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King's Ransom

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WHEN THE HILLBILLY TRIO OPENED the show at Cleveland’s Brooklyn High School on Oct. 20, 1955, audience members who had come to see headliner Pat Boone didn’t know quite what to make of the trio’s singer, a hip-twitching 20-year-old named Elvis Presley.

Nor, as it turns out, did the Universal Studios camera crew on hand to shoot a short subject about the event’s promotor, Bill Randle, a popular local DJ. Randle, who had booked Presley for $350 after seeing him down South the year before, paid the film crew extra to shoot Elvis performing five songs.

Thirty-seven years later, Randle has sold the footage—some of the earliest of the King ever shot—for a reported $1.9 million. Universal, which killed the short and stored the unedited film in cannisters marked A DAY IN THE LIFE OF A FAMOUS DJ, never knew what treasure the cannisters contained. Randle did, and over the years he established ownership and a copyright in his name. Last winter he sold it sight unseen to a British production company that learned of its existence while researching a documentary on Elvis. The company’s parent corporation, PolyGram, in turn bought the film for $2.2 million. For all they knew, the cannisters could have contained dust. “It was,” Randle says, “a crapshoot for them.”

Fortunately for PolyGram, the film was in good condition, and they now plan to include it in the projected documentary. As for Randle, who now hosts a Cleveland radio music-and-talk show, the windfall almost makes up for a missed opportunity. After the filmed concert, he says, Elvis sought him out as a manager. Randle opted instead to stay in Cleveland. Weeks later, Elvis put his career, and a healthy chunk of his millions, in the hands of Col. Tom Parker.