Thirty-four years after Elvis' death, the hip-swiveling serenader proves he's still got sway. This anniversary may not be a notable number, but 20,000 fans still joined in a candlelight vigil at his Graceland estate. In the Forbes Top-Earning Dead Celebrity list last year, the King of Rock n' Roll was beaten only by the King of Pop, with annual earnings of $60 million -- 1,200 times the household income of your average living American.
Unlike other big-earning ghosts like J.R.R. Tolkien, Einstein and Dr. Seuss, Elvis hasn't just generated cash for his own estate, but for the legions of men and women that work in his name. Tourists are shepherded by guides throughout the year through his Graceland home, then bop across Elvis Presley Boulevard to shop at Graceland Plaza, visit the Elvis Presley Automobile Museum and Sincerely Elvis Museum and stay across the street at the 128-room Heartbreak Hotel.
Elvis has provided work for another small army 1400 miles away. Cirque Du Soleil's Viva Elvis employs 150 to 200 dancers, designers and pompadour poofers. The show is even getting a $10 million revamp at the end of this year -- a healthy chunk of change to the inject into the Las Vegas economy, which has been lagging since the recession made risking large quantities of money less fun.
And of course, there are the impersonators, an estimated 30,000 of them in America alone, equal to the population of Myrtle Beach, S.C., and 85,000 worldwide, almost twice the number of U.S. soldiers in Iraq. Many take home handsome six figure sums and, with their own bands, cabaret acts, show girls and production crews, are one man job-creators themselves.
In 2005, billionaire entrepreneur Robert F. X. Sillerman bought an 85 percent share of Elvis' "name and likeness" for over $100 million. While cooking up the Las Vegas show, Sillerman told The New York Times that "obviously it wouldn't make sense to have unauthorized Elvis impersonators."
John Stuart, the creator of "Legends in Concert," Las Vegas' longest running independently produced show, replied, "That would be like trying to stop a nation."
It's one thing to make money as a dead celebrity -- there are mugs and tees to merchandize and exclusive limited DVD boxsets to remaster. But it's a whole other accomplishment to single-handedly run an industry from the grave. For the first you just need to build a brand, while for the second you need to build a world.
With approximately 90,000 individuals making their living in some form through the Memphis legend, perhaps the government should rethink its job-creation strategy. Tax cuts? Infrastructure spending? Deficit reduction? How about 154 Elvises.
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