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Tuesday, October 30, 2007

Elvis leads list of top-earning dead celebrities

Marilyn, Warhol, Peanuts creator all make the cut, but there’s only one King

The 13 legends in our seventh annual list of the Top-Earning Dead Celebrities grossed a combined $232 million in the past 12 months. Many are instantly recognizable one-name wonders (Elvis, Marilyn, Warhol) who still command attention worldwide, making them a marketer's ideal pitchman.

Indeed, all the members of this year's club are the linchpin of enormously profitable — and growing — merchandising empires. Albert Einstein's name is used to peddle Baby Einstein DVDs. Theodor "Dr. Seuss" Geisel's books are a staple of every kiddie library on the planet. Hundreds of performances of You're a Good Man, Charlie Brown pad the portfolio of Peanuts creator Charles Schulz each year — as well as comic strips that are still syndicated daily in thousands of newspapers worldwide.

But even in death, there can only be one King. Reclaiming his top spot on the list is Elvis Presley, whose estate generated $49 million in the past year. CKX Entertainment, the publicly traded firm which presides over the bulk of the Elvis empire (daughter Lisa Marie Presley retains a 15 percent stake) announced a massive overhaul of Graceland this summer, marking the 30th anniversary of the The King's death. Among the changes are a new hotel convention center, a state-of-the-art multimedia museum and a new, spiffier visitor's center.

The plans are already paying off: Revenues from Graceland were up 15 percent this year, to $35 million. And that doesn't include royalties generated from Elvis music, DVDs and licensing deals like the one struck with Cirque du Soleil for an Elvis-themed revue in Las Vegas.

Meanwhile, the brightest star of 2006 doesn't even appear on this year's list. Kurt Cobain, former frontman of grunge band Nirvana, debuted on the list in first place last year after his widow, Courtney Love, sold part of his song catalog for a reported $50 million. But while the deal opened the door for future ad dollars, Cobain's 2007 earnings weren't enough for him to stay on the list.

John Lennon jumps from the No. 4 spot last year to second place this year, with earnings estimated at $44 million. In February, the Beatles settled a 15-year battle with Apple Inc. over the company's decision to get into the music business. (The Beatles' commercial interests are overseen by a firm called Apple Corps.) Two months later, the band settled another long-standing dispute with its record label EMI over alleged unpaid royalties. The settlements, which are believed to have exceeded $100 million, also buoyed the income of the other deceased Beatle, George Harrison, who placed No. 4 on this year's list, with earnings estimated at $22 million.

Now that Apple and the Beatles have settled their differences, stock market analysts are hungrily awaiting an announcement from Apple Chief Steve Jobs regarding the covetable Beatles archive being made available for download from Apple's iTunes Music Store. In late August, shares of Apple jumped nearly 6 percent on rumors that an announcement was forthcoming. (No such announcement has been made yet.) ITunes already sells the Fab Four's solo works.

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