almost by chance, and 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 Presley.

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 blond, pixie-ish British singer, who had a No. 1 hit worldwide titled, "Downtown" (it was the first single record I asked my parents to buy for me). NBC had made a deal with Plymouth and its advertising agency, Young & Rubicam, for a special to star Nancy Sinatra. When Sinatra dropped out, Clark was recruited.

Binder decided to pair her with Harry Belafonte as a guest star. Some executives at Plymouth objected, but Binder insisted.

Although it was 1968, some advertising and auto executives were anxious about a white woman and a black man appearing in a national TV program together. I know it sounds crazy and hard to believe, but there was a moment in the show, unscripted, when Clark touches 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 Presley's manager, Col. Tom Parker, to do a special, but Presley was reluctant to return to television. Finkel felt Presley 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 Presley 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 Howe went to meet the Colonel 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 said he was repulsed by the former and unconvinced as to the latter).

The first meeting with Presley took place, Binder recalled, on May 10, 1968, at the Binder-Howe offices on Sunset Boulevard (next to the old Tower Records store). Presley arrived on time with his entourage of four friends, who sat in the waiting room as Presley met with Binder, Howe and Alan Blye and Chris Bearde, who would write the special.Presley had not appeared in front of a live audience in years. Binder reassured Presley, telling him that if they worked together, "he could focus on making records, while I would put pictures to his music." Presley signed on.

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

Much has been made of what happened next: Presley 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. Presley retreated back to the offices.

The special was recorded at NBC's Burbank Studio No. 4. Presley was so impressed with the dressing room suites that he decided to live at the studio during the recording, asking that an upright piano be brought into his suite.

Binder noticed that Presley 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 Presley 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 a consultation with the Colonel, they decided to recreate that feeling by having Presley 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 special recently in my office, I was struck by how good it still is. Presley's vitality, his sense of humor, his charisma, his sex appeal and his connection to his music and his love of performing come through in an indelible fashion (only some of the dance numbers seem dated). No one who sees the "Elvis" special can doubt his appeal or his talent.

"Elvis" aired on Dec. 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 No. 1-rated show. However, after the show aired, Binder never really spoke to Presley 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, which included the first two reruns of the special, and a $3,500 payment for each of the third and fourth reruns. That was it. No DVD or ancillary rights (they didn't exist). And certainly no "artistic rights of control": every re-edit or rerelease 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, Presley reconnected to making music he believed in. Presley told Binder he had found his "freedom" -- the ability to be himself again. But that freedom was short-lived.

After the special, a galvanized Presley recorded such hits as "Suspicious Minds," "In the Ghetto" and "Kentucky Rain." He also appeared for several record-breaking performances in Las Vegas before embarking on a national tour. Binder saw Presley perform then, saying "he was fantastic."

However, a year later, he saw Presley perform again and found that he had lost his spark and was bored. (Neither time did he go backstage to see Presley.).

"I knew then," Binder said, "that it was over."

In his last Vegas performances, an overweight Presley 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 Aug. 16, 1977, Presley 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 and Beyonce); events such as the half-time show at the 1996 Super Bowl, "The Star Wars Holiday Special" (a sought-after bootleg -- by geeks that is); 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.

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 special. I think I know why: "The Comeback Special" presents Presley at a juncture -- his past, his potential, his talent -- and the intimation of the tragic path he would unfortunately choose.It's 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 Presley in full command of his talent and power, "The King," with the potential to remain one of the greatest rock 'n' 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 Presley 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 Presley 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.

For more information about the 25th annual PALEYFEST, visit http://www.paleycenter.org/festivals/paleyfest2008/index.htm. A more extensive version of this article appears at tommywood.com.

Tom Teicholz is a film producer in Los Angeles. Everywhere else, he's an author and journalist who has written for The New York Times Sunday Magazine, Interview and The Forward. His column appears every other week.

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