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Show Business: The King Is Dead – or Is He?

5 minute read
Richard Corliss

The night Elvis died, one of his fans came home to find that her Presley records had mysteriously melted. That same evening, a couple discovered that the Elvis statue in their den had inexplicably broken apart. Years later, a police officer tracked his missing son to Los Angeles through information supplied in a dream by Elvis. The singer’s face suddenly materialized in the wood paneling of a woman’s pantry door. His voice counseled an overweight woman to lay off junk food. The late star, a frequent hospital visitor, has offered words of comfort to a woman giving birth, to another in a near death experience, and to a young girl dying of complications from Down’s syndrome, whose last words were “Here comes Elvis!”

At least, so reports Dr. Raymond A. Moody Jr. in Elvis After Life (Peachtree; 1987), a collection of interviews with people claiming psychic experiences involving the dead singer. Moody even cites a woman who believes her young son is the King reincarnated. Her son believes it too. “Yeah, I’m Elvis Presley,” he affirms in a familiar drawl. “I died, and I came back.”

On Aug. 16, 1977, when Presley’s death was announced, a Hollywood mourner observed, “Good career move.” Never was cynicism more prophetic. The singer’s estate is valued today at $50 million, ten times what it was when he was alive. A new movie, Heartbreak Hotel, imagines a ’70s teenager kidnaping Elvis to impress his mom, and Elvis: An American Musical is touring the country this fall. An Elvis postage stamp is probably next, once proponents agree on which image — that of the young or the middle-aged star — should appear on it. And one can call an 800 number and get details about a Memphis bank’s brand-new Elvis MasterCard.

Elvismania transcends the usual devotion to a white-hot celebrity, even one who has died before his time. Rudolph Valentino, Will Rogers, James Dean and Marilyn Monroe may have left indelible niches in the hearts of their fans, but few built shrines to them. Rumors of their survival rarely blossomed into testimony of posthumous visitations. Nor did their homes become cathedral theme parks. Yet each year Graceland, Presley’s residence in Memphis, welcomes more than half a million Elvisitors, and many are true believers. To commemorate the high holy day, Aug. 16, 10,000 acolytes hold a candlelight vigil.

For some the light holds hope for the King’s return. Once the province of supermarket tabloids, reports of Elvis’ resurrection now nestle in bookstores. Following on the heels of Moody’s book, Gail Brewer-Giorgio’s best-selling Is Elvis Alive? (Tudor; 1988) offers evidence to stoke the stories. Fact: on the singer’s grave his middle name, Aron, is misspelled as Aaron. Possible conclusion: Elvis Aron Presley is not buried there. The book comes with a tape of a man who sounds like Elvis and offers Delphic hints of his postmortem life and times. If Brewer-Giorgio fails to convince skeptics, she has profitably tapped a rich vein of quasi-religious longing. Millions may sneer along with Doonesbury and David Letterman at news of Presley’s sanctified status, but many believe it. A star may have died, but something is being born. Maybe the Church of Elvis.

The Rev. Robert D. Martin thinks so. “This has the makings of the rise of a new religion,” says the retired Episcopal minister from Hernando, Miss. “Elvis is the god, and Graceland the shrine. There are no writings, but that could be his music. And some even say he is rising again. The August week is more like people going to Lourdes than to an entertainment event. People genuflect before his grave. Women have come to Memphis to deliver babies, claiming Elvis is the father and that he will come down from heaven when the , boy is 16 to anoint him — sort of like Jesus in the Jordan River.”

Fine, but why Elvis? Not just because he was rock’s first superstar, but also because as the pawn of his manager, Colonel Tom Parker, he was the last pop idol who did not control his own career. In 1956 he released his first million-seller, Heartbreak Hotel, and raised screams and hackles on TV variety shows. Then, too soon, he was devoured by Hollywood’s make-over machinery, steered into a rut that would lead to 33 low-mediocre films. Parker’s determination to slip Elvis into the old show-biz mainstream effectively neutered the emperor of sexual and musical threat. By 1964, when the Beatles conquered America, Presley was still in his 20s but already an anachronism. And in his later, Vegas years, he often looked the pathetic, self-parodying porker. He was the first Elvis impersonator and a prisoner of his own eminence — the King in exile.

All this was essential to the creation of a cult religion. Presley had to suffer in the only way a celebrity can, through self-humiliation. This soldered the bond between a onetime poor boy from Tupelo, Miss., and his blue- collar, blue-haired or red-white-and-blue fans. He was both above them and one of them.

And now, some of them believe, he is with them again. On the stone wall that surrounds the entrance to Graceland they scrawl messages to their elusive idol: OUR LOSS IS HEAVEN’S GAIN . . . ELVIS, WAS THAT YOU AT BURGER KING? . . . ARE YOU DEAD — OR JUST LONESOME TONIGHT? Infidels can look at the balance sheet and say that wherever the star may be, he is certainly taking care of business. Presleyterians know better: ELVIS is an anagram for LIVES.

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