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The King is dead, long live the King: Elvis impersonators set record in Cherokee

art fr1Hundreds of Elvis Presley fans converged on Cherokee last weekend to pay homage to the King. They arrived from a five-state area for a tribute to beat all tributes.

The goal: to amass the most Elvis impersonators ever convened under one roof. If successful, the gathering at Harrah’s Cherokee Casino would go down in Guinness Book of World Record history.

For Mary McCall, it was a crowning moment in her lifelong adoration of Elvis. She’s seen hundreds of Elvis tribute artists, usually swooning and screaming at the edge of the stage and, on lucky nights, going home with a scarf lowered down to the ladies just like Elvis used to do.


“I know they are not really Elvis,” said McCall, 65, from Lake Toxaway. “But they are keeping his memory alive.”

And a good one can still make her heart throb much like the King himself once did. McCall can’t seem to get enough Elvis. The satellite radio in her car is permanently tuned to the Elvis station.

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“I just get in the car and be-bop down the road. And at home, I have Elvis on Dish network — so it’s all Elvis, all the time,” said McCall. “You should see the Elvis collection in my bedroom. My husband thinks I’m crazy.”

On July 12, McCall waited eagerly for Harrah’s to open the doors. A line stretched longer than a football field around the casino’s concourse, and even though a free Elvis get-up was guaranteed to the first 1,400 through the door, the towering pile of costumes behind the ticket window was shrinking rapidly by the minute.

art fr3A team of ushers slung the costume bags — complete with a white bellbottom jump suit, a black wig with built-in sideburns and silver sunglasses — madly over the counter as world-record hopefuls streamed by. 

With costumes in hand, the masses fanned out across the lobby, sidling up to an empty spot along the wall or simply plopping down in the floor to suit up.

The Elvis impersonators came in all shapes and sizes. The one-size-fits-all jumpsuits — equivalent to an extra large — puddled around the ankles of little old ladies and trailed on the floor behind those in walkers and wheelchairs.

For those of the XXL and XXXL persuasion, it took a little tugging but the surprisingly forgiving fabric had enough stretch in it to get the job done.

Soon, hundreds of decked out Elvises (Elvi?) were filing past a Guinness World Record officiator manning the door with a click-counter, a sobering reminder amid the fun and games that there was serious work to be done here tonight.

The standing record for Elvis impersonators was 645, pulled off at Aria Hotel in Las Vegas in 2010. For a while, the record attempt here in Cherokee seemed touch and go.

In the countdown to show time, Ernie “Big E.” Heffron, the emcee for the evening, took the mic and made a last ditch appeal to fill the concert hall.

The world-record attempt was the capstone of a three-day showcase of Elvis tribute artists. More than a dozen professional Elvis performers squared off for a shot at the gold: $7,500 and a slot in a national Elvis competition in Memphis. The top five finalists — following a vocals-only elimination round where performers sang for judges from behind a curtain — went head-to-head in a live audience competition Saturday night.

art fr4Some ticket-bearers waiting for the Elvis tribute contest to begin had remained in the lobby, bashfully clutching their free Elvis costume, unwilling to commit. Heffron told the audience already inside to pull out their phones and summon the rest of their party to the floor.

“If you have a friend in the lobby, call them and get them in here. Tell them to step up, put on a suit and get inside. We are going to do this thing. We are going to break it, but we need you!” Heffron said.

Meanwhile, Floyd Phillips was warming up in the aisles with some hip jerking and leg thrusting. He swore he hadn’t practiced at home in the mirror — at least not lately.

“I haven’t done those in years,” said Phillips, 51, adding “I’ve got more moves than a box of Exlax.”

To Phillips, a good Elvis tribute artist is about more than the vocals.

“He’s got to have some moves, too. That’s why Ed Sullivan would only show him from here up,” Phillips said, putting his hands around his waist. “It was more than they could handle.”

Nearby, Jeremy Tanner was in a quandary. He’d lost the friend he’d come with, and was now looking for her in a sea of Elvises.

“It’s hard to find her,” Tanner said, peering down one row after another. “It’s very hard to find her.”

art fr5Realizing the pitfalls of so many Elvis look-alikes in one room, Donald Clary, 68, had decked out his door-issued Elvis attire with his own flare: a black vest splattered with casino icons — decks of cards, poker chips, jackpot symbols and pots of gold.

“I’m wearing this so my wife doesn’t run off with another Elvis,” Clary said. Not accidentally, but “On purpose, and use that as an excuse.” 

Clary, a retired Army Colonel, was a testament to the broad appeal of Elvis, an attraction that cuts across class and gender. Elvis wasn’t just a heart-throb for teems of fainting women.

“He electrified audiences wherever he went. He was magnificent,” Clary said. “Elvis continues to live in all his fans.”

Some Elvis impersonators came in their own costumes, including John Pace of Hendersonville, who strutted around in a $2,000, custom-made Carolina Panthers Elvis suit.

He gets swamped by the ladies whenever he puts it on — when he wears it to Panthers’ games it takes him three hours to make his way from his car to the stadium gates — and Saturday night was no exception. Strangers draped their arms around his neck, planted kisses on his cheek and sometimes grabbed him places they shouldn’t.

art fr6But men stepped up to shake his hand, too.

“I just took a picture with a 22-year-old guy,” Pace said. “He wasn’t even alive when Elvis died. But he had an E.P. shirt on. You think about the reaching power of this man.”

And Pace understands why. He was 19 when he saw Elvis at the Asheville Civic Center in 1975 and still remembers the electricity and adrenaline that radiated from the stage.

Meanwhile, Carol Black was helping her elderly mother behind a walker get settled in to her seat. She and her twin sister organized a trip to Cherokee from Johnson City, Tenn., to celebrate the family’s lifelong love affair with the King.

“We grew up with Elvis in our house. I have every album, every movie, every record he made,” Black said.

But Black’s not your average fan, boasting a brush with the King that few in the house that night could rival.

“He held me as a baby,” Black said.

She and her twin were born in 1959 at 97th General Hospital in Frankfurt, Germany — the same hospital where Elvis was admitted for a tonsillectomy while serving overseas in the military. 

art fr2“He still had his blue hospital pajamas on,” recounted Black’s mom, Lise Painter, who invited Elvis to her room just a few hours after giving birth to her twins. 

When asked whether Elvis held them separately, or at the same time, Painter let a long-held family secret slip. Elvis only held one of them. 

“I thought he held us both, one in each arm,” Black said to her mother. Just then, her sister walked up and asked what was wrong.

“I just found out he held you but he didn’t hold me,” Black said in dismay. “I feel cheated.”

Black’s sister, Karen, was still all smiles though.

“Elvis represents spirit. He changed the world through dance and song. He changed music as we know it,” she said.

Elvis tribute shows are a way for fans to relive the excitement and passion that the real Elvis brought their generation so many decades ago.

“I cried when he died, I stayed up all night listening to his songs,” said Judy Vaughn, 65, who’d come up from Georgia.

It’s a good thing Elvis fans in the building were experts of his discology. Turns out, there was a catch to claiming the new world record for an Elvis gathering.

It wasn’t enough to merely dress up and be counted. The Elvis gathering had to belt out a song at least three minutes in duration.

art fr7When the time of reckoning arrived, a live band queued up the opening strains of “Can’t Help Falling in Love” and the audience sprung to their feet, belting out the lyrics that scrolled across two large video screens above the stage.

When the song closed, the Guinness World Record officiator took the stage to announce the final tally. First, the bad news. A few in the audience had their wigs come off during the song, and thus would be deducted from the head count.

But, the good news, the Harrah’s Cherokee audience pulled it off with a literally record-setting 895 Elvis impersonators.

After the show, Kent Brown, the producer of the Ultimate Elvis Tribute Contest out of Las Vegas, said he never doubted the die-hard fans would turn out to answer the calling.

“He is the full package,” Brown said. “He embodies charisma, talent, and generally a great heart, and that’s why the fans love him still to this day, so many years after his death.”

As for McCall? She went home with a grand prize of her own: another scarf snatched from the neck of an Elvis tribute artist to add to her collection.

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