Judge hears dispute over macabre collection of Elvis memorabilia
PHILADELPHIA -- Who owns the black bag that Dr. Nick used to treat Elvis?
Or the bottles of prescription pills dated the day before Presley died? Or the glass nasal douche used to irrigate the King's nostrils before he took the stage?
Monday, a Wilmington, Del., judge will begin hearing a dispute over a multimillion-dollar collection of Elvis memorabilia once owned by one of rock-and-roll's most infamous physicians, George C. Nichopoulos.
"It's a big, damned mess, man, just the craziest thing you've ever seen," says Bobby Freeman, a lounge-singer/music-historian and a defendant in the case. "What's going on in that court in Delaware is absolutely disgusting."
The "Dr. Nick" collection -- temporarily padlocked inside a Nevada airport hangar -- includes a stuffed dog, a desk carved by Elvis' Uncle Vester, a .38 Smith & Wesson, the laryngeal scope used to examine the King's throat, and the official red strobe light issued to Dr. Nick in case he needed to race to Graceland for an emergency.
"It's amazing," Freeman says. "It's about the roots of rock and roll. It's about America, man."
A lawyer for the millionaire Californian suing Freeman does not disagree.
"There are items of genuine interest to Elvis fans, such as a copy of the book `The Prophet' with Elvis' hand-written annotations," says lawyer David L. Finger of Wilmington. He represents Richard Long, a Napa, Calif., executive who last year joined Freeman to buy Dr. Nick's collection.
Freeman and Long are not talking anymore.
Long alleges in his lawsuit that he put up $1.2 million to make the deal happen but that Freeman will not give him access to the collection for management and insurance purposes.
Freeman says Long failed to put up $3 million more he had pledged to the project, fumbled a big chance to do a show at the Stardust, and secretly intends to sell the collection overseas.
The issue for the Delaware Chancery Court, among the nation's most respected business courts, is whether the rift between Freeman and Long is now so severe that their Delaware limited liability company should be dissolved.
If that happens, the next step would be to determine who gets to keep the collection.
The stakes are high, Freeman insists.
"It's about you, your children and America," the entertainer says.
The best man suited to protect these treasures, Freeman says, is Freeman.
"See, I built this collection," he said by phone from Las Vegas, explaining that he entered a 50-50 partnership with Nichopoulos to show it to casinos in 2000.
"We opened it at the Hollywood Casino in Tunica, 15 miles from Graceland, and it was held over three times, and I did entertainment shows opposite of it in the ballroom. I have a big production. I'm a writer, a producer, and I play 30 instruments. PBS did a special on my life. I've been awarded by 31 United States governors."
The four-casino tour was so successful that Freeman came with the idea up putting the collection inside tractor-trailers and touring it nationwide.
Dr. Nick said OK.
It took three years to build a show, but by 2005, Freeman had installed it inside two custom-made 18-wheelers.
"It tells the story of an intimate relationship between Dr. Nick and his patient," Freeman says, describing the truck interiors. "Everything is beautiful: There's carpeting everywhere -- burgundy, two inches high, the best you can buy -- and every frame is carved gold. You got your crown molding . . .
"There's the nasal douche, the laryngeal scope, and drug bottles with the name `Elvis Presley,'" he says. "You might think that's tacky. Man, even I think it's morbid. But what right do I have to pull it out of there?"
Freeman plans to charge $20 a ticket. As a bonus, he says he'll put on a concert at the end. "I rock the piano with my feet. I play that thing any way I can, man."
But for now, the show is dark. Until the legal dispute is resolved, the trucks are parked in a secure, undisclosed location -- the hangar in Nevada.
"It's a shame," Freeman says.
A spokesman for Elvis Presley Enterprises in Memphis did not return a call for comment.
Freeman, 59, and Long, 63, are expected to fly to Philadelphia Sunday to prepare for Monday's hearing. The judge, Vice Chancellor Leo Strine, is scrutinizing the April 2006 deal the men made in Memphis, a transaction that includes the purchase of the collection from Dr. Nick.
At the time, Long and Freeman had known each other for only two years, having met at an auto show in Reno. Long, a multi-millionaire, is chief executive officer of Regulus, a California document management company that performs remittance work for major banks and corporations.
Freeman picks up the story:
"I was rocking a piano, a big one with flames that come out. Dick saw me and loved it and said, `I want you to do my birthday party.' I said, `I don't do birthday parties.' Well, man, he kept calling me, two straight weeks. I called back and gave him an outrageous price. He said, `I'll take it.'"
Long declined to be interviewed, but in his lawsuit he says Freeman kept in touch and ultimately persuaded him to finance the purchase of the collection.
Long, Freeman, and Freeman's girlfriend, Betty Franklin, formed a Delaware company, and met in Memphis to seal the deal with Dr. Nick.
"I wish I had been involved when this was going down because I think it would have gone down differently," said Michael Matuska, a Nevada lawyer who later advised Franklin but who is not involved in the Delaware case. "Bobby and Betty didn't get what they expected from Dick Long, and they also gave a release to Dr. Nick for a large debt he owed Bobby and Betty. So they're short on both ends of this deal."
What is not disputed is that during final negotiations, the deal snagged when questions were raised about Freeman's alleged undisclosed debts.
Freeman, whose real name last name is Gallagher, says none of this was relevant.
"So a woman got a judgment against me 20 years ago for $200,000? I didn't even know it existed . . . Look, I owe one creditor. That's Bank of America for $500,000."
Freeman also was sued in 1999 for money owed in Memphis. In 2004, when the creditor's lawyer tried to find out if Freeman had money, he took a few depositions, including one from Dr. Nick.
Lawyer: "Do you know the location of any asset of Mr. Freeman's?"
Dr. Nick: "I think the only asset he has is Betty . . . He kind of likes to put on the dog and talk a lot and flash."
Now in his 80s, Dr. Nick works as a benefits adviser for FedEx in Memphis. He lost his medical license in 1995 for bad conduct, including writing too many prescriptions for Jerry Lee Lewis. But Freeman and others say Dr. Nick gets a bad rap.
"Elvis would have been dead years before if it hadn't been for Dr. Nick feeding him placebos," says James F. Neal, the famed Nashville lawyer who successfully defended him in 1981 against criminal charges that he negligently prescribed drugs to Presley.
Nichopoulos didn't return a call for comment.
Freeman says he fears what will happen at tomorrow's hearing, which is bound to bring more publicity. At the end of a long interview last week, he said: "I expect you to you to write the same thing as other writers and slaughter me."
He paused, then laughed.
"But you know what? That's OK. Just spell my name right, and this thing will get bigger."