In Las Vegas, Elvis is everywhere (again), from Cirque du Soleil's new production to wedding chapels and the can't-miss Big Elvis show.
"Elvis is the heart of this city," the show's Col. Tom Parker character (and narrator) said in an emotional, sermonic tone. "Las Vegas is and always will be the home of the king of entertainment."
You couldn't believe much of what the real Col. Parker said, but after a three-day tour of all-things-Elvis in Vegas I was willing to buy those closing lines of Cirque du Soleil's newest mega-production. Never mind that Memphis is the home of Elvis Presley, and Graceland tops the Cirque empire in terms of spectacles.
Still, the garish yet surprisingly heartfelt and rocking "Viva Elvis" show underlined the many traits Vegas shares with Elvis' latter years: The all-American quest for a second act, the bloated excess, the gaudy jumpsuits and the Parker-infused idea that money is the real king, especially over art.
These similarities are as evident now as they've ever been in Las Vegas, where the aforementioned excess has led to some of the highest unemployment and foreclosure rates among U.S. cities.
During my trip in January, several giant construction projects were visibly stalled near the Strip and downtown. One of my cabdrivers -- who convincingly claimed she moved to Vegas to get a master's degree in psychology -- told us the slump is starting to take a psychological toll on citizens.
Sounds like a job for the King.
Elvis first came to Vegas hot off the rebound of his "'68 Comeback Special," when Vegas itself needed a comeback. The heyday of Sinatra and the Rat Pack had long since passed. With the King's help, the International Hotel (now the Las Vegas Hilton) ushered in the era of mega-casinos, mega-stars and mega-contracts.
He's a gold mine
Four decades later, Elvis still seems to be the city's most valuable entertainer.
His bronze bust greets customers at both the Hilton and one of the poshest new hotels, the Aria (home to "Viva Elvis"). His microphone-clutching image is plastered across the side of the glass towers looming over the shimmery new City Center hotel/retail complex. His outfits and memorabilia outnumber every other dead rock star at the Hard Rock Hotel & Casino. His likeness remains the centerpiece of the town's best-known impersonator revue, the "Legends in Concert" show at Harrah's.
There's even an implausibly wonderful reminder of Elvis' greatness (and girth) in one of the Strip's mustiest old casinos, Bill's Gambling Hall.
"When Elvis would come and perform, the whole town would go from being dead to being alive and crazy in an instant," recounted Peter (Big Elvis) Vallee, who sings Presley's songs daily at Bill's.
Low on frills and production, Vallee's Big Elvis show is almost the antithesis to the Cirque du Soleil production, but it's still a feast for the eyes and ears. Vallee sits on a chair big enough to hold his sizable body at eye level with the dance floor, which itself sits just across the room from the tables and slots. What it lacks in glitz and glamour and glassware (my beer came in a plastic cup), the Big Elvis show makes up for in sincerity and rich musical charm.
A church-reared singer with a high-bellowing voice just like his idol, Vallee bases his repertoire -- hundreds of songs -- largely on Elvis' Vegas shows of the early '70s, which started out strong but got weaker as Elvis' health got worse. He remained a top draw till the end, though. Vallee's show proves he can still pack 'em in, too.
"I think he's bigger today than he's ever been," said Vallee. "I get people of all ages to the show, younger people who tell me how much their parents loved Elvis' music, and now they do, too. When they come to Las Vegas, it's like he's still here in a way."
Ties that bind
The marriage between the city and Elvis takes on a whole other level at Graceland Chapel.
"I promise to be your hunka burning love," Brian Gertsch said to his wife of 17 years, Shannon, as part of the renewal vows pushed on him from the altar by an Elvis impersonator.
"I will always love you tender. I will never return to sender."
Decked out in matching tuxedo and wedding-dress T-shirts, with their 14-year-old daughter, Mariah, for a witness, Brian and Shannon paid $100 to re-pledge their love at the Graceland Chapel. Brian sat on the idea since before they left for vacation from Spokane, Wash. "For some reason, when you think of getting married in Vegas, you think of Elvis," he said.
Elvis and Priscilla were married in 1967 at the Aladdin Hotel (where Planet Hollywood's casino is now), but legend has it that the singer actually stopped in at the chapel that would be renamed Graceland while scoping out wedding sites. Plenty of rock stars have tied the knot and/or renewed their vows there in front of an Elvis lookalike, including Jon Bon Jovi, Billy Ray Cyrus, Rob Zombie and Kiss' Ace Frehley.
The impersonator who officiated -- and then sang -- for the Gertsches' ceremony, Brendan Paul, can preach on the big money that Elvis still generates. He made enough of an income performing as the King at Harrah's and private events over 15 years to buy the Graceland Chapel in 2003. It's essentially his retirement plan now.
"I can't still be playing Elvis when I'm 65," Paul quipped, before explaining how serious the impersonator business can be. "It's cutthroat amongst the guys doing it, and the really hard-core fans will really grill you on everything that has to do with Elvis, to make sure you're not just in it for the money."
Paul said the only other star who rivals the King's dead-star-power in Las Vegas these days is the King of Pop. However, he said, "Michael Jackson's career just doesn't mean anything to Vegas. Not like Elvis."
In the "Legends" show at Harrah's, Elvis still headlines over MJ, and for good reason: The current Presley player, Matt Lewis, does a great job with it, while most of the other impersonators in the show are royal cheeseballs, especially the new Tim Magraw and Faith Hill stand-ins.
One thing that made Lewis' Elvis more endearing was the playfulness of it. After delivering the requisite "Thank you very much" following the opener "Heartbreak Hotel," he cracked, "Hey, someone had to say it."
In Cirque du Soleil's "Viva Elvis," nobody says the King's lines except the King himself. The show interlaces real audio and video clips of Presley alongside the live dancers, while a live band and a duo of female singers deliver tastefully updated versions of both obvious and lesser-known songs (some with Presley's original vocal tracks).
It's actually sort of refreshing there's not a fake Elvis in "Viva Elvis," and it's also very fitting. The production emulates his memory to the point of sacred adulation, as if he's as untouchable as the Holy Spirit or Obi-Wan Kenobi following his duel with Vader.
After the show, though, you leave the theater past the official "Viva Elvis" merchandise store -- which rivals a Gap in size and an American Girl Doll outlet in its volume of unnecessary accessories -- and you realize what's still holiest in this city.
Chris Riemenschneider • 612-673-4658