I am not so much a fan of Elvis Presley – sorry, not my generation – as I am an admirer of Elvis ephemera. All the over-the-top glitz and wretched excess, all the sequined white-leather jump suits and gaudy jewelry, I find at once fascinating and lurid.
So when I heard that a truck stop-slash-casino outside Reno was in possession of the by-gawd gun that Elvis used to famously – perhaps apocryphally – shoot up his TV set in some Las Vegas hotel suite, I had to veer off Interstate 80 to check it out.
How in the world such an iconic cultural treasure such as that ended up at Sierra Sid’s casino and Travel Center Plaza in the low-rise ’burb of Sparks had to have a great story attached to it. Did Sierra Sid win it in a high-stakes poker game? Did Elvis enjoy the bacon cheeseburgers at the truck stop so much he gave it to Sid as a gift?
The anticipation built as I crested the Donner Pass and rambled into town one recent morning.
After gassing up the company car and buying a Slim Jim from the convenience store, I went looking for this supposed shrine to The King.
And there it was in a back-lit, laminated display case on a wall halfway between the coffee shop and the convenience store. Amid a small but impressive collection of Elvis memorabilia – rings, and watches and pens, all gold- and diamond-encrusted – there sat three gleaming pistols propped up for maximum exposure. The first was a Ruger Blackhawk .44, the second a Smith and Wesson .38, the third a Colt .38 WCF, next to a handsome, monogrammed (“EP”) holster.
Proof that these firearms belonged to Elvis came in the form of photos of Elvis grasping the guns, plus a notarized legal document from the executrix of the estate of Vernon Presley, Elvis’ dad.
Now, I don’t know guns at all, but I was betting on the pearl-handled, midnight black Colt single-action as being the TV-killing weapon. I could just picture the dissolute, older Elvis slouching in a Barcalounger, tooled leather belt and holster around his now-ample waist, making a quick draw with the Colt to put the poor boob tube out of its misery.
Yet, there was no display card to show which of the three guns did the deed. There were placards for other Elvis gewgaws, from his gold-coin, rimmed-with-diamonds “stage ring” to a 1.8-carat diamond ring that Elvis had made for his father in 1976 to a gold Waltham pocket watch with the inscription “To Elvis.”
Being a crack investigative journalist, I sought answers from the source: Sierra Sid.
The convenience-store clerk shook her head, said Sid had died years ago and that his family had sold the whole truck-stop operation to Travel Centers of America, though his daughter leased back the connected casino and still ran it.
“Go back to the cage and ask them,” she suggested.
That led me down a dark, smoke-smelling corridor, lit primarily from the glow of rows of slot machines, and eventually to Marcy Barba, Sid’s daughter, who now owns the casino and all the Elvis bric-a-brac therein.
She had the answer. And it wasn’t what I wanted to hear.
There’s no proof that any of those three guns was the one that squeezed the trigger and mortally wounded the 25-inch RCA television that, according to many Elvis historians, was beaming “The Robert Goulet Show,” when Elvis got miffed and went off.
“I’ve always heard stories about the TV, too, and it might be one of those guns,” she said. “But we can’t verify it. The executrix of Vernon’s estate never told my dad that. Sorry.”
“But,” Barba added, perhaps sensing my disappointment, “this definitely is the Colt he used to shoot out light bulbs in the (Graceland) swimming pool.”
Oh, really? Do tell.
“He used to shoot light bulbs in the swimming pool all the time,” Barba said. “Elvis would float the bulbs and then practice his quick draw and shoot it. The Colt was his favorite quick-draw (pistol).
“Apparently, the pool was just destroyed. There were holes in all of the tiles.”
OK, maybe this was worth the trip, after all. Barba reeled off another amusing story when asked how her dad, Sierra Sid Doan, came into possession of all the Elvis keepsakes in 1985.
“My mom (Florence) is a big Elvis Presley fan, and I guess my dad was, too,” she said. “He was contacted – I don’t know how – by a woman who was the executrix of Vernon Presley’s estate. They were looking to sell off stuff Elvis gave to his dad.
My dad said he stuck $20,000 in cash in his boot and flew out (to Graceland) to meet her. He told me, ‘I put out all my money on the desk. And the woman told me, “Son, you’re a little light.” ’
“So, my dad said he flew back home, got some more cash, stuck it in his boot, flew back out and bought it all.”
“He just thought it’d make a great showpiece for people when they came by the casino,” she said. “And it does bring attention. I’ve had people come in and ask about it and some media people like you.”
Barba estimates that old Sierra Sid ended up getting a pretty good deal on the Elvis memorabilia, given appreciation over the years.
“I take the rings in to jewelers to get cleaned, so I know their value,” she said.
Sierra Sid’s collection interests ran beyond The King, though.
There also is a display case dedicated to The Duke, actor John Wayne, as well as the .44 Magnum used in the “Dirty Harry” movies, several cases displaying a commemorative gun collection from the Civil War era and Old West said to be one of the largest in the nation, and weapons used in World War I.
The entire arsenal: 230 pistols and 50 rifles.
Given that these guns are kept within a few yards from a convenience store and casino, where a lot of cash is kept, you’d think Barba would be a little concerned that scofflaws might want to break the glass and use a gun instead of an ATM card to pay for purchases.
“They are alarmed and camered, 24 hours a day,” she said. “And, for your information, it’s laminated glass.
“You’d have to have a lot of time to try to smash it. Please tell people that. It’s very hard to steal these.
“We had some guys come in one night and tried to break into this case (with the antique guns) with a brick. It didn’t work.”
Still, it may not be the smartest move to have the Elvis display so close to the main entrance. But Barba said it won’t be there for long. She is remodeling the casino and plans to put Elvis front-and-center once construction is done.
“We’ll expand it, too,” she said. “Before Elvis died, he sent Vernon the complete collection of every album he (Elvis) ever made. We have all that in our warehouse in pristine condition.”
Not even any bullet holes, alas.