Graceland Plans New Live Venue to Draw Global Stars: 'It's All About Trying to Interpret Elvis's Wishes'

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Elvis Presley strolls the grounds of his Graceland estate in circa 1957.

As fans gather to mark 40 years since his death, Elvis Presley's fast-growing estate is on track for its most profitable year yet.

It's been 40 years since Elvis Presley died, but the expansion of his storied Graceland estate is just getting started.

"So far we've put up $135 million in construction and we're not even close to being finished," Graceland Holdings LLC managing partner Joel Weinshanker told Billboard while welcoming about 55,000 fans to a candlelighting ceremony at Graceland this week -- selling 22 percent more tickets than for the 35th anniversary of the King's death, with events ranging from a gospel concert to intimate conversations with key figures in Elvis's life.

"What you see today is only about half of what the plan is. We plan to be building well into the next decade and beyond, and we plan on keeping on expanding. And every time we do something, we take a pause, we listen to the fans, we look at what's happening, we say, is this what Elvis would want? Is what's happening good for everybody, good for us, good for the fans? And then we continue to expand."

As fans gather for what will be the biggest celebration the Elvis estate has ever seen, the estate projects this year's profits to be between $40 million and $45 million, mostly from Graceland's daily operations, with the biggest revenue stream coming from the tour of Presley's home and its surrounding buildings, Weinshanker tells Billboard. That would make 2017 the biggest year on the books since Graceland opened its doors to the public 35 years ago, while setting Elvis on track to give Michael Jackson a run for his money as the top-grossing dead celebrity next year, Weinshanker says. But the estate has even bigger plans in the works, including a new venue that will dwarf Graceland's existing 450-seater and soundstage that doubles as a 2,000 seat theater.

"Much, much larger acts are going to be able to play at Graceland, I would say in 2019," Weinshanker tells Billboard, noting that Elvis was, above all, a "revolutionary" at live performances. "We're really going to make Graceland a destination for almost any band around the world that comes to the United States."

Tonight, meanwhile, an Elvis-on-video concert is expecting about 9,500 people, "outdrawing 95 percent of amphitheater and arena acts that are out this year and he passed away 40 years ago," Weinshanker says.

Weinshanker's team -- which maintains Presley's million-and-a-half artifacts and was recently tasked to do similar archiving work for the estate of the late pop star Prince -- took the reins at Graceland four years ago following a long stretch of uncertainty. After Presley died at Graceland on August 16, 1977, his father Vernon became the executor and trustee of his property but passed away two years later, transferring the ownership to his daughter Lisa Marie, and the executor role to his wife Priscilla. With the property costing half a million dollars a year in maintenance and taxes, Priscilla brought on Jack Soden as Elvis Presley Enterprises' president/CEO to turn Graceland into a business in 1982, charging admission for the swarms of visitors who showed up daily at the property's gate to tour the spot where their idol once lived.

"The family had a lot of unpaid tax bills and financial issues," says Weinshanker.

In 2005, entertainment mogul Robert F.X. Sillerman bought the majority of Lisa Marie's interest in the company, and Apollo Global Management took the struggling company private several years later, joining the Raine Group to put it up for auction in 2013.

"Within a few years, they realized they really did not know what to do with Graceland and Elvis," says Weinshanker.

Weinshanker took control of the majority of Graceland's live events and exhibitions while his partner, Authentic Brands, took the majority of intellectual property and licensing. Working closely with Lisa Marie as a partner on all major decisions, Weinshanker says he has relied on a "what-would-Elvis-want" mentality to try to keep the estate relevant, commissioning the building of the Fort Diamond Hotel, for example, "a hotel that Elvis would have loved, where his friends would have stayed," to capitalize on demand and to get fans to extend their stays. He also helped mint the new Elvis Presley Memphis at Graceland, a 200,000-square-foot complex featuring museums, restaurants, and a gift shop, which allowed for more of the icon's memorabilia, such as his car and airplane collection, to be put on display.

"We've made it so more people are staying in Memphis over night, more people are spending longer times at Graceland, they're eating at Graceland, they're seeing live performances at Graceland," he explains, adding that "everything is about trying to interpret Elvis's wishes."

But keeping the Presley brand fresh isn't easy: Weinshanker says his team is constantly brainstorming to come up with ideas such as 2015's The Wonder of You, an album that reimagined Presley classics with orchestrations by the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra and eventually translated into a lucrative tour. "What's successful is putting out new Elvis records in a manner that he would really be proud and happy with, and so what you're gonna see is a lot more of that," says Weinshanker, noting that a Christmas Royal Philharmonic record is dropping this December. "We could come out with new records for the next 50 years using the recordings that were made 50, 60 years ago. And with each time that we do this we're bringing new fans in, we're satisfying old fans, and we're just showing a different perspective," he says.

Weinshanker admits that ventures outside of Graceland -- such as the Viva Elvis Cirque Du Soleil show in Las Vegas - haven't worked as well, and now mandates that anything outside of Graceland "needs to be temporary."

"Las Vegas hasn't been as successful and it's something that we wouldn't come back to on a permanent basis," he says. "If you try to make a second destination for Elvis, it doesn't really work because it's not authentic to who Elvis was."

While some of the earnings go to the family and the partners, Weinshanker notes that most of the profits are reinvested into the property. "A huge majority of the money since I've been on has gone right back into Graceland, and into our neighborhood, and local construction jobs to do what we're trying to do," he says. "We believe that Graceland and Elvis will be just as popular, if not more popular, 10, 20, 30, 40 years from now, and we're investing for that."