When my editors ordered me to be a "celebrity judge" at the 11th Annual Elvis Invitationals held January 12, naturally I assumed the finale would include me cornered in a utility closet at the Skagit Valley Casino with a dozen Elvis impersonators chanting, "Do the Clam." I am a freelance writer. My past careers include secretary and student. Where else but in a casino broom closet would I qualify to be a "celebrity judge"? The situation didn't bode well for me or the seafood buffet, but curiosity and my current career forced my hand. I became Cienna Madrid, celebrity judge.
The annual Elvis Invitationals started in 1990 as "Night of the Living Elvis," an Elvis tribute show in Eugene, Oregon. Shortly after its inception, Seattle resident and Memphis Mafia bandmember Mike Dippery pitched the event to the Crocodile Cafe's promotions manager, Peter Verbrugge. For the show, the band would dress as Elvis impersonators, croon classic Elvis tunes, and otherwise celebrate his January 8 birthday in ways befitting the King.
"Throughout the night they tossed 20 pounds of fried chicken, bananas, and peanut butter onto the crowd," Verburgge says of the Memphis Mafia's first Seattle show. "I didn't expect anything like it. We had to ban food at the Crocodile after that."
Night of the Living Elvis was a hit. Even sans 20 pounds of fried-chicken confetti, it was kitschy and fun enough to become an annual staple at the Crocodile. The show expanded to include the Elvis Invitationals, a karaoke-and-drag-king contest for ardent Elvis tribute artists. In 1996, after Verbrugge left the Crocodile to work for the Experience Music Project, it made sense for the event to follow him to the larger venue. "We wanted to make the Elvis Invitationals all ages, which the EMP was, as well as nonsmoking. Plus, spatially the fit was better. The Croc's cool, but it's small."
I arrived at the Sky Church at 7:00 pm as doors officially opened. Outside, a handful of Elvi and one MacGyver were thrusting at pedestrians and practicing the trademark Elvis point 'n' pout. Their outfits ranged from a homemade black duct-tape suit to more traditional rhinestone-studded, white polyester jumpsuits to Elvis's leather-daddy comeback gear. The MacGyver wore black jeans, a utility belt, and a black beret. I admired his lack of shiny.
Inside, the Sky Church was dimly lit and empty. Objets d'art suspended from the ceiling pulsed slowly like jellyfish. Behind the stage glowed a sign reading, "Welcome to fabulous Las Vegas NV"; a pamphlet on a table added, "Welcome to Your Night of Fantasy." As the crowd filtered in, I was introduced to my fellow celebrity judges— Gene Stout, the Seattle Post-Intelligencer's pop music critic, a honcho from Archie McPhee (which sponsored the event), and a real estate agent named Marlow Harris, who runs Seattle's number-one blog on "real estate, pop culture, and Elvis" (www.360digest.com) and who celebrated the night by gussying herself up as Priscilla. Calling any of us celebrity judges was an imaginative stretch, although on the totem pole of celebrity judges, I suppose Stout would be shitting on all our shoulders.
We were quickly prepped on how to elect the year's new best fake Elvis. Competitors would be scored on vocals, stage presence, costume/hair, and audience reaction. "Inevitably, someone ends up crying in the bathroom," one veteran judge added, "in which case you really only need to dock weepy Elvis on stage presence." The winning Elvis would receive $500 dollars. All other Elvi would walk away with an Archie McPhee gift bag and complimentary haircut from Rudy's Barbershop. For us celebrity judges, perks included free drinks, VIP backstage passes for schmoozing with the stars (20-plus Elvi), and touching privileges.
"What happens to the losing Elvis?" I asked. "Is he crowned on a porcelain throne with a five-pound bag of Doritos? And if not, can I make a formal proposal?"
My proposal was ignored. Night of fantasy, indeed.
While waiting to pass judgment, I dove to the open bar and mingled. There I met Megan, Pat, and "Girl Elvis," whose last-minute costume of sideburns and cleavage failed to land her in the evening's lineup. The three blondes were a best-friends-since-high-school clique who'd made the Elvis Invitationals an annual ladies' night out. "I heard about it in beauty school years ago," Meagan told me. The trio knew all the songs—better than that, they knew all the singers ("Our favorite is Asian Elvis."). They were unimpressed with my two learned verses of "Do the Clam," and when they asked if I could get Girl Elvis on the performers list, I told them the same story I had given to the Elvis Invitational organizers when pressed for a personal bio: Cienna Madrid was born 23 years ago to a woman, Josephina Margarita Chabela Consuela Madrid, of Mexican descent, and "a white guy" who gave them free cable for a year, which turned to three years and then to five—a typical love story for a woman with a large heart and no teeth but firm, capable gums... The beauty-school belles stopped asking for favors. I turned my attention to the swarm of Elvi.
Nick Poillucci was a 22-year-old first time Elvis, born and raised in Sin City. He sported a black '50s-style suit, a black-and-white checkered shirt, and an impressively gaudy diamond-studded horseshoe ring. His gamble to impersonate young, hot Elvis instead of gaudy, fat train-wreck Elvis had been noted by many females in the crowd. "I'm an aspiring actor," Nick-Elvis told me, "so more than just liking his music, I really admire his charisma with audiences. That's what I'm trying to channel tonight, not some comedy routine."
Andre Laico was inspired to become an Elvis tribute artist after being encouraged by new friends during a religious seminar last summer. He was dressed in royal purple and blue suede. "When he sang I could hear how he tapped into the religious side of Elvis," recalls Laico's friend Kitty Murphy, who came to support him. "I told him he was sitting on a pot of gold."
Murphy had her own ties to Presley. "I turned him down for a date at the World's Fair in 1962," she said, "but we remained good friends. I'd hang out with him in his trailer when he was filming It Happened at the World's Fair."
At 9:00 p.m. the show was about to begin. I weaved through the crowd to my reserved seat while the emcee paid lip service to Archie McPhee, the real-estate blogging community, Gene Stout, and "Cienna Madrid, Stranger Music Editor."
It seemed my mother's gummy blowjobs had not only fictionally purchased a childhood of basic cable, but an editorship as well. The door on my broom closet suddenly read "Star!"
It took two hours to judge all the Elvi. My personal favorites—Lady Elvis and MacGyver Elvis—lost to a dark horse from Canada named Cliff Elvis Moody. Moody Elvis was technically good with his beautiful voice, big hair, rhinestone camel toe, etc., but I felt he lacked the personality of Lady Elvis, AKA Helen Anne Gately, AKA Hellon Wheels. Gately retired at last year's Elvis Invitationals after a decade of competition, only to pick up her sequined, scarlet cape again this year. "Fans and friends kept asking me to get back into it," she admitted. As if on cue, a fan interrupted her for a quick picture and congratulations. "And I'm going to be pictured in an upcoming Elvis tribute book. It seemed like a silly time to retire."
Elvis has been dead for 30 years; when is the right time to retire? None of the Elvi I talked to had an answer. They were busy paying tribute to a hero who dominated the cultural landscape of their youth. Plus, it was thrilling to borrow someone else's celebrity for an evening—along with his aggressive hips and tacky wardrobe. As a former secretary-turned-Stranger editor, I could relate.
Bald Elvis broke it down for me: "Elvis is a monogram for what?" he asked.
"I have no idea," I said, not understanding that Bald Elvis was speaking of anagrams, not bath towels.
"Lives. Elvis lives," he replied. "He lives in all of us."
And so it is. And until every single one of us consults either an exorcist or an abortionist, the Elvis Invitationals will live on.