A few months back, I researched an article for Elvisblog, but I didn’t write it because it seemed like there had to be another chapter of the story yet to come. Well, finally this week, the missing piece was announced. The famous Zippin Pippin roller coaster was sold to the tourism bureau in Roanoke Rapids, a small city in North Carolina. It will ultimately be part of a very big project taking shape just off I-95 a few miles south of the Virginia border.
When it is completed, the Carolina Crossroads music and entertainment district will be a 1,000-acre tourist destination complete with water rides, a 1,500-seat music theater, a quaint shopping village, and Elvis’ much beloved Zippin Pippin. Carolina Crossroads will be operated by Randy Parton, brother of country music superstar Dolly Parton, who operates Dollywood in Pigeon Forge, TN.
The Zippin Pippin had long been the top attraction at Libertyland, a Memphis amusement park that suffered from falling attendance and financial losses in recent years. A sign at Libertyland proclaimed, “The King rented Libertyland August 8, 1977 from 1:15 am to 7 am to entertain a group of about 10 guests. Decked in a blue jumpsuit and black leather belt, huge belt buckle with turquoise studs and gold chains, the King rode the Zippin Pippin repeatedly during a two-hour period… Elvis’ Libertyland rental became his last public appearance. He died on August 16, 1977.”
According to www.elvispresleynews.com, in 2002, Joe Esposito related a story about Elvis at Libertyland: “His favorite joke was to ride the Zippin Pippin to the top and get the attendant to stop the cart at the top where he would get off and hide. When the cart returned and Elvis was not there, everyone not in on the joke would freak out, thinking Elvis had fallen out.”
The Zippin Pippin is a 3,000-foot wooden roller coaster originally built in Memphis in 1912. In 1923, it was dismantled and moved across town to the horsetrack in Montgomery Park, later known as the Mid-South Fairgrounds. In 1976, many other rides and attractions were added to the property, and it was reopened as Libertyland.
After losing about $600,000 annually in recent years, Libertyland closed on October 29, 2005, and everything went on the auction block on June 21, 2006. The winning bid on the Zippin Pippin was made by Steven Shutts and Robert Reynolds, owners of the Honky Tonk Hall of Fame & Rock-N-Roll Roadshow, a traveling collection of country and rock memorabilia. Shutts and Reynolds really wanted to buy only the lead car in the train, the one Elvis always commandeered when he and the gang rode the Pippin.
However, the auction rules required all bids to cover the entire structure and all the cars. Shutts and Reynolds had planned to go as high as $2,500 for Elvis’ lead car, so that’s what they bid for the whole works. And they got it. While other, more compact rides garnered as much as $170,000, the Zippin Pippin held little value for potential bidders, because of the logistical nightmare required by the auction rules — dismantling the entire structure and removing it within 30 days. Obviously, Shutts and Reynolds did extensive negotiations with Libertyland, because the roller coaster is still there. Now, it looks like things worked out well for everybody concerned (except for some die-hard Memphis folks still trying to keep the coaster there).
Carolina Crossroads is delighted to be getting the Zippin Pippin. Roller coaster enthusiasts are pleased that wrecking crews won’t demolish the country’s second oldest operating wooden coaster. Memphis can redevelop their valuable mid-town property. And Shutts and Reynolds most likely made a few bucks on the deal, although they aren’t saying what the sales price was.
I’ll venture a guess that they held on to Elvis’ lead car and it will become a prominent part of the Honky Tonk Hall of Fame & Rock-N-Roll Roadshow. As it travels around the country to conventions, college events, grand openings, etc., it offers photo opportunities featuring some of the memorabilia. If they offered you a chance to be photographed in Elvis’ Zippin Pippin roller coaster car, wouldn’t you go for it? I would!
© 2006 Philip R Arnold All Rights Reserved www.elvisblog.net