Off Limits

Riding with the King

As anyone who's been within eyesight of a working television knows, this week marks a quarter-century since Elvis Presley toppled off a Graceland toilet and landed in rock-and-roll heaven. But the exhaustive reports about the Pelvis's life and legacy appearing on Today, Good Morning America and plenty of other national programs have somehow overlooked his late-period Denver connections. Thus far, no mention has been made of the Colorado Mine Company's peanut-butter-and-banana sandwiches that he loved so much he'd send his plane from Memphis to fetch a few dozen. Nor of his status as an honorary Denver policeman or the Cadillacs he doled out like so many pats on the back -- including a beauty that's on display at the Forney Transportation Museum just in time for the August 16 anniversary.

The set of wheels in question comes courtesy of Don Kinney, a longtime Denver broadcaster whose public-TV staple, The State of Colorado, was axed by Channel 6 earlier this year. (KNRC radio, at 1510 AM, recently resurrected the concept; hosted by Ed Sardella, it can be heard Fridays at 8 a.m.) Back in January 1976, Kinney was working at Channel 4 and, according to a reminiscence stored in the Denver Press Club's Internet archives (www.pressclub.org), he had some time to fill during a morning update. While chatting on-air, his co-anchor said she'd love to bump into Elvis, who was then vacationing in Vail, to which Kinney replied, "How inappropriate can you get? Goodbye!" Moments later, Dave Minshall, then a reporter for Channel 4, received a phone call from a fellow with a familiar, husky voice. "It was Elvis," says Minshall, who's currently embroiled in an age-discrimination lawsuit against a subsequent employer, Channel 7. "Although I didn't know that at the time."

Kinney wasn't convinced, either. The caller identified himself as Elvis, praised Kinney for the way he'd handled his co-anchor, and offered him a Cadillac as a reward. But instead of expressing gratitude, Kinney, who assumed someone was playing a joke on him, bid Presley farewell and hung up. Moments later, the phone rang again, and when Minshall answered it, he discovered that Elvis had made a comeback -- and was as insistent as ever that Kinney take the keys to a Caddy. Kinney, who claims to have offered his resignation at a Montana radio station in 1956 rather than play any more Elvis music, took the call, and then several more. Finally, he said he'd accept the car, mainly to get the apparent prankster to leave him alone. Shortly thereafter, the phone rang again. The man on the line was a representative from Rickenbaugh Cadillac, Minshall remembers, and wanted to know what color vehicle Kinney wanted. After getting the go-ahead from Channel 4's attorney, who determined that the gift didn't violate any known ethics, Kinney chose blue -- just like Elvis's Hawaii.

As Minshall recalls it, the Cadillac became Kinney's pride and joy. Most of the time, he kept it safe in his garage, but he occasionally used it to make the drive from Denver to a family farm in Montana. On one such occasion in August 1977, the car broke down -- and later that day, Kinney learned Presley had done so as well, for the very last time.

In 1985, Kinney loaned the Cadillac to the Forney, but it wasn't always on display in the Forney's original location (now the REI store in the Platte Valley) or even in the Forney's new home on Brighton Boulevard. Late Rocky Mountain News columnist Gene Amole wrote a column in January praising the museum -- and lamenting that Kinney's car was nowhere to be seen. This wrong was righted a few months ago, however, when Forney representatives, anticipating a new wave of interest in Presley, drove it back into the spotlight.

This turn of events pleases Minshall, but he does have one regret: "I should have told Elvis I wanted one, too."

Plenty of other Denverites got cars, though, including several members of the Denver Police Department. Like Elvis, they enjoyed the Colorado Mine Company, the Glendale restaurant run by Buck and Cindy Scott that was a required stop for visiting celebrities and athletes. It was a regular hangout for the town's movers and shakers, too, including then-Rocky Mountain News editor Michael Howard, grandson of the co-founder of the Scripps-Howard newspaper chain. In 1984, a deposed Howard was called to testify before the Colorado Senate Judiciary Committee, which was investigating the Organized Crime Strike Force because of allegations of impropriety. For years, Ron Pietrafeso, a Denver Police Department detective assigned to the strike force, had served as Howard's bodyguard; he'd gotten the job through Captain Jerry Kennedy, the head of the DPD's vice squad who also supervised police moonlighting duties -- including guarding Elvis on his visits to Denver in the '70s.

On January 16, 1976, the Howard-edited News wrote about one such Elvis episode. In town to celebrate his birthday, Elvis had invited all of his local cop friends to the party -- Kennedy, Pietrafeso, even Denver police chief Art Dill, who gave the King a gold badge designating him an honorary DPD captain. (It's still on display at Graceland.) A few days later, Elvis gave Kennedy a Lincoln Continental and Pietrafeso a Caddy. (Chief Dill declined a new car.)

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