Devil in Disguise? Graceland finally embraces Elvis impersonators

Published 10:34 pm Saturday, November 18, 2006

The Elvis Presley impersonators who have hung around the fringes of Graceland for years are finally being invited up to the big house.

On the 30th anniversary of Presley’s death in August, the managers of Graceland, Presley’s former Memphis home, will stage their first official impersonator competition: the “Ultimate Elvis Tribute Artist Contest.”

It’s a big change for managers of Presley’s estate, who have always kept the tacky, kitschy and outrageous Elvis impersonators at arm’s length.

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The new managers of the multimillion-dollar Elvis business think such a contest, properly run, could help keep the shine on Presley’s image and attract a new generation of fans.

To find the king of imitation kings, there will be a series of qualifying contests staged around the country, all licensed by Elvis Presley Enterprises Inc., whose new bosses took over Graceland and the business of the Presley estate last year.

“We’re looking for the best artist that represents the legacy of Elvis Presley,” said Paul Janokowski, Elvis Presley Enterprises’ marketing chief. “This is a serious contest.”

Elvis imitators came into being even before his death on Aug. 16, 1977, and now untold thousands of amateur and professional Elvis wannabes perform at private parties, nightclubs, concerts, fan club festivals — you name it — around the globe.

Impersonator contests are held throughout the country and abroad, with some of the most popular in Memphis around the anniversary of Presley’s death.

Graceland has generally stayed clear of such doings, until now.

Professional impersonators, some of whom make nice livings imitating the king of rock ’n’ roll, called themselves “tribute artists,” and that’s the title Graceland managers like, too.

“This is not an impersonator contest. This is a tribute artist contest,” Janokowski said, “and we will provide guidelines to the licensed festivals that hold qualifying rounds.”

Guidelines aren’t set yet, but Graceland wants tasteful, classy performances, preferring singers who might actually sound and look like Elvis, which isn’t always a given among Elvis impersonators.

Organizers have just begun looking for sites for preliminary contests, and two have been selected so far: Tupelo, Miss., where Presley was born; and Collingwood, Ontario, Canada, which already holds an annual Elvis festival.

The Memphis finals will be held over several days during Graceland’s annual Elvis “Tribute Week,” scheduled for Aug. 11-19.

Graceland isn’t trying to dominate the world of Elvis impersonators, Janokowski said, but winning the top prize in Memphis or at one of the preliminary contest couldn’t hurt a tribute artist’s career.

The performance rules required by Graceland will help set the standards for Elvis impersonators everywhere.

Elvis Presley Enterprises controls the worldwide marketing of Presley’s name and image. Once the business arm of the Presley estate, it is now a subsidiary of CKX Inc., which also owns the “American Idol” TV show.

The search for an “Ultimate Elvis” is part of the company’s new approach to trying to grow the Presley business.

“We want to be able to introduce Elvis to a new generation,” Janokowski said, “while helping the current core fans embrace this new structure of EPE.”

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