Las Vegas Sun

April 16, 2014

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Elvis still king

The Elvis-A-Rama Museum, 3401 Industrial Road, is sponsoring several events Friday to commemorate the silver anniversary of Elvis Presley's death. At 9 a.m. Las Vegas Mayor Oscar Goodman will declare "Elvis Presley Day," and at 6 p.m. an Elvis Impersonator contest will be held, followed by a 10 p.m. candlelight vigil.

In Las Vegas, Elvis has never left the building.

Twenty-five years after the death of the "king of rock 'n' roll," Elvis Presley -- from the top of his bootblack-died pompadour to the soles of his blue suede shoes -- remains as much a fixture of the glittering gambling capital as neon lights, slot machines and blackjack tables.

There are more than 20 shows in Las Vegas that feature Elvis impersonators, and several more if you add the Colorado River boomtown of Laughlin, which looks a little like how Las Vegas did when Presley died on Aug. 16, 1977.

More than 50,000 people a year -- fans from all over the world -- visit the Elvis-A-Rama Museum just off the Strip on Industrial Road. There, they stand close to glass-encased items that Elvis once owned in a collection valued at $4 million, including Presley's blue suede shoes, worth about $1 million.

Even weddings at one of several area chapels that feature either an Elvis minister or an Elvis strumming a guitar and singing "Love Me Tender" have increased tenfold in the last two decades.

"He's much bigger in status today than when he was alive because, with the passage of time, all of his human faults have been forgotten, and all that remains now is the music -- and his music makes people happy," Chris Davidson, owner and curator of the Elvis-A-Rama Museum, said.

"Elvis was a hero to many people. And in Las Vegas no headliner before or since has generated the enthusiasm he generated with his performances."

Not only is that evident in his legacy, but also in the business that has cropped up around the legend -- a commercialism that almost rivals Christmas and that may help pump up the Elvis image and keep it alive for new generations.

The man and the myth

Between 1969 and 1977 Presley set a record of 700 consecutive sellout appearances in the 1,600-seat showroom at the International Hotel, which became the Las Vegas Hilton, where a seven-foot statue of Elvis stands today in the foyer.

Why does Presley's larger-than-life image endure and why do the myth and the man remain almost inseparable in Las Vegas?

Dr. Simon Gottschalk, a professor of sociology at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, said performers like Presley and James Dean represent the youthful rebellion in all of us.

"They appear larger than life, because we only know them by what we see in their movies and on television -- we didn't know them in body and flesh," Gottschalk said.

"They are mythical figures who young people admire because they represent rebellious youth. We tend to put aside Elvis' drug addiction and obesity, his bad temper and violent outbursts and remember only the nostalgic, the good."

Gottschalk said that the mass media "enlarges the celebration of celebrities, and thus enlarges the importance of what they do."

Gottschalk says he is not sure whether Presley and other 20th century pop icons will stand the test of significant time. However, he said, because there is so much film and memorabilia on Presley, he could, in that sense, live forever.

"Certainly, a hundred years from now if they write a history of rock 'n' roll music, the contributions of Elvis Presley and the Beatles are so significant now, they would have to be included," Gottschalk said.

Elvis weddings

Nowhere can the growing Elvis phenomenon be seen better than at the Graceland Wedding Chapel at Las Vegas Boulevard and Bonneville Avenue, which Dale and Peggy Johnson have run for 16 years and where Elvis impersonator the Rev. Norm Jones has performed weddings for 14 years.

"We get so many people who come in here from all over the world who are under age 25 and are the biggest Elvis fans you've ever seen," Dale said. "They hadn't even been born when Elvis was alive, yet they come to us because they specifically want an Elvis to be part of their wedding."

Johnson said the demand for Elvis weddings has significantly increased at the Graceland Chapel, even though other chapels in town have copied his formula.

"If we didn't have all of the competition, we'd be doing 10 times more Elvis weddings than we did 16 years ago," he said, noting that the price of an Elvis wedding has risen modestly from $100 in 1986 to $145 today.

Jones, who says he is the only Elvis impersonator in town who also is an ordained minister and performs weddings, said he started doing Elvis about the time that Presley died, because he was a musician and had sideburns.

"I appreciated Elvis but was not a diehard fan -- I'm simply an entertainer," said Jones, who at 41 somewhat resembles Elvis as he looked just before his death at age 42.

"I like doing Elvis because I like being around people, and people smile and feel happy when they see and hear Elvis. But I'm not like a lot of impersonators who get lost in the character. When I'm not working, I don't wear the costume."

Johnson said that given how important Presley was to the international growth of Las Vegas in the 1960s and '70s, he is surprised there is no significant monument to Presley in town, such as a school or a theater.

A piece of Elvis

Today, it costs about $15 to $25 to see an Elvis impersonator. At the International and Hilton, the price to see the real Elvis -- including two drinks and a dinner -- was $15.

"Elvis and (manager) Col. Tom Parker knew that even in those days they could get more for an Elvis show, but to Elvis it was important that all of his fans could afford to see him," said Davidson, the Elvis-A-Rama curator who was 11 when he first saw Presley perform at the Hilton in 1975.

"I would say that, because of the way Elvis felt about his fans, if he were alive and performing today, a ticket to see his Las Vegas show probably would be $50 to $75, which is very reasonable."

In this day of multimillion-dollar contracts, what would they pay him?

"For engagements that involved two months a year, I would guess $3 million to $4 million," said Davidson, who has made his living in the publishing business and only seriously started collecting high-dollar Elvis memorabilia in the last decade.

As far as the value of the collectibles are concerned, people who invested in Elvis material generated from events of his life may be in for a letdown.

Items like International and Hilton menus that were given out for each Elvis performance have decreased significantly in value and could continue to decline, Davidson said. For instance, an International menu purchased for $1,000 10 years ago, may be worth $500 today.

"The reason for this is that the hard-core Elvis fans of the past are getting older and are not collecting -- they are now selling," Davidson said. "So more of that kind of material is becoming available."

With such material becoming easier to find and more affordable, a new generation of fans is getting a chance to collect pieces of the king.

By contrast items that Presley actually owned or used -- jewelry, cars, costumes and personal things -- are holding their value and in some cases are rising dramatically in value, Davidson said.

The commercialism

It is no mistake that Presley is more popular today, said Phyllis McGuire of the McGuire Sisters singing group and a longtime Las Vegas resident. It's thanks to aggressive marketing practices by his estate.

"It is a big business -- his estate has made it a point to keep his name out there and they have done an unbelievable public relations job," said McGuire, who dated Presley before he met his future wife, Priscilla, whom he married in Las Vegas on May 2, 1967.

"Frankly, I'm sick and tired of the whole commercial thing."

Before his death Presley confided to friends that he feared two things -- first, that his daughter Lisa Marie would read accounts of his drug use and lose respect for him, and second, that he would be forgotten.

But McGuire said Elvis is not being remembered the way he would have liked.

"I think if Elvis could see what has been done to make him such a commercial product, I think he would go back in time and clean up his act so he could have lived longer and taken steps to prevent this," she said.

In Memphis the Presley estate, including Elvis' Graceland home, was worth an estimated $2 million to $5 million at the time Presley died. Today, because of strong marketing that includes guided tours of the mansion, it is worth more than $150 million and continues to grow.

But not everything about Elvis has a commercial theme. For instance, the Las Vegas Hilton, where Presley achieved his Las Vegas fame, has no plans for commemorating the milestone anniversary of his death.

"Some people may want to slip a card at the foot of his statue or remember Elvis in their own way, but we won't be doing anything formal that day," said Michael Coldwell, spokesman for Park Place Entertainment, which operates the Hilton.

Private remembrances certainly are understandable, Coldwell said.

"Elvis was as iconic to Las Vegas as Frank Sinatra or the Rat Pack or anyone," he said. "He was the reason many people came to town for many years. He helped make entertainment a big part of this city."