Late 1970’s. Living with Miss Dru in Brooklyn’s Park Slope in a huge apartment we barely used. She was in publishing. At that time there was a great deluge of books about Elvis Presley, what with him being newly dead and all. Naturally the place where Miss Dru toiled had their fair share of instant biographies of The King. His death was something of a sensation due to his relative youth and the shock value of the completely unexpected. Like all kings, his death rendered him unto history, for better or worse.
Miss Dru comes home from work one day and drops these tickets on me, courtesy of the great publishing house. Elvis Presley Convention, Statler Hilton Hotel, Manhattan. Merchandise, mementos, Elvis books, a performance of his music by his very own band, all leading up to the highlight of the evening, “The Unveiling of the Sweating Mannequin.” The what? Of course we had no choice now but to attend. It’s not every day of the week one gets to view the exclusive first unveiling of The Sweating Mannequin.
So one fine evening off we go to the convention. Merchandise aplenty. Elvis Presley Birth Certificates, $12. Death Certificates, $18. Elvis Presley matching quilts, sheets, curtains, pajamas, slippers, robes, throw rugs and lampshades. Presumably one could outfit one’s bedroom so that all that wasn’t Elvis-imaged would be one’s own face, and their were plenty of Elvis masks to be had to rectify that omission.
Peacock suits. Scarves. Elvis plates. Records. Books. Paintings. Statues. Photos. Lunchboxes. Leather Jackets. Ankle boots. Glassware. Watches. Jewelry. Every item of apparel imaginable for humans and pets too. Anything that could bear a likeness of the King was available, from thimbles to pickup trucks. One man displayed scores of hand-carved wooden images of Elvis, each piece a unique marvel of artistic craftsmanship, none of which he would sell, explaining that he did it for the love of the man and sought no greater reward.
And so it went, booth after booth of Elvis memorabilia, all of them except the talented wood carver doing a brisk trade. The sales booths were so numerous that they filled several ballrooms and spilled over into the hallways of a couple of floors of the hotel. Those in attendance were a mixed crew, with everyone from blue-haired matrons with their quiet, manly husbands to punk rockers to small children, the only common bond being a fascination and/or dedication to the late Mr. Presley. Many actually worshipped the man and made no bones about it.
What struck one as quite unusual, and it dawned only gradually, was the large number of disabled people in attendance. The hotel had ramped all public areas to accommodate wheelchairs and, indeed, there were many. Almost equal in number, however, were the gurney patients, bed-ridden people with catastrophically disabling conditions. They were accompanied each one by an attendant and, more often than not, a machine attached beneath the bed for life support, purring quietly as the patients were wheeled about. Some had their mental faculties, many did not. Some could speak only in unintelligible moans and others were in obvious great physical pain. There were forty or more such people there, evidently a night out for some hospital. That day, not a single one of these tormented souls was unhappy.
Miss Dru, being as sensitive a soul as any born, drew me off to a secluded corner to weep for these people. I told her you wouldn’t want anyone crying over you on your one big night out in God knows how long, maybe forever.
“I know, I know, I just need a minute. They’re such good people…”
“Sure they are, baby, they’re just hurtin’…”
Then, displaying that great strength of character lavishly praised in a man but taken for granted in a woman, she composed herself completely.
“Okay Ben, let’s go” she said.
So off again we went, perusing the scene and meeting some unforgettable people. Martha from Georgia was a second cousin once removed of Vernon Presley, the King’s Dad, and so naturally sold Elvis Presley family tree scrolls. Her name was on it, for sure. Miss Hettie Winston, eighty-five years young, sold homemade “Elvis Pretzels” shaped roughly like The King’s silhouette, and darned tasty too. We met Wayne the Tennessee wood carver who wouldn’t sell his work.
“My display is more of an exhibit. A tribute to Mr. Presley, God rest his soul.”
“How do you afford this?”
“I have had some contributors and I’ve laid some money by, so I’m okay for a while…”
Interesting man. An amazingly lucid, candid man. His obsession with Elvis Presley, like that of so many people there that night, is something to be taken for granted, like being left-handed or tall. Unlike most fanatics, theirs is a quiet, humble fascination. For the most part Elvis admirers are rock-solid, God-fearing working people. The real “Working Class Hero” of the John Lennon song turned out to be Elvis Presley.
The loyal come from all walks of life, often having little in common save the love of a poor Southern truck driver who rocketed to the top and changed the face of American pop music forever. The fact that he remained that mannerly southern boy even in the Fellini-esque world he would inhabit for years was to his further credit, they reasoned. He was a good Christian who prayed and recorded gospel songs his mother had taught him.
Sure, he lost his way here and there, but like his contemporary, Muhammad Ali, Elvis was always making dramatic comebacks. No one had entirely written him off. His live shows were sellout events. The potential for another smash hit was never out of his grasp. Also like Ali larger than life, his young death stunned the entire world and, apparently, spawned an industry. Used to be that painters were bigger in death than when they breathed. Now it is Elvis. World famous while he lived, one of the most celebrated and innovative musical artists of the twentieth century and most publicly documented living beings ever, Elvis somehow got even more famous in death.
The ultimate comeback. He’ll never get old and wrinkled or hoarse of voice. He will in the minds of most forever remain that impossibly handsome and polite young southern boy whose hips shook the world.
By and by we took in an excellent music revue by the Elvis Presley Band and Singers, then an exciting half hour by Wayne Fontana and the Mind Benders. A lone, unmanned microphone draped with a white scarf stood center stage throughout both shows. Afterwards, an announcement was made to go to the main ballroom for the main event. “Ladies and gentlemen, if you please, kindly assemble in the main ballroom where we will be honored to present The Unveiling of the Sweating Mannequin. Thank you. Thank you very much.”
Alright, the main event in the main ballroom. Nothing less for the King. In the center of a huge ballroom on a raised dais was a giant cube covered by a heavy black curtain. There was a Master of Ceremonies manning a baritone microphone, warming up the crowd. Arranged innermost on all four sides of the cube were the bed-ridden, machines purring contentedly. Next came the wheel chairs. Behind them came the rest of us, standing in loose circles listening to the MC’s banter while the room filled. Looking around, it seemed all the vendors were in attendance also. I wondered who was minding the store. This, it seemed, was an auspicious event. Fifteen months in the making and a marvel of modern technology, we were promised the experience of a lifetime, the next best thing to seeing the real Elvis.
Show time. The lights cut out completely, throwing us into black velvet darkness. Music played and the announcer outdid himself for manly booming tones: “LADIES AND GENTLEMEN! Please direct your attention to the center of the room. You will see a sight never before seen by any man, woman or child. You will see with your own eyes ELVIS and hear him SING for you! And you will SEE HIM SWEAT!”
Colored lights and smoke suddenly bathe the cube and “Hound Dog ” blares out of the PA system. The curtain remains motionless amid the light show. Song over. Right into “Don’t be Cruel” while the smoke and light show resumes. Song over. Silence and complete darkness, interrupted only by the soft purring of the life-support machines. After 10 or 15 seconds of this, the light show resumes and the music begins again. “Return to Sender” this time. In the corner of your eye you see technicians flitting about in the dark whispering urgently to one another. I’m thinking “Wizard of Oz” at this point, half expecting a stern announcement from a glowing face in the center of the cube not to pay any attention to the pathetic little man in the control booth.
“Return to Sender” ended just in time to let the whole room hear one of the technicians say in a loud stage whisper: “The mannequin is not sweating!” Before disgruntled mumbling from the audience got a chance to get up any steam, the MC deftly assured the crowd during the intro to “Suspicious Minds” that, indeed ladies and gentlemen, that the King would surely sweat for them tonight. The problem was being handled. That song ended to the muted purring again and it was a full minute in the pitch dark before anyone had the wit to crank up the music and light show again. “Burnin’ Love”, always a crowd-pleaser, did the trick, as did “Love Me Tender.” Still no sweating Elvis. After “Love Me Tender,” the silence was broken by people in the front row sobbing and soon many people were sobbing, the stricken and able-bodied alike.
“In the pitch dark in a hotel ballroom with Miss Dru and sobbing people waiting for the unveiling of a sweating Elvis Presley mannequin is where I am,” I had to remind myself.
The wailing and gnashing of teeth was getting out of hand when the announcer suddenly boomed out: “Ladies and Gentlemen! Ladies and Gentlemen! It pleases me to announce at this time that THE MANNEQUIN IS SWEATING! THE MANNEQUIN IS SWEATING! ELVIS IS SWEATING! ELVIS IS SWEATING!” (The repetition presumably adding to the drama.) At that the curtain was whisked by unseen apparatus into the ceiling in the blink of an eye, revealing a huge glass cube containing a life-sized wax statue of Elvis in his peacock-suited prime, striking a dramatic singing pose.
The statue spun so all could view the phenomenon. He didn’t appear to be sweating, but halfway through “Jailhouse Rock” the intrepid MC directed our attention to the King’s forehead, and sure enough, it was melting, I mean sweating. Either way, the wax thing was a huge hit and afterwards the wailing reached crescendo heights, drowning out music and baritone announcer alike, only this time they were tears of joy. Later, in the harsh glare of the chandeliers, no one tried to hide the fact that they had been weeping. This was a piece of Elvis they shared, their grief and unconditional love as real as that for a brother, a lover, a son. He never was a father figure to anyone but his daughter, it seems.
I felt as if a religious miracle took place around me and I missed it. Even Miss Dru was misty-eyed. I was too stunned to speak, and we filed out to the soft sounds of the machines and the ecstatic groans of one bed-ridden young woman clinging to a photo of Elvis in her palsied, deformed fist. This young adult who had obviously had a lifetime of grievous torment was at that moment excited and alive and weeping with joy. She’d had herself one whale of a good time. I wondered how many days she’d ever felt like that.
Outside dozens of ambulances and other special vehicles waited to take these special people home, whatever place that could possibly be.
For once the crowd had left the building before Elvis. Miss Dru and I, normally a chatty pair, said very little on the subway ride home, each preoccupied with private thoughts. We stopped in for drinks at a saloon near home and played Elvis songs on the jukebox until closing time, then walked home swaying arm-in-arm while singing “Blue Suede Shoes.” The King is dead. Long live The King.
Copyright 2007 R.R. Crespo