By Mike Stevens, City of Salem Communications Director
This week marks the 45th anniversary of Elvis Presley’s passing. Incredibly, the King of Rock ‘n’ Roll has now been dead three years longer than he was alive.
Elvis Aaron Presley died in Memphis at age of 42 on August 16, 1997. His death occurred just one year after he made his final stops in Salem and Roanoke a year earlier.
In the summer of 1976, Presley’s life was starting to spiral downwards like a bad song on the charts. His inner circle was falling apart and those close to him were concerned about his declining health and his deteriorating stage presence. But despite all those things, an older and a heavier Elvis was still a red-hot ticket anywhere in the world, including southwest Virginia.
Elvis had played Roanoke several times dating back to 1955 when he opened for Hank Snow and the Louvin Brothers at the old American Legion Auditorium. This time he was booked to play at the Roanoke Civic Center on August 2, 1976, and several months before the tour’s arrival in the Star City, Salem Police Chief Harry Haskins received an unexpected phone call from Presley’s handlers.
“Elvis’ people contacted us way in advance wanting to know if we could provide security at the Sheraton during his stay,” says Haskins. “I always liked for our people to make extra money when they could, and they said they would reimburse us at time and a half.”
Haskins had been Salem’s Chief of Police for less than a year and had just received a new unmarked police car shortly before Elvis’s arrival. The chief’s self-appointed job was to transport Elvis and the key members of his traveling party to and from Woodrum Field, the Sheraton and the Roanoke Civic Center.
“When I picked him up, we pulled right out onto the tarmac and I drove the car right up to the stairs of the plane,” says Haskins. “Security was a little different back then.”
The blue unmarked 1976 Plymouth Fury was packed for the ride from the airport to the Sheraton on Sunday, August 1, 1976. Besides Haskins and Presley, the car carried Presley’s girlfriend Linda Thompson, his bodyguard Sam Thompson, his business manager Joe Esposito and Presley’s traveling physician, the infamous Dr. Dean Nichopoulos.
“I liked some of Elvis’ music, but I didn’t enjoy all of the gyrations,” says Haskins. “He was very congenial in the car because he particularly liked police officers.”
In February of 1976, the Memphis Police Department made Elvis an honorary Captain. Haskins was only willing to give him a department patch and his best effort. No less than 20 officers, detectives, and Haskins himself were part of the security detail charged with keeping Elvis safe and keeping a number of very friendly women from getting too close to the entourage during his stay at the Sheraton.
“I worked security back then and he had the whole second floor of the hotel rented,” says Jimmy Bryant, retired Salem Police Chief who was a Sergeant at the time. “I just remember a bunch of sightseers coming by and groups of girls offering a lot of things that we can’t talk about. This was the first time I got to see what groupies were all about.”
In a department memo from Haskins dated July 30, 1976, the Chief outlined details of Presley’s visit, including the fact that he had reserved 78 rooms. Fifteen of those rooms were located by the swimming pool and the rest covered the entire second floor of the hotel. Elvis and Thompson turned three adjoining rooms, 214, 216 and 218, into a suite and the Salem Police had officers stationed inside and outside of four other rooms on that floor.
“I had just made Sergeant and I was assigned to an outside section of the hotel.” says Bryant. “We all thought it was neat that he decided to stay in Salem even though he was performing in Roanoke. Back then, the Sheraton and the Hotel Roanoke were the nicest hotels in the valley.”
At that time, what is currently the Baymont had a full-service restaurant and a lively lounge. There are only a few photos of Elvis and Thompson during their stay at the Sheraton, because for the most part, the King stayed inside his room.
“I remember the workers at the Sheraton telling us that they were going to keep all of the towels and washcloths when they cleaned his room, so they could sell them later,” says Bryant.
“Elvis took all of his meals in his room and only left to travel back and forth to the show,” says Haskins.
As his personal driver for the trip, Haskins had face-to-face contact with Elvis and used the opportunity to make sure the officers involved with the protection detail got a souvenir along with their extra pay.
“Elvis gave me one of the scarves he wore around his neck and an autographed poster, and I told him it would be nice if all of the people on duty could get one,” says Haskins. “We had him for three days and before he left, he made sure every officer on the detail got a personalized autographed poster.”
Presley’s generosity also extended to the men and women in his traveling party on this particular trip.
“One of the members of Elvis’ entourage came up to me and asked where he could get balls and bats and gloves to play some softball out behind the hotel,” says Bryant. “I sent him over to CMT Sporting Goods, but I couldn’t believe they were buying all this stuff for one afternoon game. They told me Elvis was paying for it, so it wasn’t a big deal.”
But the King himself was still a very big deal. Tickets for the August 2, 1976 concert sold for $7.50, $10, and $12.50. All 10,598 of them were gone by show time.
“When I took him to the Roanoke Civic Center that night, we drove right into the back entrance and pulled up right behind the stage,” says Haskins. “I remember people touching the car on the way in and tapping on the windows trying to get next to him after the show.”
That was as close as most would ever get to Presley and when he passed away just a year later on August 16, 1977, anything he had touched became a collectible, including the Salem Police Department’s Plymouth Fury.
“We were getting ready to replace the vehicle and City Manager Bill Paxton thought there might be a chance the car would be worth something to an Elvis fan since he had ridden in it,” says Randy Smith, Salem’s Assistant City Manager at the time.
There was no internet back then, so Smith decided to advertise the car in October of 1981 in the Houston Post, Nashville Banner/Tennessean, and Memphis Press Scimitar. Collectively, the three newspaper ads cost the city $241.89.
“The car was five years old with 49,000 miles on it and I knew that we wouldn’t get that much money for it on a trade-in.” says Haskins. “There were so many Elvis fans in the world that I thought it was worth a shot and I felt like it would sell pretty well.”
In the end, the strategic newspaper advertising, and several local stories in the Roanoke and Salem Times only generated two bids.
“One of those was from a female Elvis fan in Pittsburgh who bid a dollar and told us we should be ashamed of ourselves for trying to make money off the death of the King,” says Smith.
But it only took one legitimate bid to make a sale, and the ad in the Houston Post produced one from an accountant and real estate broker named George Apolzon. The Texas millionaire, who passed away in 2014, purchased the Plymouth Fury for $2,632, about $1,100 more than its trade-in value.
“He told us he had a car museum and he thought that this would be an interesting piece to add to his collection,” says Smith. “He wanted it exactly like it was the night we transported Elvis, so we had to put the radio transmitter back in the car and make sure everything was just like it was when he rode in it.”
Apolzon wasn’t just a car collector. He also was an avid Elvis fan. So much so that he purposely wrote two checks to cover the cost of the car. One was in the amount of $1,819.35 while the other was for $816.77. Those aren’t just random numbers. The first one is Presley’s birthdate, January 8, 1935, and the second one is the day he died, August 16, 1977.
“It took Mr. Apolzon a few months to send a flatbed truck to Salem to get the car, but in the end, we got a fair price for the vehicle and some good publicity for Salem all over the country,” says Smith. “It was definitely a unique experience.”
Author’s Note: Mike Stevens is the Communications Director for the City of Salem, and this story is the product of some good old spring cleaning. The decades-old manila folder containing the details of Elvis’ unique stay in Salem was discovered while cleaning out a storage closet on the top floor of city hall.