Posted: Feb 24, 2006 4:10 am
Katrina was cruel to a collection of Elvis memorabilia in Chalmette
Monday, January 09, 2006
By Lynne Jensen
Graceland isn't the only home turned Elvis Presley's graveyard. Gabriel Puccio's Katrina-flooded house in Chalmette is an above-ground tomb filled with Presley memorabilia.
Before the storm, the main entrance of Puccio's modest house was a shrine to the reputed king of rock 'n' roll, who would have turned 71 on Sunday.
Every inch of every wall of Puccio's Elvis room was covered with Presley record albums, photographs and movie posters. Now those mementos dangle from dank paneling or droop over the muck-covered furniture that floated in from other rooms.
As floodwater rose steadily toward the ceiling, Puccio, 57, fled through his kitchen window. He planted his toes on the ledge and clung to the roof for hours before being rescued by boat.
"The water came up so fast that I really didn't have a chance to do anything," Puccio said last week, trying to peel apart the limp layers of a cardboard Elvis.
Puccio's last-minute attempt to save a few treasured items paid off. Packed into an insulated duffel bag, they rode out the storm atop a kitchen table that floated without toppling. Inside the bag were photographs of Puccio posing with celebrities such as Debbie Reynolds, a handwritten draft of a how-to book about autograph collecting and a spiral notebook filled with biographies of stars he met during the years and gimmicks used to score tickets to their performances.
A chef before Katrina, Puccio now is working as a runner for Durr Heavy Construction and lives on the company's Harahan grounds. He is the divorced father of two sons.
Born in Sicily, Puccio was 8 when he came to New Orleans. No one in his family could speak English. He learned at the Dreamland theater on Elysian Fields Avenue and Dauphine Street, trading six soft-drink bottle tops for a ticket.
The first movie he saw was Presley's "King Creole," filmed partially in young Puccio's French Quarter neighborhood. After decades of collecting movie memorabilia, Presley remains his favorite subject, said Puccio, who scored bit parts in several movies shot in New Orleans.
Among the many framed, water-damaged photographs Puccio hopes to save is an unpublished 8-by-10, black-and-white glossy print of Presley with Fats Domino, taken in the late 1950s backstage at the Frontier Hotel in Las Vegas.
Puccio said Domino is one of his favorite performers and that he and the local legend became friends over the years.
After giving him "a little bottle of the liquor and some fruit" as a Christmas gift one year, Puccio got Domino to autograph the photo. "Here buddy, this is for you," Puccio recalled him saying. "I said, 'Fats, this is beautiful,' and I came home and put it in a frame right away."
Although Puccio never met Presley, he saw him perform twice and collected three of his autographs.
Among his most prized Elvis items lost in the mess that once was Puccio's Elvis room is a 1956 brass buckle embossed with a Sun record label and "Best Wishes, Elvis Presley."
"It was used as a promotion for Elvis before he went to RCA records," Puccio said.
The longtime collector said he can't put a dollar amount on what his collection was worth before Katrina, and he has no idea how much of it he'll be able to save. But Puccio hopes to salvage enough items about Presley and performers such as Johnny Cash, Jerry Lee Lewis and Fabian to help create a local rock 'n' roll museum, perhaps in the Kenner community of Rivertown.
It would be a place where Presley music and movies could play forever, he said.