Elvis Presley left the building more than thirty years ago, dying of heart problems linked to his massive intake of prescription medication, but The King remains a surprisingly enduring Las Vegas icon. His estate continues to earn millions every year, his home at Graceland in Memphis remains a top tourist attraction, and Las Vegas surely has not abandoned him. If local Elvis sightings are no longer commonplace—be it guys in Elvis-styled jumpsuits passing out unusual fliers on the Strip or merely playing video slots at a local convenience store—there remains a sizable cottage industry based around all things Elvis. And, of course, there are the dedicated impersonators.
"At its peak, I'm guessing there were maybe 20,000 to 30,000 Elvis impersonators working across the country, if you included the 'weekend warriors' too," said Pete "Big Elvis" Vallee during a break between his free lounge shows at the Barbary Coast Hotel-Casino. "Now it's probably down to just a couple of thousand."
Vallee has his own stable of fans, including several middle-aged men sporting Elvis trademark sideburns and slicked-back, if thinning, black hair. And while his heft prevents him from any hip-shaking, Vallee's mellow baritone vocals recall the real thing as he holds court while mostly staying seated in a thick wooden chair that functions as his impromptu throne. Vallee, 42, never saw Elvis perform live but has been paying tribute to the man for almost two decades. He wears a black jumpsuit that is more like a tent with gold trim and sports brown sunglasses and a gaudy black ring that would have made his idol proud.
"I think Elvis will always endure because of what he meant to so many people," said Vallee. "He remained a humble man with a great deal of faith in the Lord ... I think that's what people will always remember about him and why they will always love him."
Sonny King, who actually stood onstage as a personal bodyguard to protect Elvis during his heyday at the Las Vegas Hilton, recalled Elvis in similar fashion. "When we went out in public we were there as much to protect him from giving away his rings and things to people who approached him. He used to say he'd fire us if we didn't stop interrupting him," added King.
The real Elvis was considered a bust when he played to throngs of people at the Hotel Last Frontier in the 1950s. Las Vegas was unimpressed with rock 'n' roll, and entertainment bookers dashed the other way. Elvis did star in a string of mildly successful film musicals, including Viva Las Vegas with Ann-Margret, but fielded few hit records after becoming a teen scream in the early 1950s. A stint in the army and the British Invasion further cooled his appeal.
Soon after his death, Elvis impersonators surfaced and became dominant fixtures at resorts throughout Nevada. It was not the real thing, of course, but fans flocked to catch a flickering feel of one of Elvis' famed stage shows. Countless others simply grew sideburns and dressed like the famed sex symbol for simpler reasons.
But do not count out The King for good. Impressionists such as Vallee and Trent Carlini continue to find steady work for their takes on Elvis, and a simple Internet search ("Elvis, Las Vegas") will turn up everything from memorabilia to rare records, autographed postcards, and Elvis-style jumpsuits. Many are available at a hefty price, with even old show tickets fetching fifty bucks or more. And yes, you can still get married with an Elvis impersonator on hand (add $50 for a real minister) at www.elvischapel.com.
Plus, bigger entities believe there is still gold to be mined from the memory of a simple country boy who became one of the world's biggest stars. For instance, Cirque du Soleil has an Elvis-themed show, Viva Elvis, at the ARIA Hotel and Casino, part of the City Center complex, which was built by MGM Mirage. Also, FX Luxury Realty is reportedly acquiring the remaining fifty percent interest on eighteen acres of land currently occupied by the Harley-Davidson Cafe, a Travelodge, and other retail ventures near the MGM Grand. Apparently, the land could be converted to a mixed-use gaming project involving Presley's estate.
There is still some life left in Elvis after all. Or as one Hollywood wag allegedly and unkindly said after his untimely death: "Good career move."
None at this time.
None at this time.