by Gary Duehr
DUBUQUE, Iowa — The Casino Elvises set to kick off the parade at noon were pushed to the rear because a late-summer thunderstorm in Chicago had stranded the Australian team. In the 87-degree heat of the SuperSavers parking lot, the spangled floats hauled by tractors made way for the Marching Nine-Foot Elvises on stilts. Next up were the Novelty Elvises, including one posed squatting (apparently in flagrante) on a rolling toilet, convulsing intermittently as if in cardiac arrest; another led a tiger cub who dived through flaming hoops, a nod to Graceland’s Jungle Room; and an erstwhile husband-and- wife team slathered in pasty white face makeup, flanked by five American flags, as they recreated living statues of Elvis receiving an honorary Bureau of Narcotics badge—Wife/Nixon hunched over in a gray suit and Husband/Elvis decked out in purple velvet with a big WWE-like gold buckle and a Colt .45. When the parade paused, Wife/Nixon would flash a two-handed, two-fingered victory slash helicopter-farewell salute, and Husband/Elvis would swivel his hips and pretend to snort coke from the Colt’s barrel. The couple, Adele and Larry, prided themselves on not using prosthetics; the whole effect was achieved with tensed facial muscles and contorted limbs like Kabuki actors.
Though the King had never actually performed in Dubuque, the biennial Elvis Lives festival of tribute artists (the preferred term over impersonators) had become the epicenter for all things Elvis. White pop-up tents lined Main Street like a Civil War encampment, from which vendors offered—besides trinkets like Blue Suede keychains—bobbleheads for the dashboard, ELVIS SAVES license plates, esoteric finds such as healing crystals chipped from ponds near his birthplace in Tupelo, Mississippi, and three square inches of a sweat-stained bedsheet that came with an authentification certificate from the Peabody Hotel in Memphis, where Elvis, yawning behind aviator sunglasses, would wake to catch the 5 pm Duck March to the lobby fountain.
In the thick air, kids slumped on the curb to watch the Dubuque East High School Marching Band go by thumping out “Heartbreak Hotel,” trombones flashing in the sun. In a curly black wig, the mayor waved from a red 1956 Corvette Convertible. Chunky tourists in pink and yellow shorts could smell banana-and-peanut butter sandwiches on a food truck grill. A few had leis draped around their necks, clasping Mai Tais with toothpicked umbrellas in plastic cups, courtesy of the “Blue Hawaii” bar in the 18+ tent. A Goth teenaged boy threaded through the crowd on the sidewalk, passing out leaflets for the Elvis Midnight Seance.
In the Dubuque Convention Center, repurposed from a defunct VFW Hall, folding tables ringed the wooden dance floor. Behind each one sat a celebrity of sorts with a glancing Elvis connection, stack of 8x10s at the ready, $5 a pop, $15 for one that’s personally autographed, $25 for a selfie. Their degrees of separation from the King dictated the length of line and distance from the front door.
Near the back, half asleep, sat an aged stuntman from Creature from the Black Lagoon, Elvis’ favorite movie, the creature’s rubber mask bunched up in his hand. Nearby a Priscilla lookalike primped her beehive, and a guard from Jailhouse Rock, inexplicably wearing prison stripes and a silver sheriff’s star, sat straight-backed. Up front was where the real action was. Lines of fans curled up to Elvis’ second cousin, who grew up with him and had stories about hurling rocks at freight trains, and to the star attraction, David Keith, who played the title role in the 1988 film Heartbreak Hotel.
Rumors flew that an empty table had been set aside for Kurt Russel, who played Elvis in a 1979 TV movie, but so far he was a no-show, perhaps trapped in Chicago as well. In the middle of the hall sat an enormous, deformed turnip in a wheelbarrow, 85 or so pounds, which some believed bore an uncanny resemblance to late Elvis, its stem standing in for a microphone and the sunken top resembling a mouth pursed in song. A few old farmers stood guard, fanning themselves with straw hats and soaking up the a/c.
Afternoon events included a 4K King Race, where the runners wore sequined capes; a cornhole toss with oversized rhinestones; an Elvis Film Fest in the Church of Christ, which also hosted a panel on “Who Killed Elvis”; and an attempt to break the Guinness Book of Records for 147 Elvis impersonators singing “Love Me Tender.”
At the Main Stage on the 4H Fairground, tribute artists sweated in leisure suits and pompadours to compete for Best Bollywood and Best Mexican Elvises, Best Young Elvis (Junior Division, 5-12), and Best Burlesque Elvis (Women’s Division)—as well as Best Snarl and Best Sideburns. In the bleachers, the straggly crowd sat dazed in the sun, nursing their frozen Snickers and deflated cotton candy. Next up was Hurley’s Famous Pig Race, featuring pigs with miniature plastic guitars strapped to their backs. “Man, just look at all these fans from everywhere,” blared the emcee Ricky Lee Gill, an Elvis roadie in the ‘70s. He held out his mic to the front row, and a big woman in a mumu agreed. “It’s all about the joy. The whole world’s been through much, me and my girlfriends came here to forget.” Ricky Lee tossed silk scarves into the bleachers a la Vegas Elvis, reminding the kids to follow their dreams, just like the skinny kid from Tupelo.
He was about to crown the Ultimate Elvis Tribute Artist Champion when the storm front swept in with black clouds and sheets of rain. The PA squealed as the entertainers scrambled for cover and people dashed for their cars. On Main Street, the vendors snapped the tent flaps shut and fans ducked under awnings or held souvenir booklets over their heads. In desperation, organizers canceled the King Creole Hay Rack Ride, in which teens transformed the annual haunted attraction into a spooktacular of New Orleans ghosts and witch doctors that popped up with grinding buzzsaws, and they moved up the day’s major highlight, the Midnight Seance, to 5:30 p.m. in the Function Room of the Hampton Inn. The seance was led by Mistress Morianna, who runs a tarot and tattoo parlor in the strip mall outside town. At the appointed hour, a couple dozen attendees sat around a long, candle-lit banquet table, their palms flat on the plastic tablecloth. At the head, Mistress Morianna squatted with legs folded under her, a turquoise scarf wrapped around her flowing salt-and-pepper hair. She asked everyone to close their eyes and focus on their favorite version of the King: Army Elvis, Ed Sullivan Elvis or Lounge Elvis. As she pressed her lavender nails to her temple, wind and rain could be heard battering the roof. Outside, a siren started to blare. A few attendees half-stood, startled, but Mistress Morianna gripped the table and urged everyone to stay one with the spirit. There was a sharp sting of sulfur in the air. What everyone said later sounded like a freight train bore down on the hotel, and with a huge whoosh, a tornado blew the roof clean off. In the midst of shrieks and people diving under the table, a few swore they saw the face of Elvis in the turbulent swirl, its funnel shaking like a pair of hips; this Elvis was a scowling King full of wrath who had come down upon them to wreak vengeance. *
* This piece was originally published in Black Moon Magazine and has been reprinted here with their and the author’s permission.