- The Washington Times - Thursday, August 16, 2007

MEMPHIS, Tenn. (AP) — Finally welcomed by Graceland after all these years, Elvis Presley impersonators need to keep one basic rule in mind: Respect the King.

Managers of Mr. Presley’s home in Memphis plan to anoint their first-ever official Elvis “tribute artist” this week as they mark the 30th anniversary of his death there. They don’t want tacky; they don’t want kitschy; and they don’t want a ridiculous spoof.

The contest judges will be looking for sincerity and respect — even if it’s accompanied by karate moves, black pompadours and rhinestone jumpsuits.

“It’s all about paying tribute to the life and legacy of Elvis,” says Paul Jankowski, marketing chief for Elvis Presley Enterprises Inc., the company that operates Graceland and its sprawling tourist complex.

The Ultimate Elvis contest has been under way since March with a series of qualifying rounds around the world. Twenty-four contestants made it to Memphis, but 14 were eliminated Sunday in the final qualifying round.

The winner will be chosen tomorrow at the end of a week of events to commemorate Mr. Presley’s Aug. 16, 1977, death. (A candlelight vigil in his honor was scheduled for last night.) The Ultimate Elvis will get $5,000 in cash, a $5,000 shopping spree at Graceland tourist shops, a $3,000 gift certificate toward the purchase of an Elvis-inspired jumpsuit, a one-of-a-kind Ultimate Elvis Tribute Artist championship belt and other prizes.

The tribute-artist contest marks a big change for Graceland, which long has regarded Elvis impersonators with a mixture of resigned bemusement and outright disgust.

However, with a new corporate parent, CKX Inc., in charge of the $40-million-a-year business in all things Elvis, Graceland managers have taken a new attitude toward the pompadoured ones.

“There are competitions all over the world, and they’re all fantastic, but to have one run by Elvis Presley Enterprises is something special,” says Paul Larcombe, a professional tribute artist from Crewe, England, and one of 10 finalists for the Graceland crown.

Unofficial Elvis impersonator contests, with performers ranging from the ridiculous to the reverential, are held around the globe, drawing participants of all sizes, shapes, ethnicities and ages. There even are female Elvises.

For the serious tribute artists, some of whom make a living copying the King, winning the official Graceland title — or just getting to the finals — can be particularly rewarding.

“It’s already enhanced my career just getting over here,” says Mr. Larcombe, who got to Memphis by winning a preliminary contest in Blackpool, England. “I might get some more high-profile agents to work with me, which means more lucrative work.”

For many Elvis fans, the Graceland-sanctioned contest is special. The Elvis faithful refer to the management of the Presley business as simply “Graceland,” in the same way a presidential administration might be referred to as “the White House.”

“I’ve never been to any competition as good as this,” Betty Buckner, 63, of Kansas City, Mo., said at Sunday night’s performance. “It’s a way for them to show their love for Elvis and his music, and I’m glad Graceland finally understands that.”

Jack Soden, the longtime chief executive of Elvis Presley Enterprises, now a subsidiary of CKX, has never been a fan of Elvis impersonators, but he says he’s giving the tribute contest a chance.

It would be difficult to stop Elvis impersonators, even though EPE owns the rights to Mr. Presley’s name and likeness. Keeping Mr. Presley’s picture off a coffee mug is one thing, but telling a singer he can’t wear jumpsuits and rhinestones is something else again.

“This is a genuine, spontaneous aspect of the Elvis phenomenon … and we should embrace it to some extent,” says Mr. Soden, who like other Graceland managers avoids the word “impersonators,” favoring “Elvis tribute artists” or ETAs, instead.

The finalists in Graceland’s contest are all practiced performers.

At the unofficial Images of the King contest, the story is different. That contest, which has been held in Memphis for the past two decades, has hosted professional entertainers and amateurs alike, including some from abroad who spoke little English and had only a phonetic grasp of the lyrics to Elvis songs.

Also staged in August near the death anniversary, the show has long been popular with Presley fans and expects little trouble, this year at least, from Graceland, says director Michael Hoover, a professional Elvis imitator from Virginia.

“For years and years, Graceland has pretty much ignored the Elvis tribute artists. I don’t know if this is just an experiment for them or they’re changing their ways,” Mr. Hoover says. “But I think there’s enough work for everybody to go around right now. There are plenty of Elvis impersonators in the world, and there are lots of contests.”

Winning at Images also has been a career booster for many Elvis performers, such as Mr. Hoover, who won in 1988 and took over the contest a few years ago from founder “Doc” Franklin, Elvis‘ former veterinarian.

Serious Elvis impersonators “can make a comfortable living” performing at private parties, concerts, corporate functions and the like, Mr. Hoover says. The successful ones have their own bands, booking agents and even fan clubs.

“If you’re good, you’re full time and you work at it real hard, you can probably do a six-figure income, but you’ve got to work at it,” says Mr. Hoover, who began his Elvis journey as a teenager. “I was doing Elvis when Elvis was still alive.”

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