First of all, it’s important you know what you’re doing next August. Or January. Or both. Specifically on Wednesdays. Make reservations now. It doesn’t matter if you don’t like Elvis Presley ... or his music.
The spectacle that is an Elvis Night during Elvis Month at El Ranchito in Oak Cliff is something to behold. Want even more beholding? Make that reservation for an ETA (Elvis Tribute Artist) Contest Night during Elvis Month at El Ranchito.
And I’m not even kidding about the reservations. I tried for three weeks to get reservations for any of the Elvis nights. Once the woman who answered politely laughed at me when I called to see if I could get a table for two. The next time I was told I could try to call back and see if anyone canceled their reservations, but that it was rare. The next time, a friendly guy added me to a call list, but told me to come in at least an hour before the show and have a drink and try to get a table from a cancellation. I was able to make a reservation for two weeks out, for the final contest night.
I tried my luck at the David Allen performance last week. My husband was game, with the understanding that he isn’t an Elvis fan and could just enjoy some Tex-Mex for crying out loud (and yes, sopapillas). While we waited in the front next to the life-size Elvis statue, I befriended Steve Wilson (a retired ETA who’d won the contest the previous week) and Tommy Lopez (the sound guy and an NDTA—Neil Diamond tribute artist). If you’re into collecting business cards, these guys have some top-notch selections. Also, the fact that Wilson retired in 2008 but gave me the last card in his wallet gave me some heartfeels. And I need to see Tommy Diamond in action. The outfit in his picture is amazing. But I digress…
They brought out Juan Sanchez, a major Elvis fan who organizes and hosts Elvis month and oh, yeah, happens to be the restaurant manager. He confirmed for me that the final contest would be the one to see. Why? The contestants would get to perform with the Fever Band instead of karaoke tracks. Live. Backing. Band. Now, Fever has backed ETAs and other tribute artists for roughly two decades, so for ETAs, it’s a big deal.
So we’re added to a table in an annex and ate our Tex-Mex watching David Allen transform from “leather daddy” Elvis to Vegas Elvis … with 232 other customers. Some stood and swooned, some crowded the aisles to take photos. One lady wore a giant “I <3 David Allen” button. I think she weeped. In the middle of the second set, at the first strains of “In the Ghetto,” my brave dining companion waved the white flag and we left.
But it had nothing on the final contest night. Zip.
This time I took an Elvis fan who is recently back from Graceland and may or may not have listened to the King on Spotify within the 24 hours leading up to the show. Legit company. Also, she helped me finish my skull-sized margarita without making fun of me, so friend for life.
We walked in to more mayhem and excitement than the week before could have prepared me for. The din required shouting. The rhinestones were at full tilt. There was fringe. There were nearly 250 people wedged into the place and more crammed into the entry for about an hour into the performance. Need to go pee? I recommend you hold it. Have a walker? Best to use a young relative for mobile support in this rocking arena. El Ranchito is an accommodating place on any given night, but on Elvis nights, the servers and workers of all kinds deserve sainthood, medals and trophies.
Everyone is on their game and then some. A Dallas Constable was there for security ... and he also ran the multi-colored disco lights. When a contestant hit the climax of a song, he flipped that switch and upped the excitement to Memphis-level 6240 (Elvis fans, you know).
But, the talent: Contestants ranged from 12 years old to respectfully undisclosed, and all were vying for the $500 first-place prize. With the exception of the young’uns — and I use that term because I feel Presley would, and I feel really, really close to him after this — most performers went the jumpsuit route. They all had actual names, but there were 14 of them, and I already mentioned the margarita. So, we referred to them with identifiers like Tasteful Scarf Elvis, Pale Blue Elvis (who really should’ve placed, regardless of the fact that he more closely resembled Bill Nighy than Elvis), Really Tall Elvis, Fringed & Beaded Elvis and Awkward Elvis.
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Gyrations and arm swings and hunka-hunkas and under-the-breath asides prevailed, and the King would’ve been proud. One guy even had his own dancing hype-man, Mr. Wiggles. He might give that Mighty Mighty Bosstones guy a run for his money in 30 years. We were even graced with the country’s only Priscilla impersonator.
The next round shaved four people off and it all happened again. With our flautitas and tasty meat thing done, we naturally graduated to fried pastries. The contestants didn’t seem to eat. Drink, maybe. But I suppose they didn’t dare muss their bedazzled uniforms. In between, Sanchez joked and performed, and proved he’d win the whole dang thing if he were allowed to compete. The guy’s got some Presley pipes on him.
As fans continued to pose for photos with Elvises one and all, we all prepared for the verdict. The lady with the Barbie who looked exactly like her passed us at least seven times (still dying to know what that mission was), and our table neighbors quite possibly hit on three separate Elvises before winners were announced.
In case you were wondering, Wilson brought it home one more time. And so did we. Heads dizzied by spinning lights and the strains of Fever’s incredible backing vocalist, Lauren, we packed up our to-go box and headed out. Naturally, we wrote on it: Elvis Has Leftover the Building.