By Jim Schutze
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January 8 was Elvis Presley's birthday. This fact had not entered my consciousness until I received a last-minute invitation to help judge the Elvis impersonators contest at Dick's Last Resort, a proposal that immediately prompted two songs to compete for space in my head. The first was Elvis' own "Hunk of Burning Love"; the second was Public Enemy's "Fight the Power," the part where Chuck D shouts "Elvis was a hero to most/But he never meant shit to me."
So I accepted the invite, mulling over all sorts of writerly stuff—prompted by the two songs intertwining like strands of DNA in my brain—about what Elvis means today, his iconic status re-examined in the context of racism, and scholarly ruminations on the social implications of young, hot Elvis versus old, fat Elvis. Plus, I figured, what better way to celebrate the birth of one of the most important cultural figures of American history than by chowing on cheap shrimp kabobs and swilling drinks the color of Magic Markers?
I entered Dick's around 8 p.m. half expecting it to be empty, figuring the type of people who would be interested in an Elvis contest would also be very much interested in the Ohio State-Florida game and would thus stay at home. But Dick's was a madhouse, kind of like a Bennigan's at happy hour, only there was a weird, slightly threatening sexual energy in the air, the source of which I couldn't quite place. Three giant balloon-laden banquet tables were filled with good-looking Asian people, all of them quite hammered and wearing tall paper hats that said things such as "I like boogers" and "The drunker I get, the cuter you look." I don't think they were there for Elvis.
The other three-quarters of the room was equally raucous, and it appeared that the crowd, sucking on beers the size of fire extinguishers, was indeed there for Elvis. Things started off with a bang, as the first three contestants proved damn convincing, each clad in rhinestone-encrusted polyester jumpsuits with giant belt buckles and dark hair and sideburns. After the third one, however, I realized: Unless one of them really sucks, you can't discern the voice of one Elvis impersonator from another. They're all so good at mimicking the King's voice, they're pretty much interchangeable.
Things went downhill from there. The field of contestants suddenly shifted from genuine Elvis impersonators who get the fun of it all to, uh, weirdos. What was most striking about them was the fact that they appeared really into Elvis, really into the night, except few of them actually tried to dress like the man. The best of the bunch was a man who called himself "The Fabulous Fonzerelli." FF's vocals were spot on, his hound dog crooning perfectly drenched in Elvis' drawl. But FF made zero attempt to embody Elvis; he sat on a stool, decked out in some sort of fringed leather jacket, his white hair all jacked up. FF looked like a Santa Fe art dealer, which is the furthest from Elvis you can get. Which brings me to my second realization of the night: If you're going to take the trouble of signing up for an Elvis impersonation contest, you've got to try to impersonate Elvis. Elvis never wore Dockers, for chrissakes. "Impersonate" does not mean stand stock-still in a pair of slacks and a button-down with your eyes glued to the karaoke machine. Impersonate means stuff yourself in a pair of leather pants, glue on the facial hair and work your pelvis like a pump jack. You've got to bring it.
In the end, the winner was a guy named Ricky Trevino Jr., who chose young Elvis as his medium. Clad in a blazer and tight pants, Trevino's best asset was his inherent cuteness, his shy grin that slightly evoked the young Southern boy who had to be filmed from the waist up. He didn't get the sneer down, but he sold the vocals and his gyrations proved more supple than the others. The ladies loved him.
As Trevino was exiting the stage, I looked to my right and noticed one of the Asian guys had passed out at his table. No doubt the wild, chick-powered applause and hoots and hollers sounded far away to his drunken ears (how else was he able to sleep like that?). And that's when I had realization No. 3: I have no idea what Elvis means today. All I know is that, to many people, he means a hell of a lot, to the point where grown men (some of them) are still willing to don cheap, synthetic fabrics coated in sparkly things and shake parts of their bodies they rarely use, all while strangers wearing novelty hats pass out around them. You can't say that about any other American icon, and that's what makes Elvis the King.