Wednesday, August 20, 2014

The Elvis Biz

Last weekend, we observed the 37th anniversary of the death of Elvis Presley.

Well, I actually didn’t observe it.

Amazingly, I can go weeks, months, maybe even years, without thinking about The King.

And then I’ll have an oldies station on, and there I’ll be singing along to “Hound Dog,” “Return to Sender,” “I Can’t Help Falling in Love with You”, “In the Ghetto,” or “Teddy Bear.”

Or I’ll see that Jailhouse Rock is on, and tune in to see that incredibly wonderful scene where Vince/Elvis and his fellow jailbirds rock out to “Jailhouse Rock.”

In any case, while I was never a huge fan, there can be very few folks who came of age with their ears glued to a radio during the 1950’s, 1960’s, and 1970’s who don’t have an Elvis favorite or two.

That said, I don’t think I’d go very far out of my way to see an Elvis impersonator perform. (Not that I wouldn’t enjoy seeing a passel of them stroll by. Years ago, my husband and I were in a hotel somewhere that was hosting some sort of gathering of Cher impersonators, who were quite fun to observe. No Sonnys, that I recall.)

But Elvis impersonation, while it may not be a major industry, like energy or healthcare, is, in fact, a distinct and solid business.

At least three competitions will crown a champion tribute artist at this year’s Elvis Week, the annual remembrance of Presley’s death, which concludes this weekend in Memphis. That includes the Ultimate, which boasts a $20,000 top prize, and Images of the King, which features separate divisions—the Early Years, the ’70s, and a category for Elvis-impersonating youth. The Elvis Entertainers Network World Championship, a spinoff of [Elvis impersonator Ronny] Craig’s old event [King of the World], drew 35 performers and hundreds of paying guests to an airport hotel. (Source: Business Week.)

The “mini-industry” that is Elvis impersonation was started by Edward Franklin, who was the vet for Elvis and Priscilla’s animals. As the 10th anniversary of the King’s death neared, Franklin decided to capitalize on it. He set up a tribute contest, Images of Elvis, which he held at the nightclub he owned. (I guess old Doc Franklin was a different kind of animal when compared to the vets I’ve known.)

Pretty soon, multiple Elvis – or Elvii – shows were popping up around the country.

True Elvis believers scorned the impersonators – ain’t nothing like the real thing, baby – but then someone in Elvis-ville figured out there was some coin to be made:

Tribute artists weren’t fully sanctioned until 2007, when Elvis Presley Enterprises, the business arm of the musician’s estate, held its first Elvis Week contest, called the Ultimate.

All these years after Elvis’ death, Elvis Presley Enterprises generates quite a bit of income. In 2012, it’s licensing business brought in $32 million. (When someone, upon hearing of Elvis’ death, commented that it was a “smart career move,” they were on to something.)

Some of that licensing revenue came from impersonator contests, but Elvis Presley Enterprises apparently doesn’t go after unlicensed contests or individual impersonators.

Just how many impersonators are there?

Rick Marino is president of the Elvis Impersonators Association:

"In 1977, there were 28 Elvis impersonators, and I was one of them," Marino told the San Francisco Chronicle last year. "In 1992, there were 35,000. Do the arithmetic. That means by 2017, one out of every four people in America will be an Elvis impersonator." (Source: ABC News.)

Won’t that be something to look forward to! I’m all shook up at the very thought of it. Wonder who I know who’ll end up one of the Elvii?

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