ìElvis on Tour,î documentary cover - Bob Pennell

Return of the king: Documentary inspires memories

Security was tight, as usual, around Elvis Presley before a 1972 concert in Richmond, Va. Sylvia Alexander, a 32-year-old assistant producer with Cinema Associates, the North Hollywood-based, indie filmmaker that was filming the tour, was passing out access badges to the film crew. One of Elvis' many minions, a no-nonsense guy, wanted to know what she was doing.

"I said I was just doing my job," she recalls.

"You realize," the man said, "you're the only woman who's ever been backstage at an Elvis show?"

"I'm doing my job," Alexander said.

Sylvia would later marry Richard Alexander, an assistant cameraman on the same Elvis project, and the two would wind up living on rural property near Medford just down the road from Jim Webb, the Elvis project's sound supervisor and a partner in Cinema Associates and its parent company.

"Elvis on Tour," the documentary the three worked on, will be shown at select theaters around the nation, including Tinseltown in Medford, tonight in celebration of the 75th anniversary of Presley's birth.

Alexander started with Cinema Associates in 1970. Everybody she knew worked in the film industry. She happened to visit CA's North Hollywood digs one day when a friend was editing a film about guitarist Mason Williams, and one thing led to another. There weren't many rock documentaries in that pre-MTV day, and CA did some of the first videos.

The fledgling outfit's big break came when it got the nod to film a concert tour put together when rocker Joe Cocker asked pianist and singer Leon Russell for help putting together a band. The resulting 1971 documentary, "Mad Dogs and Englishmen," has been hailed as one of the greatest rock movies ever.

"I guess it all came together," Alexander says.

Pierre Adidge, one of the partners in CA, proposed a tour film about Elvis to MGM. Presley's manager, Col. Tom Parker, gave the OK after he saw "Mad Dogs and Englishmen."

Webb says the Colonel was as difficult as his reputation.

"He said if he showed up in the film he'd charge us $1,000 a frame," Webb says.

Parker had made Presley — and himself — very rich, and had re-written the role of talent manager with ruthless cunning. But he was neither a colonel nor a Tom nor a Parker (his real name was Andreas van Kuijk).

"He was not a nice person," Alexander says.

The tour wasn't the first time Alexander saw Elvis. She'd gone to a concert in Houston, her hometown, in 1956. She was 16, and Elvis was 21. She and her friends were into rhythm and blues.

"I went to laugh at him," she says, "but I wound up liking him."

By 1972 Elvis hadn't been at the cutting edge of pop music for nearly a decade. More complex forms of rock had swept in with the Beatles and the British Invasion of the early 1960s. Elvis had spent much of the '60s making movies. But his televised 1968 "Comeback Special" showed he could still make fireworks delivering songs he believed in, and he remained as popular as ever with his fan base.

Alexander and company started filming in April 1972 in Virginia and finished three weeks later in San Antonio, Texas. They later added a scene with Elvis in an MGM studio in Culver City, Calif.

As Presley performed in Richmond, Alexander was sitting on the stage with a clipboard and stopwatch timing the songs for the film. Elvis turned around in the middle of a song and saw Alexander holding a flower somebody had given her. He came over singing, not missing a beat, and did a double-take on the flower, whoah, got a big audience reaction and kept singing.

"It was on film, but it didn't make the cut," Alexander says. "I could tell the women in the audience were like, 'Look what you get to do!'"

She never had face time with the singer, then 37, but she saw plenty of him on the stage.

"I have to say he was gorgeous," she says. "Absolutely stunning."

One of the bits in the show called for Elvis to throw scarves to the audience. Backup singer Charlie Hodge, who hit the high notes Elvis could no longer manage, had the job of bringing the singer water and scarves.

"The women in the audience would fight over the scarves," Alexander says.

By 1972 crowds at most rock concerts had a distinctly counter-culture appearance. These women had piled-up hair and lots of makeup.

CA would go to the venue a day before the show and set up the complex gear it took to film with 10 cameras. Alexander posted signs telling people that by entering they were agreeing that they may be filmed.

One night codirector Bob Abel split his tight pants and wanted to get them sewn up without taking them off.

"I was threading the needle and the Colonel came in," she says. "He gave us the major stink eye."

In San Antonio, one of Elvis' bodyguards asked Alexander if she wanted to come to a party with Elvis and the guys after the show.

"They fished the audience for girls," she says. "I said I was working."

The singer had a drug problem by this time but had not yet ballooned into Fat Elvis.

Webb says that Adidge managed to have a wire hidden in Elvis' limo. The device worked, but it was discovered. One of Elvis' people brought the wire to Webb, saying, "This belong to you?"

Most of what was on that tape — Elvis and others talking — was cut, although some of the contents made it into the film, Webb says.

Presley preferred to come and go underneath the stage in buildings where possible, getting whisked away from all the attendant madness in a limo. In San Antonio, Richard Alexander was setting up equipment right in the middle of the big ramp the limo would use as a crowd of frenzied women jostled for space chanting, "Elvis! Elvis! Elvis!" The limo came, but it was a decoy.

"He wasn't in it," Alexander says. "But that's where the thing had started of 'Elvis has left the building.'"

The film came out later that year, shot in 16-milimeter and blown up to 35. It didn't do well in its initial release but was praised for its you-are-there feeling and its split-scene images. It won a Golden Globe for best documentary.

"Later MGM blew it up to 70-milimeter," Webb says. "It ran all over the world. They made money on it."

Alexander says the best part of it all was watching Presley perform.

"There's a reason somebody like that is remembered after they're gone," she says. "To me, he was like a beautiful stallion. Not sophisticated. But he looked the way he did, and he could sing."

Bill Varble is a freelance writer living in Medford. Reach him at

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