|Whole lot of shakin' goin' on|
By Jim Caple
Page 2 columnist
SEATTLE -- Preparing to compete in the Elvis Invitationals is a little different from preparing to play in, say, the NBA. After all, the Portland Trail Blazers get their orange jumpsuits provided for them.
"My girlfriend found this on sale at Target for $5 the day after Christmas," Enjay Santos said of his orange jumpsuit complete with cape and Hawaiian leis. "But I added the sequins and everything else."
Santos was saying this backstage as the performers applied their fake sideburns, lacquered their hair and worked on flying kung-fu kicks.
"I'm telling you," Helen Anne Gately said, "it's very hard to get Elvis clothes that fit. And it isn't easy finding Elvis wigs, either."
"Oh, you should go to Las Vegas," Eugene Kirk said. "In Vegas, you can get Elvis wigs anywhere."
"These are my girlfriend's boots," Kyle Sandau said of the black boots with four-inch heels he wore with a devil costume for his performance as Hell-vis. "We just happen to wear the same size -- she's 6 feet tall. I'm only wearing them because I thought they would look cool with the costume. It's not like I'm a cross-dresser or anything."
Oh, no. Of course not. The thought never crossed my mind. Why would anyone associate cross-dressing with the King? Don't be ridiculous.
"I've been a cross-dressing Elvis at the Imperial Palace in Vegas and on the UNLV campus. But you would be surprised at how conservative the Elvises are in Las Vegas. I've never met any resistance from other Elvises, but I get a little, 'What the hell is that? Is that a man or a woman? Is she lip-synching or what?' "
Now, admit it. That's a quote you almost never hear in pro locker rooms these days.
Or at least not since Dennis Rodman retired.
In my never-ending goal to cover the world's most interesting competitions, last weekend I attended Seattle's Experience Music Project (founded by Seahawks/Blazers owner Paul Allen) for the sixth annual Elvis Invitationals impersonation contest. The King filmed "It Happened at the World's Fair" in 1962 right here ("Elvis swinging higher than the Space Needle," the movie poster promised) and four decades later, 22 Seattle-area fans competed for the honor of being named the night's top Elvis impersonator.
In the interests of disclosure, I must acknowledge up front that I have never been a Presley fan. When someone mentions Elvis's music to me, I normally think of Elvis Costello, whom I much prefer. The passion so many people show for Presley after all these years has generally mystified me. In fact, I agree with the words of the late Michael O'Donoghue, the "Saturday Night Live" comedy writer whose response to the news of Elvis's death was, "Good career move."
I was 15 when Elvis died on Aug. 16, 1977 (Babe Ruth died on the same day 30 years earlier), by which time he had declined from rock icon to a bit of an oldies joke. Bypassed by the British invasion, the Beatles, the Stones and everyone else who came along in the '60s and later, Elvis last reached Billboard's No. 1 slot with 1969's "Suspicious Minds," which also was his only Billboard No. 1 during the final 15 years of his life.
The Seattle Invitational not only sold out, the hundreds crowding the stage ranged in age from the teens to sixty-somethings.
"His music never, ever gets old," Kirk said. "You can see that with the No. 1 hits album going No. 1."
"Everyone has an Elvis story," said Gately, who was competing for the sixth time. "People either saw him in person, or they know someone who saw him. My hairdresser told me today that her mother went to see Elvis' last show in Hawaii when she was pregnant. My hairdresser was in the womb when her mother saw Elvis perform.
"He is connected through everybody. And if people say he's not, they're in denial."
Seattle's invitational is by no means the largest or most prestigious Elvis contest. It's not very big, for one thing (it just moved to EMP after five years at the Crocodile Cafe, where Nirvana and Pearl Jam used to perform), and it's strictly for amateurs -- anyone who has earned more than $100 imitating Elvis is ineligible. It also is rather irreverent, which became clear the first year when Kirk won with his Transelvistite routine (he returned this year as a celebrity performer after the competition).
"I do a lot of singing and people tell me I sound like Elvis," said Macras, wearing a leather jacket and leather pants. "My friends at the Boeing plant said I should give this a try, and I figured, Why not? I'll be doing 'Viva Las Vegas.'
"Getting the costume wasn't easy. I paid $10 for the jacket at the Goodwill, which was a good deal, but the pants cost me $100. But I'll wear them again.
"I love the feel of Elvis. The sexuality and the masculinity. Everyone wants to be Elvis and get the women.
"I have a karaoke machine at home, an all-Elvis karoake that plays 300 of his songs. It's out of control. And I've got a nice sound system, too.''
A karaoke machine with 300 Elvis songs? So, Dino, tell me. Are you married?
"Not yet, but I hope to be after this."
If there is any justice, he will find someone. His friends are right -- he does sound like Elvis, and he did an absolutely killer version of "Viva Las Vegas" that was like listening to the King himself. Which is all it takes, according to Elvis impersonator Mike Dippery, a history major at the University of Washington.
"The best part," Dippery said, "is the older ladies who really miss him and really get into it."
While I expected guys like Dino, many of the performers were like Dippery and Santos, barely old enough to have been alive when Elvis was and too young to remember him as a performer. There was even a 12-year-old performing "Trouble" (his mother, who also performed, had friends go on stage and throw panties at him).
There was a cab driver who dresses as Elvis while picking up fares. There was a man wearing a green suit with a top hat who billed himself as Elvis O'Presley and performed "Leprechaun in Disguise." There were three women, which, of course, does not count Transelvistite.
My favorite Elvis, however, was Mike Mitchell, who took the stage wearing more padding than the Michelin Man, licking a Kentucky Fried Chicken bucket and introducing himself as Finger-Licking Elvis. He joked that he got into character before the contest by eating a peanut butter, banana and bacon on white bread sandwich. And he also did a superbly entertaining rendition of "Suspicious Minds" that earned him the night's honor as the best Elvis.
Far from my uninformed stereotype, Mitchell is a 27-year-old cook at Seattle's well-known Etta's restaurant, and he is about to move to Savannah where he will open a creole restaurant.
"I'm a huge Elvis fan. My house is a shrine to Elvis," Mitchell said. "I'm kind of a nut. People at work call me Elvis. My name on the schedule board is Elvis.
"When I was 16, my family went to Tennessee on a vacation, and we went to Graceland, and ever since I've been a changed man. At first, I liked the kitchiness of Elvis, the tackiness of it all. I have a bottle of 'Love Me Tender' conditioning shampoo that I've never used. It was just all the tacky crap that appealed to me.
"But then I started listening to the music, and I loved it. There is so much power there, such emotion in his voice. I break into chills when I hear it."
And I know what he means now. After attending the Invitational, I finally understand the whole Elvis thing.
I might have been listening to Boeing mechanics, history students, graphic artists and chefs, but the power of Elvis and his songs rang through easily. And damn if I didn't find myself really, really enjoying the music and realizing that even as a non-fan, I knew it all by heart. It was good, it was danceable and, mostly, it was fun. People look down on "Burning Love" as being campy, but I defy you to listen to it without breaking into a smile and feeling good about life.
I went to the Elvis Invitational expecting to see a schlocky competition among Elvis impersonators. I wound up hearing nothing less than the King himself.
"Is Elvis alive? Of course, he is," said Kirk (a k a Transelvistite). "As long as we're here to sing his songs, he's alive. As long as people sing his songs, he lives forever."
Jim Caple is a senior writer for ESPN.com.