Saving Graceland 

Poor Elvis. You can't mention his name these days without some self-styled Shecky Greene making a crack about hookers and fried-banana sandwiches. Whatever the risk to my own professional livelihood, may I join the Elvis Presley Continentals in imploring us all to cut the King some slack?

An Orlando-based fan association named after Presley's taste in automobiles, the Continentals cruised into International Drive's Las Palmas Inn last Saturday and Sunday for Elvis Fest 2000, their 21st annual tribute to the man who -- let's be honest -- set the parameters of pop-cultural godhead for all time. On Saturday, Sue Manuszak, the organization's president, smiled in protective pride as she led me into a room full of memorabilia that flaunted Elvis' coronation as "Entertainer of the Century."

Vinyl records, CDs and tapes awaited new owners who would take them home and rediscover a truth that's often lost in the shuffle of snide postmortems: Elvis could sing his durn fool head off. Hardbound biographies shared the ancillary knowledge that he loved his Mama. And the selection of glossy photos and posters reminded us that he had really nice hair. I can't think of three better reasons to worship a guy.

Some of the most interesting merchandise had a local slant. One table bore calendars, photos and VHS tapes culled from a Feb. 15, 1977, concert at the "Orlando Sports Stadium." An exhibit of sublime black-and-whites immortalized Presley's 1961 visit to Weeki Wachee Springs. In every shot, his perfect features and penetrating stare placed him in stark relief to the fans and swimsuited mermaids who surrounded him; he was always miraculously in focus, even when they were not. This is where we get the term "a luminous personality."

Meet the Memphis Mafia

At the head of the room sat special guest Dick Grob, Presley's bodyguard and chief of security during the last decade of his life. Grob remembered his boss as "a very, very generous guy" whose charitable contributions were an inspiration to the Continentals. (Most of the proceeds from Elvis Fest 2000 were earmarked for the Russell Home for Atypical Children.) His well-trimmed beard and tall frame matched Grob's resume as an international pistol competitor who had also provided U.S. security for Marshall Tito. He teased that a 55-gallon drum out back would be my final resting place if I dared write anything negative about the Tupelo teddy bear. Have I mentioned yet in this paragraph that Elvis was the King?

Next to him was Marian Cocke, a white-haired woman who had been the pop idol's nurse and confidant ever since the infamous Dr. Nick brought his client into Memphis' Baptist Memorial Hospital, where Cocke was once a supervisor. Until their meeting, she recalled, she hadn't been a fan.

"I don't get excited about people I don't know," she dismissed. But Presley was "such a neat kid" that she worked for him (unsalaried) for two-and-a-half years.

Though they were both with Elvis in August 1977, Gob and Cocke agreed that his death had been a complete shock. That surprised me, but I didn't press the point. They were there, I wasn't. I felt much more polite than the outraged fan who earlier in the day confronted Cocke with the challenge, "You were supposed to be taking care of him! How dare you let this happen?" People who ask questions like that end up in 55-gallon drums.

Keeping the sideburns

After the dealers' room closed on Saturday, the festivities moved a few blocks south to the Holiday Inn, where a few male Continentals performed reverent impersonations of their hero. As in the real Presley's career, the spectacle ran the range from outright kitsch to stellar entertainment. In the daffiest bit of little-theater lunacy I've seen since "Waiting for Guffman," Vince Grosso augmented his "gospel" segment with a chorus line of women of all ages and sizes who waved red streamers behind him. But Joel Harris tackled the Vegas years with aplomb, doffing scarves and charging through the crowd with a fury that would have sent Andy Kaufman back to the drawing board.

Twenty-year-old actor/dancer Al Silva took on the tough task of emulating the lean, mean Elvis of the 1950s. Swarthier-looking and thinner of voice than the real thing, Silva still put enough passion into his hip-swiveling gyrations to make the grandmotherly types in the audience squeal and clap like teeny-boppers.

Silva was the evening's hot commodity in another sense. A breakfast date with the fresh-faced young stud was to be the top prize in a fund-raising raffle -- until Cocke convinced the Continentals that more cash would find its way to charity if his attentions were auctioned off instead. Her winning bid was $600, designated at the last second to be "split" between her and her two closest rivals.

"It takes a Southern woman to pull off a scheme like that!" she cackled.

A little guile, a lot of money and a hunka, hunka burnin' love; Elvis would have approved.


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