Interview with Kenny Wynn : Colonel Tom Parker's assistant
Kenny was a pallbearer when Presley's manager Col. Tom Parker died.
Q : Tell us how you first got to meet Colonel Parker?
A : I had been an Elvis fan from the time I was six or seven years old and my brother Steve was a liquor distributor. And it became known to him that the International Hotel needed someone to work in conjunction with the Colonel. Sort of as a liaison between Colonel Parker's office and the hotel.
Being 19 years old and needing a summer job and out here anyways for the summer away from college, I readily volunteered. One thing led to another and within a week or so I reported up to floor four of the Hilton, and thus my relationship with the Colonel began in July of 1971.
Q : So what did you actually do for Colonel Parker?
A : Initially, I was involved with just, kind of busy work of preparing the packages that they were going to give the opening night invited guests and decorating the hotel. Decorating the hotel was a big thing to Colonel Parker. Later on, my responsibilities were increased because the Colonel took a liking to me and I became in charge of all the concessions. The sale and the distribution of all those things and accounting for them between the hotel and the All-Star Shows, which was the business entity of the Colonel's.
Q : How was the hotel decorated?
A : There were teddy bears, there were hound dogs, it was different each year. In first year this was the celebration of the Elvis Now Summer Festival. An album had come out of new Elvis songs called 'Elvis Now'. And the current 45 was a song called 'I'm Leaving' that had also come out at about that time. And we had this big, giant teddy bear. It was about 12 feet high. And we decided that was at a booth right in the front of the concourse at the hotel. Now, you have to keep in mind at this point the concessions were still sold for a profit. Subsequent to the next year, they became kind of a don, all the proceeds went to charities. But at this time it was more of a business and the hotel and the All-Star Shows split the proceeds evenly.
In fact, the Colonel said to me, 'What are you getting paid?' And I said, 'Minimum wage, a dollar forty an hour'. He said, 'That's not a good enough deal for as much work as you're gonna have to do'. So, he called up a guy names Chris Karamanis, who was a executive at the hotel. Chris came upstairs and he said, 'We gotta make a new deal for Kenny'. He called me the Sarge. He said, 'We gotta make a new deal for the Sarge. I'll give him 10 cents for each item that's sold and you give him 10 cents for each item that's sold'.
With a little extra work and some more marketing and incentives that the Colonel and I talked about, we sold more that summer than had ever been sold before. And during the course of the month of August, I was the second hightest paid employee at the Las Vegas Hilton. Making between a hundred and ninety and two hundred and fifty dollars a day. And for a 19 year old kid that was a lot of money.
Q : Most definitely. How long after you met Colonel Parker did you meet Elvis?
A : I had actually met Elvis before I met Colonel Parker.
I had met Elvis the opening night of Elvis' first engagement with my brother in August of 1969. I didn't really know Elvis very well at any point in time, but I didn't really spend any time around him at all while I worked for the Colonel, as it was the Colonel saw a very, very strong line of division between those who worked in the business end of the show for him and those who worked for Elvis. the so-called Memphis Mafia. It was only through my association with Ricky Stanley, Elvis' stepbrother, who was about a year or so difference in age, that I spent a little bit of time up in the suite in subsequent engagements.
Q : Tell about that opening night in Vegas in '69.
A : I remember we walked downstairs to the dressing rooms and Elvis wasn't right in the dressing room right then. My brother and his wife and I were there and Priscilla was there, but Elvis wasn't. I don't even remember who it was that introduced us to Priscilla. And then within a minute or two Elvis came out. We were introduced to Elvis. He shook his hand. He said, 'Hi, how ya doing'. And I guess somebody told him a little bit about my brother or somethin'. He said, 'I hear you guys ride motorcycles'. And we said, 'Yeah we do'. And he said, 'I ride motorcycles, too', and he started to tell us a little story about how he'd get up a three or four in the morning and go ride around the parking lots of the hotel and everything. I'll never forget this. He grabbbed Priscilla's dress or whatever it was she was wearing, and kind of pulled it up a little bit, and there was a big skinny on the lower part of her leg, I guess where she'd taken a fall or gotten burned from the pipe or somethin' like that. And he said, 'Yeah, Priscilla, you know, had a fall' or something I don't remember exactly what he said. But, then after that I didn't see him again for two years.
Q : What did you learn from the Colonel? Was he like a mentor?
A : The Colonel was very much a mentor to me at that point in my life. I felt that the Colonel was a very wise showman. I thought he was more above all else, a showman. He was a guy that knew how to market a product, how to keep a product in the public eye. In a time when almost every rock group or rock star and everybody else was being overexposed, I think he kept Elvis' career at a higher point and definitely increased the longevity of it by underexposing him. Particularly in the late '60's. And then when Elvis effectively had his comeback when the live appearances started in 1969, I thought he showed unbelievable restraint in not working Elvis so many places or letting him be too overexposed and keeping the concert tours, when in comparison to what you see now, maybe they're working 80 to a hundred nights a year starting in about 1971 or '72. Relatively to what some of these stars work now, I think that was relatively a small amount of exposure.
Q : Tell us about the man Colonel Parker.
A : Colonel Parker was a very, very complex guy. He was very, very hard to get close to. Many of the things that I'm talking, that I didn't learn about Colonel Parker until many, many years later as our friendship developed long after Elvis' passing. Sometimes the Colonel did things just to see the effect of them on other people. One story would comes to mind is a wife of a colleague of mine tells me this story how every time the Colonel came to town, he would send somebody over to see this other individual who was a casino proprietor and borrow 500 dollars. The messenger would come back with the 500 dollars, the Colonel would put the 500 dollars in an envelope, put it in his desk, and then at the end of his stay in Las Vegas he would send the guy back to return the 500 dollars. And at that time, I thought that was kind of strange. And, I guess the reason the Colonel did it was just to build up credit with the guy in case he ever really needed it.
But, he loved children. He used to sit when my kids were really small, and also when Priscilla's sister's kids were small. The Colonel always made drawings for them at Christmas, drawings for my kids, always asked me for a picture. He would say, 'Let me have a good picture of you'. And he would make this poster thing up and say to Michael and Ashley, those are my kids' names, say, 'Happy Father's Day', you know.
I guess the most poignant story that I can talk about to do with the sensitive side of the Colonel is about two years before he died. You have to understand that at that time it was very difficult for the Colonel to walk and everything. He calls me up one day and he says, 'Come on Kenny, we're going to the circus. We're taking Ashley and Michael to the circus'. I said, 'Okay'. He said, 'I got great seats'. The Colonel always prided himself on getting really good seats or doing everything first class. He especially was glad when he could do it for free. So, anyways, the Thomas and Mack Stadium where the circus was being held was a very, very steep incline. Not unlike most stadiums, indoor basketball arenas or anywhere. And he went down this hundred and 50 or so odd steps. A great, great deal of pain and suffering to himself to get to our seats to watch this whole thing. And in coming back up I thought he was gonna collapse. His face was filled with beads of sweat, he had to stop four or five times, he was, we're talking about a man that was, close to 90 years old at the time. But he didn't flinch. And he just did that out of his concern and his caring about my kids, just bought 'em anything they wanted, circus souvenirs and stuff like that. And he loved the circus, coming from that background himself.
Q : What does the Colonel mean to you personally?
A : The Colonel once gave me picture of himself and it was probably one of the most moving and important things that anyone ever gave me. In fact, I still have this picture hanging at home. It says, 'Kenny, if I'd had a son I would have liked him to have been just like you'. And I just thought that was, like, about the nicest thing that anybody could say. He would confide in me. A lot of times I think he felt misunderstood, particularly in the later years when he would see some of these things that were written about him. Things that were written about this relationship with Elvis and the way the business of Elvis was handled. His wife, Loanne and I were always saying, 'Well you need to write a book. You need to set this stuff straight'. And he always said, 'You know, I'm gonna do it, I'm gonna do it'. But I think he really never really intended to do it or I think he would of. He was a good provider to Loanne. One day he called me in his bedroom, this was about the last year of his life, just the two of us. And he said, he kind of reviewed what he had done in terms of what he had sold off, how he had provided for Loanne, asked me what I thought, would that be enough, and things like that. And he was very, very concerned that she would be well taken care of, because she was his biggest supporter. He lived a relatively modest lifestyle. You know, liked to go to the same places for lunch and dinner. He was very much a guy with a routine. And I think that was probably true even in his earlier days as well.
Q : What did you witness with regard to the Colonel's relationship with Elvis?
A : That is a very difficult question. I didn't really witness other than the time that I got a picture taken with Elvis that the Colonel had promised me at the beginning of the engagement in the summer of '71 was actually the only time that I ever saw Elvis and the Colonel together. Now, oftentimes I heard either from some of the guys who worked for Elvis or some of the guys who worked for the Colonel, you know, about different aspects of their relationship. I wasn't privy to any of that stuff personally.
I'll tell you one thing I did hear once, though. The Colonel called up Elvis' father, Vernon. It was at the end of the engagement. And he was going through all of the bills that had been presented by the Hilton. The incidental miscellaneous charges and everything. And the Colonel, he stood there and he was sittin' at his desk and he goes, 'Okay, we'll pay this, Vernon you pay this'. There was no dialog here, you know. I mean, it was just, Colonel would sit up with the bills, we'll pay this, we'll pay this. And of course, all the ones that were higher were in the Vernon pile, which meant they would be paid for by Elvis and apart from anything the Colonel was a part of. And something came up and one of the bills came up and put in the Vernon pile, and it was for somethin' to do with somethin' that I knew about and I foolishly corrected him and said, 'Colonel, that's not supposed to be one of Vernon's bills, that's one of ours'. And he said, 'Excuse me, Vernon'. And he took me next door in the bedroom. Well, I don't think I was ever so scared and intimidated in my life. He got about this far from my face. He said, 'Don't you ever contradict anything I ever say again'. I thought I through right then, you know. And I didn't even think about it. I thought he was just honestly making a mistake.
But, rest assured that was the last time I ever did anything like that.
Q : Did you ever taste any of the Colonel's cooking?
A : I had dinner at his home, but I wasn't exactly sure who had prepared the food. I'll tell you one thing I did do. One day he summons me up to the office and he said, 'Kenny, I bought some catfish tonight'. I said, 'Okay, I'll call up Percy'. He said, 'No I got some catfish'. I said, 'Where's the catfish'. He said, 'In the little small refrigerator by my pool in Palm Springs'. I said 'Wha--'. He said, 'You can go get that'. He said, 'I'll get the Barron Hilton on the phone'. He said, 'We'll have the plane fired up, and we'll go over there, send you over there to pick it up'. So I went to the airport. There was a private plane waiting for me.
The plane landed in Palm Springs. The Colonel's gardener, a fella named Ricky Logan, also I think Elvis' gardener in Palm Springs, too, was there to pick me up. We drove over to the house. There were no cellular phones or anything. He had described where this refrigerator was, I opened it up, got these wrapped tin foil things that obviously looked like a few fish, got back on the plane, came back. And when I walked back in the office, I was gone maybe about three and a half hours, and the Colonel was beaming. Wasn't it cool that he was able to do that and just send somebody over.
Another story comes to mind and I think this might have been the thing that first made the Colonel like me or think that I was somebody other than just a drone worker. There was a picture behind the Colonel's desk of Kirk Kerkorian, who was the proprietor of the International Hotel. And the deal had just been announced. And Baron Hilton was coming the next day late in the afternoon for about a three o'clock or something like that meeting to do to introduce himself. As the Colonel always said, 'Pay his respects'. And I don't know how well they knew each other or anything like that. So, the Colonel said, 'Kenny, you got a big job'. I said, 'What is it'. So, he said, 'We need a picture to be replace this'. I said, 'Where are you gonna get it?' He said, 'I don't know, but you gotta figure that out'. So, I took this picture of Kerkorian off. I went downstairs. I went to the press department office. I found where they had a picture of Barron Hilton.
I took it to a local studio had it blown up, paid something like a hundred dollars which, at that time I my own pocket to get it re-framed in the exact same frame that the Kerkorian picture was there. And I got there with it at about nine thirty in the next morning. And I wasn't sure if the Colonel thought I could do it. And there it was, this big picture of Baron Hilton. And I showed it to him and he goes, 'Well, what are you waitin' for, put it up'. So, I put it up right exactly where the Kerkorian picture was. Since it was the same frame it fit on the wall perfectly. And, gosh, I would say probably over the next 20 somethin' years, certainly until I was well into my 40's, the Colonel's told that story to people when I was with him over and over again.
Q : Do have another story you'd like to share?
A : This is my favorite story of the Colonel. At the end of the engagement, we had sold all the pennants, but we had a lot of the pennant sticks left. So, were like three days left. One last weekend. So, I said, Colonel, 'We got about 500 pennant sticks left'. He'd say at breakfast every morning, 'All right, what's the inventory status report. How much did we sell yesterday?' He just wanted to know and he wanted everybody else to know. I'm sure he knew already, but he was just like testing to see whether I had it on the top of my head or tip of my fingers or not. So, he says, 'I got an idea. We have 500 sticks left and no pennants. So, we got the big teddy bear, don't we?' I said, 'Yep'. He says, 'Have a sign made in Japanese 'cause we used to have the Japanese at the hotel. The Japanese Elvis junkets. Elvis Special Teddy Bear, Pearl Harbor Day Special: Bear Toothpicks'. Get all the pennant sticks sharpened, which I did. Sell 'em for 25 cents apiece. We sold all the pennant sticks in one day. I don't know how politically correct that is, but it sure as hell is funny.
Q : In closing, what would you like to tell the fans about Colonel Parker?'
A : Well, I think that Colonel Parker wasn't too different than most of us. He was certainly one of the most brilliant impresarios of all time. But, then again, he had a lot of talent to work with. What was the old saying, when I met the boy he had a million dollars worth of talent, now he's got a million dollars or somethin' like that, he said in the late '50's. But I don't think Elvis would have done as well as he did without the Colonel, either. At least financially. I think probably towards the latter part of his career, the Colonel's old-fashionedness probably inhibited Elvis' movement into some other areas of the performing arts that I think as a fan of Elvis' would have been beneficial to him. But Ricky once told me that Elvis said to him that without the Colonel we couldn't organize a ping-pong game. You know, so I think there was a reliance.
And if you knew Elvis, but I got the sense of this even from the little bit and very limited exposure I had to Elvis Presley, he very much was a compartmentalized kinda guy. He saw his job as the singing, he saw somebody else's job as writin' the songs and he saw the Colonel's job as runnin' the business.
So, I think the Colonel got pretty good marks in that. I think he was a nicer man than some people gave him credit for, but he probably made some mistakes, too. He had a good soul.
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