Don't Mess With Elvis (Week)

The King's death anniversary has a story to tell

By Bill Dries

ELVIS DOWN UNDER: Jacqueline Feilich from Sydney, Australia, stands at the foot of the Elvis statue on Beale Street on a recent Friday. The new statue has a fence around it to keep people from defacing it. -- Photo By Greg Campbell

Editor's Note: This article and a companion piece titled "King's Death Anniversary Recounted by Men Who Were There" in today's Daily News are told from the perspective of a journalist who covered Elvis Presley's death and its aftermath in 1977.

Once upon a time there was an Elvis impersonator who saw a void in the storied Memphis entertainment industry. He found it hard to believe that there wasn't a single place that offered nothing but year-round stage shows featuring - in the parlance of the trade - an Elvis tribute artist.

Much to his surprise, he found a location just down the street from Graceland on Elvis Presley Boulevard.

Also much to his surprise, the business soon was forced to close.

'A cultural force'

The relationship between Memphians and Elvis Presley has always been complex.

Many Memphians will admit they've either never been to Graceland or, if they have, it was to take out-of-town relatives or friends who had it at the top of their must-see list.

Attorney Bill Haltom has seen it firsthand.

"I think it's kind of funny how a lot of Memphians - they're almost embarrassed about the Elvis phenomenon," Haltom said. "When people come in from out of town, the first place they want to go is Graceland. Out of Memphis, people of all sorts of educational levels ... they don't think Elvis is something to be embarrassed about. They think he was a cultural force."

That would include classical music composer and conductor Leonard Bernstein, quoted in the late David Halberstam's book "The Fifties" as calling Presley "the greatest cultural force in the 20th century."

Thirty years ago this week, Memphis entered that phase of its relationship with its most famous citizen when he was found unconscious on the shag-carpeted floor of his upstairs bathroom.

Haltom, a native Memphian who has written and spoken about being from the city of Elvis, believes the complex relationship between Memphians and Presley is linked to the "inferiority complex" many Memphians have about their city in general.

"We think they're laughing at us and that's not the deal," Haltom said. "They're laughing about a part of American culture. And it is fun."

Bad taste is relative

Attorney Lucian Pera regards an Elvis story as a mandatory part of being a real Memphian. A lifelong Memphian who went to the same dentist as Presley, he considers the relationship between Presley and other Memphians to have changed in the last 10 to 15 years.

He now sees no dilemma in indulging the visitor who wants to see Graceland and going there as a Memphian. Pera is even over the tackiness that some see in the home's perpetual 1970s d├ęcor "at what might have been the height of bad taste."

"It was a strange relationship with him while he was alive," Pera said. "There was never a time, as far as I knew, of the day or night while Elvis was alive, when you could drive by Graceland and not see people outside the gates. He didn't even have to be in town. ... I think we all thought that was a little strange."

Part of the city's different attitude toward Elvis as a fellow Memphian is that he came from blue-collar roots and neighborhoods to the pinnacle of success for Mississippi transplants to Memphis in the 1950s - a big house on a hill on U.S. 51 - the road many North Mississippians took to live in or just to visit the big city.

"This is somebody who came from nothing and got a lot of money awfully suddenly," Pera said.

Memphis was a blue-collar town with plenty of Humes High School graduates from humble beginnings who, like Presley, became successful. But cultural forces don't usually have a favorite ride at the Fairgrounds or turn up at Al's Cycle Shop out of the blue between national television appearances that are still talked about and examined 50 years later.

Pera has made his peace through his version of Christmas cards. He sends out cards on Jan. 8 to mark Elvis' birthday, which is also his mother's birthday. It's also a reminder to those unfamiliar with him or the Adams and Reese law firm that it's a Memphis enterprise.

"Everybody sends out Christmas cards. How many people send out cards for Elvis' birthday?" Pera said. "Jan. 8 works out nicely because it's just about the time that everybody's throwing out their piles of Christmas cards."

The cards are photographs of Elvis used with the permission of one of Pera's clients, The Commercial Appeal. There's usually also an explanation of what was happening in Presley's life when the picture was taken. It is a take on the picture with a local point of view. Some Memphians may have come to terms with the city's most famous citizen. But there is still the need to explain.

Native son

Perhaps nothing better illustrates the gulf in perception than the city's first attempt at a tribute to Presley following his death. It was a statue of the Vegas jump-suited Elvis unveiled on a Beale Street plaza near the old site of the Lansky's store he frequented before and after his initial success.

The statue was popular with tourists. It was so popular tourists climbed onto the base of the statue and managed to pry loose the metal fringe on the jump suit. They also treated it like the front wall at Graceland until the statue was tattooed with well wishes and not-so-well wishes. "I touched Elvis' butt," seemed particularly egregious.

That probably would have continued had locals not begun complaining about the condition of the statue around 1994. The question of who was responsible for the upkeep and, more important, who would pay for the needed cleaning and renovation of the statue hit a web of City Hall red tape.

Enter Robert "Prince Mongo" Hodges, local eccentric and self-professed visitor from another planet. Mongo claimed the statue as his own since no one from the city would take specific responsibility.

He announced he would remove the statue, take it in for repairs, pay for the repairs, gold plate it and then install it as part of his former Front Street nightspot Prince Mongo's Planet. When he showed up at the plaza one morning and a large crane followed, Memphis police were ready. The move was put off when police told Mongo the crane couldn't park there. Mongo pledged to come back the next day. But his interest waned. Shortly thereafter, the statue was repaired by others.

A newer Elvis statue with a more energetic pose courtesy of Graceland now stands on the pedestal in the plaza. A metal guard rail and alarm system protect him from all but the elements and camera flashes.

The original Elvis eventually was refurbished, including the jacket fringe. It now stands on the other end of Downtown in the Visitors Center along with a statue of B.B. King. In the climate-controlled room he's had all to himself since 1996, the more mature bronze Presley stands on a pedestal that is "alarm protected" according to the plaques by each of his feet.

Maybe that is the difference. In Memphis, it's never just a statue or a house on a hill. There's always a story. And because it is a story in Memphis' backyard, it is a story about Memphians as well.