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MojoThe wealth of detail that [Dickerson] gathers and lucidly imparts along the way is never less than utterly compelling.
— Johnny Black
Based on unprecedented research and interviews, this authoritative biography of Colonel Tom Parker (1909-1997) includes new revelations and insights into rock music's most renowned and notorious manager.
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Based on unprecedented research and interviews, this authoritative biography of Colonel Tom Parker (1909-1997) includes new revelations and insights into rock music's most renowned and notorious manager.
THE SECOND GREATEST
SHOW ON EARTH
Tampa shone like a beacon in the night to young Tom Parker.
It was the Las Vegas of its time: A place where you could buy anything for the right price, where vast financial empires could be built on one-trick ponies, midnight hustles, and high-stake shell games, where all it took to make a big score was a dream grand enough to capture the imagination.
Nature has joined Tampa and St. Petersburg at the hip with an enormous inland saltwater bay, but they are two very different cities. St. Petersburg, with its sandy Gulf of Mexico beaches, has long been Florida's west coast playground for the rich and famous. Tampa has a more austere, working-class foundation. For most of its early history, it was best known as a landing port for Colombian banana boats.
From the time the region was first explored in the 1500s by Juan Ponce de León and Hernando de Soto, Tampa has had a dual reputation: First, as a natural paradise fed by mineral springs with miraculous healing qualities, and second, as a wide-open port city, where gambling, prostitution, and drinking were tolerated at sensible levels, as long as they were kept a respectable distance from the well-manicured neighborhoods of polite society.
For Tom Parker, Tampa offered everything a young man could possibly want. By the early 1930s, when he first appeared on the scene in the Tampa Bay area, the Florida land boom of the 1920s had subsided, leaving behind a flood of new arrivals, some with fortunes toinvest, others desperate for work. It was the ideal time and place for Parker to put down roots. With the exception of the Tampa/St. Petersburg area, the entire west coast of Florida was a desolate wasteland.
Since Tampa offered the only major port between Key West and Pensacola, illegal immigrants who wanted to bypass the mainstream ports on the west coast heavily favored it. Cubans arrived by the thousands to work in the area's cigar factories, and it was the port of choice for those Germans, Italians, and Russian and East European Jews who preferred a backdoor entry into the United States. Of all the ports in America, it was the one that asked the fewest questions. It was the place to go if you were without papers, and had a past and wanted a new start.
When Tom Parker first arrived in Tampa in the early 1930s, he had not been using that name for long. There is no documented record of his existence in America prior to his arrival in Tampa. Everything about his life before that is an historical blur. It would be decades before anyone determined that his real name was something other than Tom Parker.
According to one theory, later accepted by a Tennessee probate court and encouraged by Tom Parker himself, he was born Andreas van Kuijk in Breda, Holland, on June 26, 1909.
When he came into the world, goes that theory, five brothers and sisters greeted him; four additional siblings would arrive before he reached the age of ten. His parents were Adam and Maria van Kuijk. From all indications, he had a fairly normal childhood. His maternal grandparents, Johannes and Marie Ponsie, made a living as itinerant peddlers hawking trinkets as they traveled the waterways of the Netherlands.
Andreas was sixteen when his father died, sending his family into turmoil as it attempted to adjust to the loss of its primary breadwinner. Where would they live? What would Maria do to feed the family? Andreas began to disappear for short periods of time. Later it was discovered that he was hanging out at the shipyards. One morning he left home and never returned.
A second theory, favored by the author, has it that Parker was born in Russia to Jewish parents and acquired his Dutch identity during his teen years while living with the van Kuijk family. At the time he arrived in Tampa, Jews lived in closely knit, insular groups that afforded protection from non-Jews who often looked upon them with suspicion and disapproval. The 1920s and the 1930s were not good times to be visibly Jewish in America, so many preferred to live in anonymity.
There were few patterns in Parker's life, but the one that stuck with him the closest was his propensity to gravitate to other Jews. It began in Tampa and continued throughout his life. Whether you believe Parker was born in the Netherlands or in Russia, the fact remains that there is no documentation to substantiate either claim. In carny lingo, "you pays your money and you takes your chances."
All we know for certain is that Andreas dropped out of sight in Holland in the late 1920s and early 1930s. Somewhere between Holland and the United States, he shed his old identity and reinvented himself. As Andreas discarded his Dutch identity, Tom Parker was being birthed, fully grown and sporting a gigantic Cuban-rolled cigar. "Hello," he said upon his arrival in Tampa. "My name's Tom Parker and I'm from Huntington, West Virginia."
As the world's second immaculate conception in only two millennia, it would forever mystify residents of Huntington, West Virginia, where the name Tom Parker exists only in the mind of its creator.
* * *
Throughout the 1920s and early 1930s, dozens of midway carnivals crisscrossed America, providing entertainment for fairs, circuses, and independent promoters. The Johnny J. Jones Exposition was one of the best known, but there were many others, including the Rubin & Cherry Shows, Beckman & Gerety's C.A. Wortham Shows, and John M. Sheesley's Mighty Midway.
One of the most aggressive was the Tampa-based Royal American Shows, which had begun operation in the early 1920s. It played catch-up throughout the decade, but by the early 1930s, it was the dominant midway attraction in the country, a distinction it enjoys to the present day.
Essentially, the midway shows were refinements of the traveling medicine shows that were popular from the 1880s into the new century. The Kickapoo Indian Medicine Company was representative of that type of show. Typically, its ten-act program offered dancing Indians, contortionists, a trapeze act, rifle and handgun exhibitions, and a tightrope walker.
As more glamorous midway shows grew in popularity, the medicine shows dwindled in number, so that by the mid-1960s they had pretty much vanished. But by the time Tom Parker arrived in Tampa, they were still very much in evidence, particularly in the South, where they offered the only live entertainment available.
The routine seldom varied: the medicine show would set up its tents on the outskirts of town and the show's pitchman would go into town with a "Jake" and an Indian and do a series of routines on highly traveled street corners. The skits were done to lure people to the tent shows, which normally lasted a couple of hours. The real purpose of the medicine show—and later the midways—was to sell products, not offer entertainment.
Throughout the 1920s, the godfather of American midways was Johnny J. Jones, a mild-mannered man of diminutive stature who had a reputation for savvy business decisions and compassion toward his employees. He was well liked among the carnies. When word passed along the midway circuit in December 1930 that he had died, the first reaction was sadness, for it was said among carnies that Jones never intentionally inflicted an unkindness among his own kind, but that sorrow quickly turned to apprehension over who would assume the mantle of leadership.
Carnies need a figurehead who can offer spiritual leadership. Someone who can cut the big deal with the straight world. They have their own language, their own code of conduct, their own expectations of the non-carny world. With the passing of Johnny J. Jones, the carny world was thrust into a void. Top carnies are not chosen by democratic vote. Nor are they anointed by divine intervention. They rise to the top by demonstrating a natural ability to lead.
In 1931, the man destined to assume that leadership role was Carl J. Sedlmayr, who owned and managed (along with the Velare Brothers) the Tampa-based Royal American Shows. Sedlmayr, who was born on October 20, 1886, in Falls City, Nebraska, was forty-five when Jones died. He was not born into a carny family, a fact that made his rise to prominence even more impressive, but rather to a family of German ancestry.
Sedlmayr's childhood was uneventful until his father died in 1897, at which time he was sent to Kansas City, Missouri, to live with relatives. By the age of fourteen, what he wanted more than anything else was to become a pharmacist. That dream was dashed when he applied for a position as a pharmacist in Omaha and Council Bluffs, Iowa, only to have his application rejected.
Sedlmayr then responded to a newspaper advertisement soliciting salesmen for a new writing instrument called the fountain pen. Dazzled by its flashy appeal, he took the newfangled invention out on the road and found immediate success as a traveling salesman. During his travels, he met several medicine show pitchmen and became interested in a lifestyle that was then the epitome of American show business. In 1907, at the age of twenty-one, he jumped headlong into the carny life by taking a job as a ticket seller at Chicago's Riverview Park. Before long, Sedlmayr had saved enough money to purchase his own sideshow attraction.
With the idea that "Royal" would be attractive to Canadians and "American" would be appealing in the United States (to be successful, a midway operator had to do equally well in both countries), he renamed his business the Royal American Shows. By 1925, Sedlmayr had taken on two partners, Elmer and Curtis Velare. Together, they built the Royal American Shows into a first-rate operation.
Motion pictures and radio were a constant threat to the carnivals, but the carnies were able to be competitive by capitalizing on the "hands on" nature of their shows. You could see the entertainers up close. You could smell the grass and the popcorn and the candied apples. Plus, carnivals had girlie shows that provided a level of titillation missing from radio and movie theaters (unless you got really lucky in the balcony).
Sedlmayr was a master showman, not that he ever climbed atop a stage to perform. His talent lay elsewhere. He had the ability to go into a town and by the sheer force of his personality convince everyone that Royal American was the greatest show on earth. Most carny operators know more about the cities and towns they visit than do the people who live there. They quickly learn who is honest—and, more importantly, who is not.
If a town is under the control of a mafia-style family that operates its own girlie shows and gambling halls, then the carny operator will hear from them in quick order. Carnies scoff at the charge that they cannot be trusted. To them, it is the world-at-large that runs the biggest scam, with its hidden hometown agendas and ruthless centers of power.
Typically, Sedlmayr arrived in a town three days ahead of the show. The first order of business was to introduce himself to the authorities, the political leaders, and those businessmen whose opposition he most wanted to avoid. Once that was accomplished, he would go to the field where the carnival was scheduled to set up and he would walk off the location of every attraction. He had a step that was precisely three feet. He knew the measurements of every attraction in his show and he took pride in his ability to step off markers for each stake and support post that would be needed.
By 1935, Sedlmayr was the undisputed king of the carnival circuit. The Royal American caravan filled ninety railway cars and offered the largest assortment of midway rides, sideshow attractions, and entertainers on the circuit. Royal American received an unexpected boost in 1938, when workers for the Barnum and Bailey circus went on strike. During the down time, Royal American, which often supplied the midway for the circus, was able to expand its allotted space, so that when the strike ended and the circus went back out on the road, Royal American had more space than the circus.
For as long as anyone could remember, "The Greatest Show on Earth" had always been P. T. Barnum's claim to fame, but after 1938, Carl Sedlmayr's Royal American midway was clearly the second greatest show on earth.
Throughout the 1940s and 1950s, Royal American expanded its influence, and by the late 1990s it was still the undisputed leader. Carl Sedlmayr never received the public recognition—or notoriety—that Barnum did, but that was because he decided early in his career that he wanted to remain behind the scenes. His name is largely unknown outside the carnival business, but within the business he is a deity.
With the end of the 1965 season, the Royal American train returned to its winter quarters in Tampa and all the equipment was unloaded and placed into storage. Sedlmayr and his son, Carl Sedlmayr Jr., agreed to meet the following evening at the son's house for dinner. When the father didn't show up as arranged, Carl Jr. became concerned and went to his house to check on him. He found him in his bed, where he had passed away quietly in his sleep.
More than 1,200 showmen descended upon the Greater Tampa Showmen's Club to attend Carl Sedlmayr's funeral. In keeping with the king's ecumenical lifestyle, services were conducted with full Masonic Rites by both a rabbi and a Protestant minister. His body was interred in a mausoleum at Showmen's Rest in Tampa and the Royal American torch was passed to his son, who at age forty-six had ridden his share of carnival circuits.
* * *
Carl J. Sedlmayr Jr. first met Thomas A. Parker in 1931 or 1932, He was twelve or thirteen, at an age when he was just learning the ropes of the carnival business from his father. The twenty-two-year-old Parker was hard to miss: A six-footer, with a pudgy, pear-shaped midsection, he stood out in a crowd. He had a round, friendly face and blue eyes that had a mischievous glint to them.
Sedlmayr's recollections of Parker are still vivid. He doesn't recall what city they were in, but he remembers walking the grounds one day when he looked up and saw a new face. He paid attention because carnivals are families, and new members are always scrutinized. Tom Parker was behind the counter of a concession stand, standing tall amid the crowded hurly-burly of the midway, selling candied apples with all the fervor of a tent-show evangelist.
Sedlmayr is not certain what month Parker signed on with Royal American because all their early records were destroyed when the roof of a show wagon sprang a leak and soaked everything inside with rain water. He recalls the approximate year he met Parker because he recalls what age he was. "It was a small community," he said of Royal American. "We were close because we worked and lived together."
Traditionally, the carnival train pulled out of Tampa in March or April. For as long as anyone can remember, the season always began the first week in May at the annual Cotton Carnival celebration in Memphis, Tennessee, and ended the last week in October at the Louisiana State Fair in Shreveport—two cities that would prove to be critical in the careers of both Tom Parker and Elvis Presley.
Usually, each booking was for one week, but some venues, such as the Annual Spring Festival in St. Louis, Missouri, and the Calgary Exhibition and Stampede in Alberta, Canada, lasted for ten days to two weeks. Other stops along the way from Memphis to Shreveport included the Annual Shrine Jubilee in Davenport, Iowa, the Edmonton Exhibition in Alberta, Canada, the Regina Exhibition in Saskatchewan, Canada, the State Fair of Wisconsin in Milwaukee, the State Fair of Minnesota in St. Paul, the Kansas State Fair in Topeka, and the Mid America Fair in Topeka.
Memphis was the first city in which Parker sold candied apples. The occasion was a festival named Cotton Carnival, a not-too-subtle imitation of the New Orleans Mardi Gras. Cotton Carnival began with the arrival of the "royal barge," which came in off the Mississippi River to dock on Monroe Street in the heart of downtown Memphis. There followed a parade with gaily decorated floats and marching bands.
The king and queen, who were inducted from the families of successful cotton merchants, donned regal apparel and tossed candy to the children and adults that lined the downtown streets. In later years, they used elaborate motorized floats, but in the early 1930s the floats were constructed out of old wagons discarded by the ice company and drawn by horses and mules.
The one thing that Tom Parker shared with his traveling companions was a healthy distrust of authority. Carnival staffs are not composed of nine-to-five, button-down-collar types who thrive on regimentation and a sense of social responsibility. Carnies come in all shapes and sizes, colors, ethnic backgrounds, sexual orientations, and talents, but the one thing they all share is a distrust of traditional society. It is that common perception that binds them into a family unit. The first thing Parker would have done upon arriving in Memphis, especially since it was his first outing with the carnival, would have been to find out who the bosses were. Not that he would have had any desire to schedule a meeting: The idea was to stay out of trouble's way.
In the early 1930s, Memphis was home to one of the most powerful crime cartels in the country. For more than two decades, the Prudential Insurance Company had labeled Memphis the "murder capital" of America, based on a study of homicide rates across the country. It was a title that would stick with the city throughout the 1930s and 1940s, and one that would reappear periodically up until the present day. There were many complex reasons why Memphis was a dangerous city, but the underlying reason was a subterranean crime culture built on cocaine distribution, prostitution, gambling, and, in later years, sophisticated white-collar scams that milked the government and private industry of millions. In the early years, many of these criminal activities were conducted out of storefront operations on Beale Street.
Running parallel to the underworld was a political organization fronted by the notorious E. H. "Boss" Crump. He not only controlled the politics of Tennessee, he often influenced national policy. For nearly four decades, he dictated selections for political candidates, including president, federal judgeships, and a wide range of local jobs, everything from U.S. marshal to draft board memberships.
Memphis was the talk of the nation in the 1930s, and magazines regularly sent reporters into the city to report on the nefarious activities that many editors considered a threat to the health and safety of the entire nation. Whatever impression Parker had of Memphis when he arrived in 1931 with Royal American, what he almost certainly left with was a clear understanding that it was the most dangerous city in America.
Sedlmayr is not certain how long Parker worked for Royal American. He says it may have been only for a year or two. However, it is more likely that Parker worked for the carnival for six or seven years. Parker himself suggested as much in later years. If so, he would have been at the Cotton Carnival opener in 1934 when a riot broke out after it was announced there were no more tickets available for a performance of the Guy Lombardo Orchestra at the city auditorium. A mob of disappointed fans formed a ring around the auditorium and kept ticket holders from entering the building. During the ensuing riot, windows were smashed and doors were kicked in. The incident would have given Parker his first glimpse of the destructive power, and limitless financial potential, of musical stardom.
With time, Parker did more than sell apples with the carnival. He liked to tell the story of his dancing chicken routine, in which he put a hot plate under a metal sheet covered with sawdust. He placed several chickens on the sawdust and whenever he wanted them to "dance," he juiced up the hot plate and scalded their feet. Other times he captured wrens and painted them yellow and sold them as canaries. Oscar Davis, his assistant in later years, told Elvis biographer Jerry Hopkins that Parker told him he was responsible for food preparation on the train—carnies called it the "pie car"—and sometimes did a little palm reading on the side.
One story has Parker operating a hot dog stand. There is no inherent challenge in selling hot dogs. People buy them because they like them. The challenge is in selling hot dogs without actually selling them. Parker's hot dogs contained small bits of meat at each end of the bun, with globs of mustard and cheap fixings in between. If anyone ever looked at their hot dog and complained that they had been cheated, Parker pointed to a wiener he had tossed into the sawdust earlier in the day. "Why, you dropped your meat, boy," he said, pointing to the well-worn wiener on the ground.
Another story has it that when one of the carnival's food concessions was doing poorly, there was talk among the carnival management of reducing the price of a meal from fifty cents to twenty-five cents. Parker said he had a better idea. He painted a sign that said, "Admission one dollar. If not satisfied, half your money back." Of course, the concession was flooded with customers who wanted to take advantage of a good deal.
When the makings for a particular concession commodity were in short supply, such as enough lemons for lemonade, Parker would go to the nearest drugstore and purchase packages of citric acid to give his concoction the right color. Once he had the sugar-water brew properly mixed, he topped it off with a slice of lemon. It tasted like hell, but it looked like lemonade and that was all that mattered.
In the early 1930s, the Royal American Shows were usually jampacked with high-energy entertainment. For someone of Parker's sensibilities it was exhilarating. Midgets, bearded ladies, contortionists, trapeze artists, expert marksmen, knife throwers, animal exhibits with gorillas and snakes and lions, and games of chance of every description imaginable. Anyone with a unique act could find a home with the carnival. The only requirements were that it had to be an oddity of one kind or another or be based on an undetectable scam.
Some acts were remarkably simple. White Wing was an African American man who dressed in a mock military uniform, complete with white trousers and shoes. He patrolled the midway with a pointed stick, a bag, and a whistle. If he saw a piece of paper on the ground, he blew the whistle as loudly as he could and rushed wildly toward the paper, stabbing it with a dramatic flourish. Midway patrons gladly gave him fistfuls of money for presenting such an unexpected and stellar performance.
One of the most popular attractions was Leon Claxton's "Harlem in Havana." Claxton was the most successful black carny on the circuit. Unlike minstrel shows, which were primarily made up of whites using blackface, Claxton's shows were composed of African Americans who danced and sang and performed skits for a sit-down audience. Claxton had an extraordinary talent for high-quality productions and many of his theatrical inventions were later incorporated into early rock 'n' roll revues.
All midways had girlie shows, and Royal American was no exception. It would have been a natural draw for a twenty-one-year-old single man like Parker, but there is no indication that he was the slightest bit interested in women at that time. Whatever his vices at that age—later it would be food and gambling—women were not included.
One of the things that impressed Parker about Royal American was its commitment to new technology. In Carl Sedlmayr's eyes, bigger was always better, particularly if it was enhanced with some new gadget or invention. In 1932, he started using gigantic navy searchlights to fill the night skies with dazzling shafts of light that could be seen for forty miles. The following year Royal American was the first to group four Ferris wheels together into one mammoth attraction.
There wasn't much associated with the carnival that could be categorized as highbrow entertainment. One of the first lessons that Parker learned as a carny was that when it comes to American entertainment, the formula for success always rests with the lowest common denominator. People could laugh at carnies all they wanted, but when it came to making money in entertainment, carnies wrote the book.
* * *
As always, the Royal American tour ended in Shreveport. After leaving Memphis, Tom Parker must have thought that city's wickedness and wide-open lawlessness—on Beale Street he could have purchased "dime" boxes of cocaine and enjoyed the company of prostitutes while listening to the best blues offered anywhere—was an anomaly, bemuse the other stops along the tour were tame by comparison,
Shreveport brought him back to reality. The population of Shreveport in the early 1930s was less than half that of Memphis, but it was caught up in the same underworld machinations, with one major difference: While organized crime in Tennessee was pretty much confined to the Bluff City (as it was called because of its location overlooking the Mississippi River), the entire state of Louisiana was under the control of strong-arm bosses, beginning with Huey "Kingfish" Long, who was elected governor in 1928 and United States senator in 1931, the year Tom Parker rolled into town aboard the Royal American show train.
Parker most likely played his first slot machine in Shreveport. Since the state fair lasted an entire week the carnies had to look for ways to entertain themselves in their off-hours. Shreveport was not a wideopen city like New Orleans. While it offered much the same types of entertainment, the venues were tucked away out of sight, especially the after-hours dives that offered bootleg whiskey and gambling.
In the early 1930s, the slot machines in Shreveport were owned by New York Mafia don Frank Costello. How they got there is now part of Louisiana political lore. At the time Costello wanted to put slots into Louisiana, New Orleans Mafia boss Sam Carolla already had that franchise for New Orleans. The rest of the state was slot-free. Costello went to Huey Long and cut a deal with him, whereby Long agreed to use the state police to protect the slots statewide, including those owned by Carolla. That sounded like a good idea to Carolla, who agreed not to oppose Costello's entry into the state. To distribute and service his slots, Costello chose Carlos Marcello, the owner of a jukebox distribution company named Jefferson Music.
All that would have been made clear to Parker during his first visit to Shreveport. For all its secrecy, organized crime was not shy about informing business owners that it was part of a Mafia network under the protection of Huey Long. It was exactly that sort of admission that coerced the cooperation of independently owned nightclubs and restaurants that did not want trouble with the mob,
By the time Parker returned to Tampa in November 1931 or 1932, he had received an education in the dark underbelly of American politics and business that would stay with him for the remainder of his life. His biggest problem lay in his legal status. If there were no criminal convictions on his record or if there were no outstanding warrants out for him, he would have had no problem obtaining American citizenship after living in the country for five years. Naturalization was not complicated. The first requirement would have been for Parker to announce his intention to become a U.S. citizen three years before actually applying for citizenship. That announcement, called presenting "first papers," could have been made to a United States District court clerk. For some reason, Parker never made an effort to obtain United States citizenship.
As a carny, Parker had a job that kept him on the road for most of the year. He could be anything—or anyone—he chose while working the midway. To his way of thinking, citizenship would be more of a burden than an asset. What he needed more than anything else was a family, a real, honest to goodness American family that would allow him to blend into the community. Unfortunately, he didn't know many women.
One of the many concessions that traveled with the Royal American tour was a booth owned by the Have-a-Tampa cigar company. The booths were usually operated by attractive young women with inviting, oversized smiles. All of the women behind the counter were appealing (that was why they were hired), but one in particular caught Parker's attention. Her name was Marie Mott.
Twice married, Marie was one year older than Parker, which would have made her twenty-seven when they met in 1935. One of her marriages had produced a son, Robert Ross. At the time she met Parker, she and Robert were living at home with her parents and her brother, Bitsy Mott.
Whether it was true love, or based on the economics of survival, Parker and Marie moved in with each other that same year. Not only did the union provide him with a ready-made family, it gave him a place to live when he wasn't on the road: He moved his belongings into the home of Marie's parents. Whether they were actually married has never been established. There is no record of a marriage in Tampa of a Tom Parker or an Andreas van Kuijk, so if they were married it may have been under another name. The most likely scenario is that they were never married.
Bitsy Mott told author Dirk Vellenga that he recalled the household being in an uproar whenever his sister and her new husband came in off the road. Said Bitsy: "I remember they used to move my Daddy and Momma out of their bed and use the bed themselves. Daddy and Momma would sleep wherever they could. That would irritate me a little."
Parker may have wanted companionship and a place to live, and his motivation may have been as simple as that. But if he expected his marriage to Marie to provide him with American citizenship, he was mistaken. Female aliens who married American men were afforded citizenship, but the reverse did not necessarily apply.
A male illegal immigrant could not marry an American female and automatically obtain citizenship. Prior to 1922, an American woman who married an illegal alien actually lost her American citizenship. By the time of the Colonel's marriage, the law was changed to allow American women who married aliens to keep their citizenship, provided their alien husbands were able to qualify for citizenship; but throughout the 1930s and 1940s it remained a somewhat gray area with the courts.
Apparently, authorities never challenged Mari Parker's legal status, but if for some reason her husband was not eligible for citizenship, then their marriage would not have provided him with it.
* * *
Carl Sedlmayr wasn't the only master showman in the Tampa Bay area. Across the bay in St. Petersburg was a businessman whose grandiose style and tactics garnered him a national reputation. James Earl Webb was no run-of-the-mill businessman. He owned the most famous drugstore in the world—Webb's City.
Webb bragged that he sold a thousand prescriptions and five thousand ice-cream cones daily. That wasn't difficult to do with a store that occupied ten city blocks and attracted sixty thousand customers a day. The size of the store itself made it a curiosity, plus the fact that it sold everything from automobile tires to televisions and dinette sets to Swiss watches, but it wasn't size that kept it packed with customers: It was Doc Webb's incomparable showmanship.
A gaudy dresser, the five-foot-five King of Promoters dressed in suits that would have made Liberace envious. He told friends he owned over a hundred suits and fifty sport coats, all of them dazzling to the eye. Webb had a style of his own, one that Parker would later appropriate for Elvis Presley, almost to the finest detail. Although it was style that grabbed everyone's attention, it was his genius for sales promotions that made him one of the richest men in Florida.
During one promotion, Webb advertised a sale on dollar bills. He promised to sell two thousand one-dollar bills for the low price of ninety-five cents. Webb's City was mobbed by thousands of customers who grabbed up the ninety-five cent dollars and then spent them on merchandise there in the store.
The following day, he ran a second promotion: This time, he sold twenty-five-hundred dollar bills for eighty-nine cents each. Again, the store was mobbed. On the third and final day, he offered to buy back any outstanding dollar bills at a dollar and thirty-five cents each. However, there was a catch—the bills had to have the right serial numbers. Again, the store was packed with people eager to take a chance that their dollar bill would have the correct serial number and earn them an easy thirty-five cents. Of course, there were no matching serial numbers, since Doc Webb had all those bills at home in his safe.
If dollar-bill promotions didn't do the trick, Doc Webb tried something else. Cosmopolitan magazine once sent a reporter to Webb's City. The resulting story told of a hoochie-coochie show in the cafeteria, of sales people hawking women's underwear at the cigar counter, and an outdoor show that featured Doc Webb himself in a three-ring circus "cavorting in a high wire act with a galaxy of pretty and daring young ladies."
It is impossible to measure the combined effect that Carl Sedlmayr and Doc Webb had on Tom Parker. He soaked it up, every nuance, taking some ideas intact, merging others with bits and pieces of his own experiences, throwing away nothing. Without the inspiring influences of Sedlmayr and Webb, it is unlikely there ever would have been a Tom Parker, at least not the one who later revolutionized the entertainment industry.
* * *
By 1938 Parker had tired of traveling with Royal American. The work was hard and offered little financial security. He notified the front office that he would not be returning for the next season. Not much is known about Parker's activities between 1938 and 1940, except that he was successful in getting work promoting personal appearances for a variety of performers, including California-based pop singer Gene Austin, motion picture star Tom Mix, and country artist Roy Acuff.
For the most part, that meant passing out leaflets, schmoozing with radio announcers and newspaper reporters, and coming up with ideas for ticket giveaways or in-store, Doc Webb-like promotions in which the artist made appearances to sign autographs. That was hardly enough to qualify for a full-time job, so he took on a variety of day jobs of a more mundane nature.
With news of the Nazi defeat of the French, Congress passed a law in 1940 that must have shaken Parker. The Selective Service Act established the first American military draft since 1918. All men between the ages of twenty-one and thirty-six were required to register with local draft boards. In time, each man would be ordered to report for a physical examination. Those who passed the examination would be inducted into the armed forces for one year of military service.
On October 16, 1940, Parker went to the Selective Service office in the First National Bank Building and filled out the required registration papers. On the form he described himself as having brown hair, blue eyes, and a light complexion. He said he had no obvious physical characteristics that would aid in identification. Required to list an employer, he gave singer Gene Austin of Hollywood, California.
At that time, he and Marie were still living with her parents at 1210 West Platt Street, so after four years there must have been considerable pressure from his in-laws to find a job and support his family. The newly enacted draft law was an added incentive. Working as a part-time promoter was hardly the type of job that would keep him out of military service. He needed a job that would make him appear useful to the community.
Early in 1941, he found a job with the Tampa Humane Society as its field agent. The most attractive aspect of the offer was the free apartment that went with the job. Parker, Made, and Robert moved into the apartment, which was located on the second floor of the shelter, and set up housekeeping.
What Parker really wanted to do was to become a full-time entertainment promoter. The animal shelter was conveniently located on North Armenia Avenue and afforded him a base from which to pursue his other interests. His first challenge, which he apparently issued to himself, was to come up with a promotional scheme to help the shelter obtain more public support. His best idea was for the Humane Society to provide a pet cemetery for area animal lovers who wanted to give their pets a dignified resting place. Whether Parker created the concept himself or stole it from someone else is unclear, but it proved to be a very successful promotion.
Throughout 1941 it was uncertain whether the United States would enter World War II. Parker did not hear from the draft board again all year. Then, on December 7, 1941, the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor, an act that ensured the entry of the United States into the war. One month after the attack, on January 8, 1942, the Tampa draft board sent Parker another questionnaire to complete. Coincidentally, it was mailed on the very day Elvis Presley was celebrating his seventh birthday in Tupelo, Mississippi. Parker waited nearly two weeks to return the questionnaire.
Based on the information he provided, the board assigned him a III-A classification. That meant he was being deferred because he was married and had a child to support. Parker didn't hear from the draft board again until the following February when he was reclassified I-A, which meant he was now considered available for military service.
Why the draft board would reclassify him is a mystery. All married men with children were exempt. At the end of 1943 that exemption would be eliminated for everyone, but at the time Parker was reclassified it was still in effect. The most likely explanation is that the board checked out his questionnaire and was unable to find proof that he and Marie had been married as he had claimed. There is no record of their marriage in Tampa, and to this day no one has ever found a marriage registration for Thomas and Marie Parker.
The next time Parker heard from the draft board, it was to report for his pre-induction physical. War casualties mounted rapidly throughout 1943 and the end of hostilities was nowhere in sight. Parker had a wife and a child to support, and he was working day and night to save the lives of poor defenseless puppies. Surely, that would be enough to keep him out of the army. He was much too old to be playing war games.
|1 The Second Greatest Show on Earth||1|
|2 On the Road with Hank and Eddy||19|
|3 The Colonel Surveys His Wild Kingdom||53|
|4 The King Rocks His Way to the Top||85|
|5 Back from the Brink and Into the Spotlight||113|
|6 Tarred and Feathered with Hollywood Glitter||143|
|7 Las Vegas Tightens the Noose||171|
|8 The King Is Dead: Long Live the Manager||203|
|About the Author||259|