This morning, I saw this story about an Elvis impersonator who has had to end his 50 year performance streak because of his cancer treatments. He's feeling too weak, and he can't shake his leg the way he'd like to. Kind of sad, though he seems very positive about it all, and his friends will fill in for him for his scheduled New Year's Eve concert at St. Peter's Church in New Jersey tomorrow night.
I don't know if you've ever seen an Elvis impersonator live, but if not, I highly recommend it. Reading the story reminded me of my own first encounter with an Elvis impersonator. We'd actually just told the kids about it on Christmas Eve, as we read through our Christmas Memory book and shared stories.
It was October of 1996. I remember the date very well, because Isabel was pregnant with Peter, during that crazy first trimester when she could only hold down plain saltines, she occasionally fell asleep standing up, and she went to work one day wearing two different shoes (which is a story for another time). That entire year was insane, with Peter on the way, my trying to finish my dissertation and get a job somewhere so I could take care of my growing family.
Part of my job-hunting strategy was to strengthen my credentials as a scholar, which meant I needed to present my research at academic conferences in front of other scholars. I was forunate enough to get two conference presentation proposals accepted for the fall, one for October and one for November -- just in time to put them on my job applications in December.
The first one was for a conference on popular culture and American culture, in Savannah, Georgia. While these days I have the luxury of flying to conferences and staying at nice hotels, back then it meant driving and staying at the cheapest, safest hotel we could find in the AAA tourbook. The Savannah conference was no different. Isabel and I drove from Louisville to Chattanooga, where we picked up our friend Lauren and stayed at her place for the night, and then drove on to Savannah the next day. We stayed at a cheap hotel that night. Normally, we'd have found something fun to do, but given Isabel's condition, we had dinner with Lauren and then I put Isabel to bed.
The next morning, we checked out of our room and stored the luggage in the trunk of the car. I was scheduled to make my presentation that morning, and then we were going to drive back to Louisville in the afternoon. But when I checked my program booklet one last time to see if there was anything I wanted to see before we left, and I saw the listing: Rick Marino, President of the EPIIA (Elvis Presley International Impersonators Association), would be speaking and performing.
So after my presentation, and a hearty lunch of saltines and water, Isabel and I made our way to the main ballroom of the hotel that was hosting the convention. Actually, I made it to the ballroom; Isabel made it as far as the hotel lobby. Since we'd checked out of our hotel, she couldn't even go back to the room and rest, so she found an empty couch in the lobby and curled up and went to sleep.
The ballroom was packed -- probably 800 academics, researchers, and scholars of popular culture and Amercian culture filled it to Standing Room Only capacity. Mr. Marino first lectured us. We heard about his family: his mother's uncle was Enrico Caruso, the Italian opera singer; his dad was a former Mr. America bodybuilding champion. He told us about how he came to love Elvis, and about how much he paid for his white, rhinestone-encrusted, big-collarted jumpsuit. He told us about what it was like to appear in the movie Honeymoon in Vegas. He spoke about the role that Elvis played in American culture.
And then Rick Marino sang.
And it was good.
While I was able to keep some emotional distance from the performance, I was amazed at the women in the audience. Moments before, they had been serious academics, nodding and thinking about how the arc of Elvis' career represented the changing (maybe declining?) values of the national culture. And now, as Rick Marino sang, they were reduced to quivering bowls of jelly. The two middle-aged women in front of me screamed -- genuinely screamed -- when Rick Marino ran a silk hankerchief over their faces and dropped it in one of their laps.
The power of Rick Marino? Or the power of Elvis?
Either way, you can bet that when it was over, I woke up my pregnant wife and got her off that hotel lobby couch and the hell out of there before his power overtook her, too.
A month later, I dragged Isabel to Chicago for the other conference. This one didn't have Elvis impersonators, just people talking about business communication. We couldn't afford another hotel, so we left Louisville at 9:00am, arriving in Chicago about 3:00pm. We had this routine down by now; Isabel claimed a comfy lobby couch for her nap.I gave my presentation at 4:15, changed clothes, and we were back on the road by 5:00pm, just in time to hit downtown Chicago rush hour traffic. And then it started to snow.
On the way home, Isabel felt well enough that she thought she could handle McDonalds for a quick dinner. By about 6:30, she was so miserable that I told her we were going to stop and find a hotel for the night. "NO!" she screamed at me. "DRIVE! GET ME HOME!" So she slept next to me as I drove from one end of Indiana to the other, our radio picking up nothing but high school football games and static-filled country music.
The two presentations went a long way in helping my job applications look good. I got a job that I love, and we ended up with a beautiful baby boy.
Rick Marino still does Elvis impersonations. Click on the "Rick Marino sang" link above for a sample performance he did in Argentina last year, and be sure to read the comments below the video for trash talking from Marino's fans and the fans of other Elvis impersonators about who the best impersonator is. Awesome.
But mostly, I hope Ted Prior, the Elvis impersonator with cancer, does OK with his treatments.
A happy and healthy New Year to him, and to all of you.