TAMPA — Tom Parker used to joke that he was the most famous dogcatcher of all time.
He’s about to get more famous — or infamous.
Parker was the Tampa dogcatcher known as The Colonel, who managed Elvis Presley with a deal that controversially landed him 50% of the King of Rock and Roll’s earnings.
He is portrayed by Tom Hanks in the “Elvis” biopic movie to be released on Friday.
“Colonel Tom Parker was a carney, pure and simple,” Hanks told the media after a recent advance screening of the movie at Graceland. “Now, being a carney is a sleazy guy … or you look at a carney as someone who understands these magic lights at the edge of town attract people who want to have a good time.”
Parker’s past was long shrouded in mystery.
He claimed to have been born in West Virginia, but it was later proven that he was an illegal immigrant from the Netherlands and his real name was Andreas Cornelis van Kuijk.
He served in the U.S. Army under the name of Tom Parker, went AWOL and was sentenced to a short term in solitary confinement, but never rose to the rank of colonel. That was a nickname bestowed upon him by a governor of Louisiana.
Parker got his start in show business through the traveling carnivals, work that, in the early 1930s, introduced him to Tampa, where the sideshow employees lived during the off season. His hustles included a show called Colonel Tom Parker and His Dancing Chickens, “in which he placed live chickens on a hot plate covered in sawdust,” according to a 1997 Tampa Tribune article. “The chickens ‘danced’ to the music.” And, for a short while, he served as a publicist for country music star Gene Austin.
He settled full-time in Tampa, though it’s unclear when, and became head of the Humane Society in 1940. The job included free lodging in an apartment connected to the headquarters.
It also provided a forum for his showmanship.
Parker dressed as Santa Claus during the holiday season while gifting dogs to children and often went to the press with a fascinating story of a rescue — there was the 95-pound Great Dane named Black Joe that was too big to fit in a kennel, Pudgy the three-legged mutt and a cat that became the Human Society mascot after it ran away and returned to the headquarters each of the five times it was adopted.
It is hard to know which stories were real.
“He would gather the pups from three or four dogs, put them with one mom, and call Tampa Tribune reporter Paul Wilder with the scoop that one dog had 21 pups,” late radio personality Tedd Webb wrote on his Tampa Bay Legends website. “Wilder, a very respected journalist, always fell for” it.
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Regardless, his efforts, which included starting a pet cemetery, worked.
“When Parker went to the Humane Society, it was rundown, dirty, weed covered,” the Tampa Tribune wrote in 1956. “He and his wife, Marie, launched it on the road to the institution it is today.”
By 1943, Parker was back in show business as an agent for the Nashville-based Grand Ole Opry. That gig led to him representing country music stars Eddie Arnold and Hank Snow and then opening his own booking agency, which introduced him to Presley in 1955.
“Parker booked Elvis for a show” when he was an unknown, the Tampa Tribune wrote in 1980, “liked what he saw, then signed Elvis for an additional 200 shows. ... Shortly, the Colonel had Elvis all to himself, promoting him into one of the greatest show business attractions of the century.”
Managers typically receive around 10% of a client’s royalties. Parker successfully negotiated for 50%, some speculated, because Presley didn’t know any better and was too trusting.
“Col. Parker is the kind of person I’ve been raised with,” Presley told the Tampa Tribune in 1957. “I know I’m getting a square deal with him. Some of those Hollywood fellas give me the willies.”
Parker took Presley on a barnstorming tour to build his name and then booked him on the television shows and in the movies that turned him into an international star.
“When I found Elvis, the boy had had nothing but $1 million worth of talent,” Parker said in an Associated Press article in 1957. “Now he has $1 million.”
At times, Parker embraced his dog-catching roots.
“One of Elvis’ first concerts was held in 1956 at Tampa’s Ft. Homer Hesterly Armory, only weeks before the famous appearance on the ‘Ed Sullivan Show’ where cameras had to limit their shots of the hip-swinging singer to above the waist,” Webb wrote. “Parker kept the King hidden from fans by keeping him at the Humane Society building.”
The national media was enamored by Parker’s past. About Presley and Parker’s relationship, The Associated Press article said “they made 1956 the year of the hound dog,” a reference to Presley’s song and Parker’s former job.
Presley died in 1977; his official cause of death was heart failure, although tests showed high levels of drugs in his system. Parker continued to receive 50% of the royalties.
In 1980, the Tampa Tribune estimated that the deal had earned Parker $100 million.
The Presley estate sued to force Parker to divest his share of the royalties. In 1983, they settled out of court, with the estate agreeing to pay Parker $2 million, but the agreement also required it to credit Presley’s fame to the former Tampa dogcatcher.
“Presley achieved unparalleled success as a recording artist, to which Parker ... contributed significantly,” UPI reported the agreement said, “and from which Presley, his estate, Parker ... all mutually profited and benefited.”