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Steve Dahl Talks Greetings From Graceland at 30

By Chuck Sudo in Arts & Entertainment on Aug 17, 2011 7:55PM

Elvis Presley died 34 years ago yesterday and it's a day radio legend Steve Dahl will never forget.

"I was working mornings in Detroit at the time," Dahl recollected during a phone interview yesterday. "The overnight person would rip the news headlines from the teletype machine and I distinctly remember the wire report on Elvis's death read he died "straining stool.'

"That was later removed from the copy." Dahl said.

That one piece of wire copy planted the seeds for what would eventually become the 1981 television special Greetings from Graceland.

Dahl was also fascinated by the obscene amount of prescription drugs found in Presley's system and a 1978 appearance by three different Elvis impersonators on talk show host David Susskind's television program. "There was a 50s Elvis, a 70s Elvis and I think a '68 comeback special Elvis, and I remember thinking, 'this shit is really weird,' " Dahl said. "Years later I met Harry Shearer and he also recalled that program, as well."

Dahl and his onetime broadcast partner Garry Meier took a field trip to Memphis in early 1981 -- "It may have been '80" -- and dived head first into what then was a cottage industry of Elvis memorabilia, before Priscilla Presley and Elvis Presley Enterprises swooped in and made Graceland the money maker it is today.

"The Elvis memorabilia thing was in its infancy back then," Dahl said. "You had the strip mall by Graceland that was converted into a souvenir stand. Elvis's uncle Velvis was selling his cookbook out of the Graceland guard house. There was a coffee shop where people would tell you stories about how Elvis's ghost would talk to them. There was the guy with the eternal flame, separate from the one in Graceland, that he said he walked to Tupelo, MS and back that kept going out."

Dahl, Meier, producer John Roach and a camera crew filmed Greetings over the course of a weekend. Their prior trip to Memphis wound up serving as a scouting trip.

"Once word spread among the locals why we were down there," Dahl said, "we started encountering resistance to filming."

Dahl said they filmed most of Greetings in one day. "We taped some on a Sunday and were back in Chicago doing the radio show Monday."

Greetings from Graceland premiered on WLS TV August 28, 1981. John Roach was the only person to whom Dahl pitched the concept. We asked Dahl if he thought about pitching the idea to any other local stations.

"We didn't have to," he said. "John got what we were going for immediately and just let us run with the concept."

Others at WLS like then sales manager Joe Ahern didn't get it. "Ahern lobbied the station to not run the program," Dahl said. "I remember when we filmed the cooking segment, I had three spit takes. (WLS Vice President and General Manager) Peter Desnoes had us cut out two of them, which, of course, violates the comedic rule of threes."

Greetings wound up winning a local Emmy Award. "It would have been an even better show without all the editing," Dahl said. It also led to a classic moment when Dahl took to the stage drunk to accept the Emmy.

Afterward, Dahl accidentally broke the Emmy over Ahern's head while posing for photographs. "Back then, the local Emmys they handed out were cheap plaster knockoffs," he said. "My sons have won Emmys since and their awards were the real thing. I've got a broken Emmy in my house."