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|HUNDREDS ATTEND MILLION DOLLAR AUDITIONS
February 14, 2016 - The Commercial Appeal / Elvis Express Radio
When the future King of Rock and Roll performed in a Humes High talent show on April 9, 1953, the school program misspelled the guitar-strumming senior's surname as "Prestly."
A different type of talent show took place at that same school Saturday, in an event that testified to the enduring appeal of the alumnus whose name — Elvis Presley — would be
world famous within three years of his graduation.
From about 8 a.m. to 5 p.m., several hundred rockabilly cats, juvenile delinquents, soul shouters, sweater girls, squares, rubes, bobby soxers and other would-be avatars of the
1950s showed up at the school — now known as Humes Preparatory Academy Middle School — to audition for "Million Dollar Quartet," the ambitious CMT drama about the birth of
rock and roll that will be filmed in Memphis this spring and summer.
The auditions required the aspiring actors to follow in the literal footsteps of Elvis, but the participants represented a wide variety of Southern music-makers and fans. With Sun
Records founder Sam Phillips as its focus, the eight-episode first season of "Million Dollar Quartet" will take place from 1950 to 1954, so the producers were searching not just for
teenage versions of the title foursome — Elvis, Jerry Lee Lewis, Carl Perkins and Johnny Cash — but for B.B. King, Marion Keisker (Sam Phillips' assistant), Vernon Presley (Elvis'
dad) and other key figures in the origins of postwar American popular music.
Darrien Terel Key arrived as Ike Turner, in a black suit and throwback necktie (purchased at Flashback, a vintage store on Central Avenue) and "conk" hairdo (purchased at a
Southeast Memphis wig store).
"What I learned about Ike Turner, he was very vocal, very energetic and very passionate," said Key, 36. "I feel like I have the physique, the build and the looks — the good looks."
Reginald Massey, 37, carried an old acoustic guitar, borrowed from a cousin. He had stenciled the name "BB King" on the instrument, in hopes of wining the role of the late "King of
the Blues." Massey said he was happy the series would be shot in Memphis, because "this is the birthplace of rock and roll and the blues, so to film it anywhere else would be a
"Million Dollar Quartet" production manager Christina Varotsis agreed. She said she was among those who fought to have the series based in Memphis, even though Louisiana
offered greater financial incentives than the $4.3 million in state funds made available by Tennessee to lure the production (which is expected to spend at least $17 million in the
Memphis area this year).
"It might have been done in Shreveport, but I said, 'Shreveport? What the hell?' Actually, I didn't say 'hell,'" Varotsis said, substituting a stronger word. "I said, 'This story can only
be shot in Memphis.'"
Organized by the production with assistance from the Memphis & Shelby County Film and Television Commission, Saturday's casting call was extraordinarily well-managed and
The aspiring actors entered the gymnasium on North Manassas, registered, took a seat in the bleachers with their peers, and then moved on for a first interview with casting
directors in the cafeteria.
Some auditioners then were invited upstairs, to the auditorium and its famous "Elvis stage," to sing, play and read lines for the show's producers. The more promising of these folks
were asked to return for a more in-depth audition Sunday, at the Hard Rock Cafe on Beale. (Those who weren't called back could still be used as extras or in smaller roles.)
While vintage rockabilly and doo-wop music blared from loudspeakers in the gym, participants received gifts and coupons from Sun, Graceland and the Stax Museum of American
Soul Music, while executive producer Leslie Greif — whose Thinkfactory Media company is producing the show for CMT — fired up the crowd.
"That's the Memphis spirit we've been hoping for," he said when the crowd shouted "Justin Timberlake!" in response to the question: "Who do you want to play Sam Phillips?" (Greif
said Timberlake is his "dream" choice for Phillips.)
Key creative personnel from not just Thinkfactory but CMT were present, in a sign of the importance of the series for the Country Music Television network, as it makes its first
forays into scripted entertainment.
Producers insisted the Memphis auditions were sincere, in part because no major roles have yet been cast.
"We didn't come here as an exercise," said Los Angeles-based producer Herb Nanas, 75, an industry veteran who "discovered" Sylvester Stallone, managed Albert Brooks for
decades and produced such films as "Rocky II" and "First Blood."
"The show is in Memphis and the South, and the problem with a lot of the actors you get in Los Angeles, if the actor doesn't have an original Southern accent or instinct, it's gonna
be playacting, like in high school," Nanas said.
"People in Memphis are not the same as people in New Jersey or California, so we're here with the absolute hope that we will find fabulous talent that's indigenous to Memphis."
|Above: Hundreds attend Humes Preparatory Academy to audition for CMT's 'Million Dollar Quartet' while Rock 'N' Roll greats play through the loud speakers.
Middle: The line starts for some Elvis auditions Right: One hopeful tries for the role of Johnny Cash.