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Director remembers landmark Elvis Presley performance

11:08 AM, May 11, 2013   |    comments
Longtime television director Marty Pasetta, right, is photographed with Elvis Presley. Pasetta directed numerous live television programs including Presley's 1973 Aloha from Hawaii concert.(Photo: courtesy of Marty Pasetta)
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USA TODAY - The Elvis Honeymoon Hideaway will celebrate the 46th anniversary of Elvis and Priscilla Presley's Palm Springs honeymoon next weekend.

But another recent anniversary may be even more significant in Elvis folklore.

Forty years ago last month, NBC aired the 90-minute special Elvis: Aloha From Hawaii via Satellite after a shorter version was seen around the globe on Jan. 14, 1973.

It was the first time satellite technology was used to transmit a live concert around the world. In the 2004 deluxe DVD of Aloha, Elvis Presley Enterprises said the special attracted between 1 billion and 1.5 billion viewers.

Those figures now seem dubious. Aloha was transmitted to 38 nations, but Alan Hanson says in his Elvis History Blog the combined populations of those countries was 1.3 billion. The Guinness Book of World Records says the largest TV audience for a performance was the 1993 Super Bowl halftime show by Michael Jackson, which drew 133.4 million viewers.

But the project gave Presley one last credit to add to his legend.

The idea for a satellite broadcast was conceived by Presley's manager, Col. Tom Parker, while they both lived part-time in Palm Springs in 1972. Parker sold the idea to RCA, which owned NBC, and NBC's vice president of nighttime programming, part-time Palm Springs resident John Hamlin, assigned it to Marty Pasetta.

Pasetta, 81, who now lives in La Quinta, Calif., says he's not sure how many people saw the broadcast.

"What I was told by NBC and others is that every third person on Earth saw that first show when it went out," Pasetta said in his memorabilia-laden home office. "In Africa and places like that, it played in theaters. They didn't have television."

By the accounts of those closest to him, the Aloha concert was the last time Presley suspended his prescription drug abuse and performed at his optimum 175-pound weight.

Biographer Peter Guralnick and bodyguard Sonny West credit Pasetta for inspiring the singer to clean up his act. In his biography, Elvis: Taking Care of Business, West said Presley had been using Demerol and Dilaudid, which gave him a powerful craving for sugar. After meeting Pasetta, West said Presley insisted that he and two other bodyguards join him on a diet that included a daily injection of protein taken from the urine of a pregnant woman to burn up the fat in his system.

Pasetta said he told Presley at their first sit-down meeting, attended by two bodyguards, he had to lose weight before the concert.

"He sat straight and the guys on either side of him took out their guns and laid them down on the table," said Pasetta. "And if you don't think I was scared, you're crazy.

"I said, 'I want you skinny because I'm going to use close-ups,' which wasn't very popular in television in those days. I said, 'I'm going to go from your neck to the top of your head. That's going to be your sex (appeal) on the tube, along with your voice, and it's going to make a landmark.'

"He jumped out his chair. He grabbed me, put his arms around me and said, 'You're the first person who was ever honest to me.' He said, 'I will lose the weight for you,' and he lost 20 pounds in two months."

Working with Elvis

Pasetta, who started his career in San Francisco, directed the Smothers Brothers and Glen Campbell variety shows before focusing on specials by the likes of Bing Crosby, Frank Sinatra, Goldie Hawn and Hawaiian legend Don Ho. He was just coming off his Academy Awards broadcast directorial debut when Hamlin offered him the opportunity to work with Presley.

Pasetta wasn't sure he wanted to do it at first. Hamlin told him to watch Presley at the Long Beach Arena that November and Presley gave an uninspiring performance.

"He stood there like a lump," said Pasetta. "He didn't do anything. I went back to NBC and said, 'Hey, guys, what am I going to do with this guy? How long is the show? 90 minutes? I can't tap dance that much. It doesn't look like he's going to move.' They said, 'That's your problem.' "

The concert film would feature Presley giving a one-hour benefit concert at the Honolulu International Convention Center. Pasetta tried to provide an international reach by putting Elvis' name on the set in various international alphabets and fonts. He also tried to convey Presley's romantic appeal, much to Parker's consternation.

"I wanted to put a runway in, 8 foot wide, so he could walk down the center," said Pasetta. "I wanted to put girls around there and I wanted the stage 6 feet off of the floor. The Colonel always had the stage 10 feet above the floor and he had guards across the front. He didn't want to have anybody touch his boy.

"When I told this to the Colonel, he had a fit. He said, 'I'm not lowering the stage. I'm going to have my guards there and he can stand there and sing.' I said, 'That's not going to work on the tube for an hour and a half show.' He said, 'No. I won't do it. You can't do the show.' "

But Pasetta says Presley loved his ideas and, in one of the few instances in his career, he overruled his manager.

"Elvis said to me, 'The Colonel controls my business. I control my creativity and my music and my show. He has nothing to say about it. That's your rule. You will deal with Joe Esposito,' who was sort of a go-between," said Pasetta. "I talked to Joe, the Colonel - everybody. But I tried not to deal too much with the Colonel. I had enough problems getting the show on."

Show revealed Elvis' decline

The production was fraught with technical problems. A day before the broadcast, it was discovered someone had cut the power lines going into the auditorium. Pasetta called Don Ho and, "He got people out of bed and they came back and fixed it just in time."

The day of the show, it was discovered the backstage equipment was creating a humming sound. Pasetta called Ho again and, "Don said, 'Call the Navy yard.' We had a truckload lead sheets that were brought over two hours before the show and we lined them up and got our sound back."

Then, at the start of the show, knowing they had to shoot the entire concert continuously, "My technical director froze on me," Pasetta said. "I had to cut the first part of the show. He was nervous."

The soundtrack entered the Billboard charts on Feb. 24, bolstered by Presley's best reviews in years. It would be his last No. 1 album. The next week, Parker signed a seven-year deal for Presley to remain with RCA.

Aloha From Hawaii, which was padded with extra songs and B-roll for the 90-minute U.S. broadcast, also temporarily quieted demands for Presley to tour overseas, something Parker was reticent to do. But it also revealed the singer's physical decline.

Presley still had that trademark smirk, especially when women screamed for his attention, and he showed real passion on James Taylor's jocular Steamroller Blues. But, like at Long Beach, he didn't move much.

His song selection revealed his emotional decline. He sang Hank Williams' I'm So Lonesome I Could Cry, calling it, "the saddest song I ever heard." He also sang the Frank Sinatra anthem, My Way, about a man looking back at his life now that "the end is near."

The next day, Presley was too groggy to visit the SS Arizona Memorial in the Honolulu harbor, as had been planned.

"It was drugs," Pasetta said. "And he was lazy. He didn't want to do any (weight-loss exercise). He just sat around."

(Copyright © 2013 USA TODAY)

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