Front Row Seat: Elvis Presley's Duluth scarf is in very good hands
As the new film "Elvis" arrives Friday at theaters, collector Robert Foley, perhaps the leading expert on the King's 1970s scarves, describes how he came to own one worn at the Duluth Arena in 1976.
DULUTH — As people who prioritize preservation, Duluthians will be pleased to know that a scarf Elvis Presley wore onstage in the Zenith City during America's bicentennial year is being carefully kept, in Minnesota, by the man who may be the world's leading expert on the King's 1970s scarves.
To be clear, Robert Foley's scarf is certainly not the only scarf Elvis wore at the Duluth Arena during his 1976 and 1977 concert appearances. "There could be several more," said Foley, reached by phone at his home in Maple Grove. "There were times he could throw 20 scarves in one song."
The 34-by-34-inch scarf Foley has framed, featuring Presley's screenprinted signature, was snagged by Foley's family friend, Ann Tempesta. She kept it, along with another she received when Elvis played the St. Paul Civic Center in 1977, until about a decade ago. When Tempesta handed the scarves to Foley, she knew they would be in good hands.
In the world of Elvis collectors, Foley is known as one of the best people to contact if you have a question about the copious scarves the King threw around in the last half-decade of his life — which ended on Aug. 16, 1977, less than four months after his second and final Duluth show.
After Presley's late 1960s concert comeback, explained Foley, Elvis made a habit of handing pieces of his famously flamboyant wardrobe to his fans. Initially, the practice rankled his legendarily tight-fisted manager, Col. Tom Parker, since the King's finery wasn't cheap.
By the mid-1970s, though, Elvis and the Colonel figured out how to turn a profit on Presley's profligacy: cheap, mass-produced scarves that could be freely distributed from the stage, and also sold as merchandise to any fans who weren't personally anointed by the King.
Hence the need for a scarf expert: someone who can help distinguish actual stage-worn scarves from those falsely advertised as such. "I buy a scarf for $5 at the show," explained Foley, "and now today I find a ticket, a couple of photos, and I smear a little makeup on it or something ... that's where the trouble is right now."
"You look at how the folds are in the scarf, because they're folded differently at the concession stands," Foley pointed out. Just because a scarf is stage-worn, he added, doesn't mean it's going to be a mess. "A lot of (prospective buyers) are going, 'Does it have any sweat on it?' Well, I can show you photos where they throw so many, how much sweat could there be?"
Graceland staff used to officially authenticate such items, said Foley, but they stopped doing so as the trade in high-value Presley souvenirs slowed down. Many other knowledgeable collectors have been claimed by the passing years.
"I'm 65 right now," said Foley. "I saw Elvis when I was 18. So people that saw Elvis in person are all either much older than me or they're dead. So that era of people are going away, and what's happening is kids, grandkids, family members are digging out boxes and totes and whatever out of attics and they're finding all these things."
Duluth had a peculiarly brief and intense relationship with Presley, who didn't come to town until he was in his twilight — but then, came back again less than a year later. Foley saw Presley in Minneapolis a day after the King made his Duluth debut on Oct. 16, 1976, and he believes Elvis made a point of doing Duluth again.
"Duluth really, really liked Elvis — and Elvis really liked Duluth," said Foley. At a point when some fans were losing patience with the strung-out icon, "people in Duluth, Minnesota, lined up around the block to get tickets." They also mobbed the Radisson, where Presley and his entourage rented out three floors.
"Elvis was just mesmerized" by the view from atop the hill as he rode into Duluth from the airport, his limousine driver Bob McDonald told the News Tribune in 2002. "He was impressed. He really liked the town. He said, 'This is beautiful.' He said he'd been all over the world and this was as pretty as anywhere."
Though just 41 years old — the same age Justin Timberlake is today — Presley was severely in decline by the time he made it to Duluth, overusing a variety of medications and often visibly unwell onstage. Given that reality, he made a relatively strong showing on the run of performances that included his 1976 Duluth stop. "In Minnesota, he seemed to just bring it all on. I know — I was there," said Foley.
Foley, who now works in building management, was in law enforcement until being seriously injured in a car crash. He's been taking a mild dose of prescription opiates for the past decade to manage the resulting pain, said Foley, and that's given him a sense of empathy regarding Presley's final years.
"Looking at what this stuff did to Elvis Presley, Michael Jackson, Prince, all three of them," said Foley, "I'm sitting here going, 'If it can wipe out these guys ... you don't need the extra pill.' It is a very, very difficult process to manage that every single day of your life."
Foley said he's disappointed by what he sees as Graceland's decision to shy away from evidence of those troubled final years. "They pretty much bury Elvis right after the 'Aloha from Hawaii' concert in January of '73," said Foley.
"He was struggling heavily," Foley acknowledged, noting that Presley's 1977 show in St. Paul was among those cut short. "It's very sad, but you know, it's more troublesome that everybody wants to hide what's real."
Duluth, at least, will never forget Presley's later years; in his two shows at the Duluth Arena (the venue now known as the Duluth Entertainment Convention Center Arena), local fans received Elvis as rapturously as if it had been two decades earlier. "It might be a cliche to say the crowd went wild, but the crowd went wild," remembered Jim Heffernan, who covered both shows for the News Tribune, in 2002. "Just as wild the second time as the first."
Long after Elvis left, Duluth continued to go wild: At least one child was later conceived on the king-size bed where the King slept during his Radisson sojourns.
"I was 39 years old," former Radisson bartender Yvonne Pavlich, who bought the bed and took it home for herself and her husband, told the News Tribune in 2002. "We weren't supposed to have any more kids, and I hadn't been pregnant for 11 years. I guess Elvis and his bed were good luck charms for us."
If you want to relive the (onstage) magic, you can listen to both of Elvis' Duluth shows on YouTube. The 1977 show has been widely bootlegged, and the 1976 performance was officially released by Graceland as part of a two-disc "Bicentennial Show" live album.
You can also see a highly stylized take on Presley's life in "Elvis," the new Baz Luhrmann film, which arrives this Friday at theaters including the Marcus Duluth Cinema, part of the same complex where Presley himself performed twice. Foley said some collectors are concerned about the creative liberties taken by Luhrmann — director of postmodern jukebox movies like "Moulin Rouge!" and "The Great Gatsby" — but he's reserving judgment until he sees the film for himself.
"Elvis always said, 'This is entertainment,'" Foley pointed out. "'If you had a good time tonight and you enjoyed yourself, then we did our job.'"
By the time you're reading this, the summer solstice has passed — so yes, sorry, that means the days are now getting shorter. The good news is that you haven't missed Midsummer, as celebrated by at least three different groups in the Northland this weekend. On Saturday, the Oulu Cultural & Heritage Center in Iron River, Wisconsin, will celebrate Midsummer Fest ("or 'Juhannus' in Finnish") from noon to 4 p.m. Meanwhile, in Saginaw, Minnesota, the Finlandia Foundation Northland chapter is having its own Finnish Juhannus party at Sampo Beach on Little Grand Lake (11 a.m.-3 p.m.). If you're busy on Saturday, or if you just want to go that hard, on Sunday you can hit up the Swedish Cultural Society of Duluth’s Midsommar Celebration at Spirit of God Lutheran Church (2-5 p.m.).
Now this is my kind of provisioning. Duluth Pack has partnered with Bridgeman's on a Northwoods Adventure Mega Malt. Available exclusively at the Duluth Bridgeman's for a limited time this summer, the Mega Malt "features a savory-sweet combination of ingredients with a flavor profile similar to the tasty snacks you would bring on an adventure in the great outdoors," according to a news release. You'll taste notes of chocolate, peanut butter, and pretzel in the malt, which rises to a (decorative) pine-tipped whip cream peak and is served in a souvenir cup complete with reusable straw and lid. There's also a compass, in case you get lost on your way to the mall afterward.
On the public art beat, Essentia Health has announced that Drummond, Wisconsin, sculptor Sara Balbin has been selected to create a monumental piece for the entrance to the replacement St. Mary's Medical Center. "The Healing Waters of Gitchi Gamig," which will be 10 feet high and 12 feet wide when installed next spring, "draws on local history, including the Anishinaabe culture, while deriving inspiration from Lake Superior, wave imagery, rock cairns and more," according to a news release.
The artist has a personal interest in the commission: "I was diagnosed with breast cancer in 2021 and received most of my treatment at Essentia,” she said in a statement. “Every staff member, nurse and doctor I encountered on my journey to remission touched me and gave me hope."