Is the Elvis impersonator contest as we know it doomed?
A story this week in The New York Times by Julie Bosman reported that Robert Sillerman, the billionaire who plans to overhaul Graceland, "believes that Elvis Presley Enterprises has not used Elvis to his full potential, by a long shot."
Sure, and NASCAR has underutilized corporate logos.
In 2005, Sillerman, chairman and CEO of CKX, Inc., a publicly traded entertainment company, bought 85 percent of Elvis Presley Enterprises. When you see the words "billionaire," "Elvis," "full potential," and "publicly traded" in the same story, you can bet that revenue enhancement is on the way. And that could mean an end to one of the sweetest vestiges of the annual Elvis Week celebration in August, the Images of Elvis contest.
The Times story says "the fate of the impersonators was still undecided."
I have no illusions about the purity of the Elvis legacy. But the annual Elvis contest in Memphis, the Super Bowl of such things, was a nice event -- thanks to co-founder Ed Franklin, the earnest and highly respectful contestants, and the indulgence of Memphis-based Elvis Presley Enterprises. The guardians of the Elvis legacy are vigilant, but the contest was good marketing and contestants were given free rein to have their fun, entertain, and make a modest or even a comfortable living. The airport Holiday Inn ballroom was an unpretentious venue, the admission ticket and drinks were reasonably priced, and spectators got to mix and mingle with the faux Elvi before and after the competition.
The ETA, or Elvis tribute act, is an art form. As with any art form, there are bad practitioners, hacks, and grand masters. In 2000, the winner of the Images of Elvis contest was first-time entrant Ryan Pelton, who bears such an uncanny resemblance to the young Elvis that he has effectively put all other ETAs in the position of competing for second place. It is like trying to be taller than Yao Ming. Pelton has parlayed his act into a nice career, with appearances all over the country and a spot on The Weakest Link television program, which, according to his Web site (RyanPelton.com) earned him $137,500.
He was fun to watch and pleasant to talk to as he explained how he had sidetracked a career as a graphic designer for his singular calling and given up trying not to look like Elvis.
"When I went into the Marine Corps after high school, they shaved my head and people said I looked like a bald Elvis," he said. "When I grew my hair long, they said I looked like a long-haired Elvis."
Pelton tours with Elvis chums D.J. Fontana and the Jordanaires. Beneath him are several strata of less talented Elvis impersonators with fan clubs, photos, and regular paid gigs. It is not hard to see how all this could get seriously weird, with batallions of lawyers and agents for Sillerman's company taking on the first-chop imitators or "authorized Elvis entertainers" with lawsuits and injunctions and orders to comply or cease and desist in their hands.
I hope it doesn't happen, but it's hard to imagine that it won't. Sillerman paid more than $100 million for his stake in Elvis Presley Enterprises, and public companies are all about wringing every dollar of revenue from every possible source. If he follows through on his plans, Whitehaven and Graceland will get a nice bump in investment. But somewhere a lad dreams of letting his sideburns grow out, donning a jumpsuit, and belting out Jailhouse Rock in front of a bunch of screaming women in an airport hotel ballroom on a Saturday night in Memphis -- or in a lounge somewhere else in the American heartland. Please keep the dream alive, Mr. Sillerman.