Elvis Has Left the Rotunda

To lots of people, John Kerry often looks as if he’s brooding or unhappy. But that’s just his neutral expression—his thinking face. Throughout the early primaries, pundits wondered if Kerry “had enough Elvis” to be prez. For that matter, do any of us have enough Elvis?

If you can’t impersonate Elvis, then you could do worse than impersonate a member of the “Memphis Mafia,” the coterie of good ol’ boys who flanked the King in public and hung out with him in private. I recently got to practice my own John Kerry face doing just that.

The circumstances of my service to Elvis were a little weird. Kemps has created a new ice-cream flavor called Las Vegas Fudge. (Did the King’s favorite flavor, fried-peanut-butter-and-banana-sandwich, fail to make it out of the test kitchen?) This inspired them to host an afternoon of Elvis impersonations at Ridgedale the other day. My job was to “guard” Elvis onstage. There would be two Elvises (which people oddly kept Latin-izing into “Elvi”).

In a makeshift green room at the mall, I observed the pecking order of Elvis impersonators in action. I also learned that some prefer to be called “Elvis tribute artists,” such as Jesse Aron from Janesville, Wisconsin. Aron is a second-generation tribute artist who as a child watched his father play the King. He was prompt and professional; he brought a pallet of high-tech equipment and his own sound engineer for his performance, and he looked pretty credible to me in a homemade white jumpsuit with flame piping.

To the chagrin of Jesse and the folks from Kemps, the second Elvis impersonator arrived late. He also brought a cassette tape, which was not compatible with Aron’s laptop-based sound system. He was even momentarily stingy with the satin baseball jackets he was expected to supply to the Mafia.

Rick Marino is a famous, grizzled veteran. He has been playing Elvis for twenty-eight years, versus Jesse’s six, and he does not have to fake his Southern drawl. Unlike the kid, he doesn’t mind being called an Elvis impersonator—he’s the president of the Elvis Presley Impersonators International Association and the author of Be Elvis!: A Guide to Impersonating the King.

Marino’s costumes looked expensive—especially the wide, white belt decorated with what looked like miniature brass doorknockers. His manager (he has a manager!) confided that since Marino recently lost seventy pounds, he can now squeeze into a black leather get-up like the one Elvis wore in his 1968 comeback TV special.

Marino’s set was mainly later ballads like “Stranger in the Crowd” and Elvis’s version of “My Way.” As his bodyguard, I wore oversized blue-blocker sunglasses and walked him to the stage, where a couple dozen fans and/or shoppers loitered. While he worked this crowd with a wireless microphone, I resupplied him with scarves to drape around the necks of besotted admirers.

Onstage and off, Rick channeled a weary, late-era Elvis warped by the weight of the world and trapped in the trappings of show business. He certainly was the man, right down to the Brut by Fabergé cologne Elvis favored (according to Rick’s book). It was impressive.

Still, I couldn’t help rooting for the upstart; Jesse Aron nailed a lot of high notes, and his enjoyment of the material—heavy on the seventies, like Marino—seemed more genuine, if that’s a good thing. One of his costumes featured a shiny golden Aztec sundial, just like the one Elvis wore on his last tour. This blinded me temporarily when it reflected the afternoon sun.

Even a half-century after Elvis first shocked the nation by shaking his hips on TV, a Saturday tribute to him at a suburban mall is not without controversy. During one of Aron’s numbers, a representative from Ridgedale came over and whispered into the soundman’s ear. Could he turn down the music? It was bothering some shoppers. The soundman ruefully complied. Even the King bows to commerce.—Dan Gilchrist