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My Odyssey to the “Lisa Marie” in 1976

By Joseph Kereta

This is the story of how I didn’t get the opportunity to meet Elvis. I know, you might have though I would write about the time I did backstage in August of 1972 at the Las Vegas Hilton. Yet, I found this story and what lead up to this journey more interesting. .  So let us begin…

Ernie Martin, a family friend told me when Elvis was to arrive at the Long Beach International Airport on April 24th after his concert in San Diego, CA.  My then girlfriend, Cindy and I  waited for Elvis’ arrival and then proceeded  to follow the 3 limos with police escort  to the Long Beach Hilton were the entire staff stayed.  We attended both shows the next day, one at 2:30PM and the other at 8:30 that evening taking photos at both concerts.

On the morning of April 26, Ernie informed me of Elvis’ departure time and we were again at the airport with my Canon camera and my 230 mm Solinger lenses that was a foot long and quite heavy. 

 Elvis arrived in his limo and was seated in the back seat. The gate was locked and the limo just stayed parked until a security guard came over to unlock it.  As I ran toward the limo, Elvis was directly in front of me holding the hand strap and a white plastic cup in his left hand.  Only problem I was too close to take any photos with the foot long lenses.  Just prior to his arrival I decided to exchange the lenses from a manageable 35mm to this more bulky lenses, oh well, but my luck was about to change. 

With the gate finally unlocked the limo proceeded to the ramp leading to the front of the “Lisa Marie”. As Elvis departed I began to click away.  This photo was the best I took that afternoon, Elvis making his way to the top of the ramp and waving to the small crowd assembled on a windy and bright day.  Of course, I though he was waving just to me, the power and magic of Elvis.  

 Now you must be wondering how did I get to visit the “Lisa Marie”?  Remember Ernie Martin, he  owned a company, West Coast Instruments in Long Beach, CA and  in turn was a friend of Mr. Ron Strauss.  Mr. Strauss was the co-pilot of the “Lisa Marie”. So now you see the connection.

 They needed an altimeter for the “Lisa Marie” and the plan was for Ernie to send it over to him while Elvis was on a short vacation at his home in Palm Springs, CA. He asked my father if I would like to deliver the equipment and maybe get to tour the plane. 

Palm Springs is a short  2 hour drive so I invited Cindy, her 2 sisters and mother  (all visiting from Virginia for the summer ) to deliver the equipment at the then Rivera Hotel  just a short drive from Elvis’ Chino Drive home and minutes from the Palm Springs International Airport.   I also brought 4 photos I took of Elvis in concert at the Long Beach Arena.

A crew member signed the invoice for the altimeter and after soft drinks in the lounge Mr. Strauss asked if we would like to tour the “Lisa Marie”? We were off to the airport.

On our tour I noticed a stack of stationery and asked Mr. Strauss if I could have a few sheets to add to my collection and he responded, “Go right ahead.” So I helped myself to a handful. 

SIDE BAR 1:   After doing some research, I discovered that this was intended to be used for the back cover of the album “From Elvis Presley Boulevard, Memphis Tennessee” that was released in May of 1976.   RCA decided to use alternate stationery that was trimmed in gold.   If you have this album, please look at the back of the album with a note to the fans from Elvis.

SIDE BAR 2: Mr.  Bonja who was employed by Elvis Presley Enterprises during the 1970’s and  now a close and dear friend told me  that Mr. Tom Diskin had Elvis sign this stationery for the back of the album at Dr. Elias Ghanem home in Las Vegas where he was staying during a brief medical stay. Now back to the tour of the “Lisa Marie”, I told you there were many twists and turns to this journey.

As you can see by the photos we had free run of the jet.  To sit in Elvis’ green leather chair at the head of the conference table and to hold his colt 45, which I assumed was loaded (it was in the deep recess of the compartment where the phone was located). Thumbing through the various magazines on his desk knowing he was just there, do I need to explain the excitement! I then noticed a bag with items in them and ask Mr. Strauss what was in the bag and he said trash, Cindy heard this and you will see how that played a part in these events.

As we ran through the plane looking in Elvis’ closet with clothing hung waiting to be worn, the bars of soap, Brut traveling kit in his small bathroom and the bed with the cover undone made the tour just that more personal.  


 SIDE BAR 3:  The teddy bear next to Elvis’ chair was given to him by a small child on the just concluded tour and was told by The Boss (as they referred to Elvis) not to be moved. So the teddy bear was buckled in his chair and had a seat right next to The Boss. I ask Mr. Strauss on a phone call I had with him in 1977 about the teddy bear and he said it was still buckled safely in his seat and named by Elvis as “Sitting Bear”.

SIDE BAR 4:  Mr. Strauss relayed the story how Elvis came up the cockpit on a recent flight (trying to coax Elvis to fly his plane with no luck) and he noticed that one of the instruments was missing from the panel.  Elvis ask why? When he was told that it measured altitude designed to register changes in atmospheric pressure.  Elvis then question Mr. Strauss “isn’t that important for us to have” Mr. Strauss answered yes, he told Elvis every time it was send to the city they were in, they would be gone to the next destination.  This is what led to my visit and all I can say is the gods were with me.

SIDE BAR 5: You may wonder why I brought up the photos of Elvis I took that past April in 1976.  I brought them along with me in hopes of meeting Elvis again and having them signed. I ask Mr. Strauss if there was a chance we could meet Elvis? He called up at the house and was informed Elvis was still asleep as it was early afternoon. I then ask Mr. Strauss if he could have Elvis sign these 4 photos that I took of him in Long Beach?  He took the photos and said “I will see what I can do”.

Mr. Strauss gave me his business card and signed one for everyone in my entourage.  As the months went by I waited for my autographs with no response, so I decided to write Mr. Strauss and received this letter dated 7/22/77. “Hi Joe, Sorry it took so long to get these signed for you. Want to thank you again for the aircraft part at Palm Springs. Say hi to Ernie for me. Hope to see you in the near future. Ron Strauss”.  Elvis passed away 25 days later.  There were the 4 photos with Elvis’ signature on the reverse, I was thrilled to say the least and of course Elvis’ kindness.

The story continues when I opened my Christmas gifts from Cindy (remember my girlfriend) I was surprised by the contents: four magazines, a soap bar and a Brut traveling kit. I immediately recognized the items and ask how did you get these items? She Mr. Strauss said it would be OK to have these as mementos since some of the magazines were destined for the trash as well as the others items could easily be replaced. Plus all 7  Mountain Valley Spring Mineral water bottles  Strauss gave us on the tour.

 Oh by the way, I gave 2 of the signed photos to Cindy and framed the remaining two. As time went on the signatures just faded away due to the exposure to the light but not my memories.


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