At Elvis bar, whole lotta shakin' goin' on--but not much noise

ROGER SIMON

September 08, 1991|By ROGER SIMON

The question is: If Elvis were alive, would he be caught dead at Bonnie's Elvis shrine on Fleet Street?

Bonnie's, which is also a bar, features Elvis on white fur, Elvis on black satin, Elvis on cardboard and Elvis on canvas.

There are pictures of Elvis eating a hamburger, Elvis on horseback, and Elvis in the shower. There is young Elvis, old Elvis, skinny Elvis and fat Elvis.

My favorite piece of Elvis memorabilia, a bumper sticker, is missing, however: "Elvis Is Dead, But At Least He's Not Gaining Any More Weight."

"I do not know for sure if he is dead or alive," Bonnie, known more formally as Lavonda Hunt, says. "But if he is alive, I wish him the best of health."

There is no irony in her statement, no hint of a joke. And the obvious sincerity that underlies Bonnie's Elvis shrine is what saves it from being vulgar.

But this is not yet another profile of yet another neighborhood bar. This is a story of conflict and tension. It is a story of the indomitable triumph of the human spirit against all odds.

In other words, it is the the plot of every Elvis movie ever made.

Some media people hang out at Bonnie's (one suspects it is the 60-cent beer that appeals to them more that the Elvis photos) and one, who works for a radio station, called to tell me Bonnie was in trouble.

A few of Bonnie's neighbors have been complaining about the noise from her bar for about three years. "I put soundproofing on the walls, I keep my doors closed even though that means I can't get any breezes, and I paid a sound man $250 to keep the juke box at the level the liquor board wants," Bonnie says. "But the board made me turn off the TV in April and that's when my business fell off. I don't think I can make it. I have had a heart attack and two strokes."

Bonnie also has had six marriages, though they may be `f unrelated to the state of her health. She even married one man twice.

"That was husband No. 2," she says. "He just kept pestering me and pestering me and so I married him again and made him No. 3." She pauses and takes a sip of coffee. "Didn't last though."

Bonnie is an attractive, auburn-haired woman of 60, and later in the day when she turns to me and says, "You know, you look a little like Elvis," I can see why husband No. 2 kept pestering her.

Her liquor license, issued by the Board of Liquor License Commissioners of Baltimore City, which controls 1,650 bars, restaurants and package stores, says on it: "Juke volume not to be increased above 47 decibels."

The board also has ordered Bonnie to refrain from using all other sound equipment, which means no radio, tape system or TV. The lack of a TV is the problem.

"People want to come in here and watch the numbers," she says.

Numbers?

"Lottery numbers," she says. "People don't want to miss their numbers on TV."

"And the baseball games and the movies," says one of Bonnie's regulars from the end of the bar.

(Since it is only 1:30 in the afternoon and it is my belief that anyone who is a regular at a bar at 1:30 in the afternoon should seriously re-examine his life rather than be quoted in a newspaper, we will stick solely with Bonnie for the rest of the column.)

"Right," Bonnie says. "They want to see the movies."

I walk over to the juke and put a quarter in. A favorite? I ask Bonnie.

"Punch 100," she says.

After a brief pause, the King comes on singing "My Way."

"Now this is 47 decibels," Bonnie says, turning up a control behind the bar.

The noise becomes deafening, much too loud for the narrow confines of Bonnie's. "It is legal for me to play it this loud," Bonnie shouts over the music and then turns it down by about half, "but not to have a TV. Does that make sense?"

It does not. So I call Aaron Stansbury, the executive secretary of the liquor board, an entirely pleasant person, who, to his dismay, is very much familiar with Bonnie's case.

"It has become a feud between neighbors," he says. "It has become a cat-and-mouse game of complaints and counter-complaints."

He went through the whole case for me and when he was done I was not unsympathetic to the complainers. Even people who live in row houses like the ones on Fleet Street deserve a little peace and quiet.

But how about a compromise? I say. How about if Bonnie agrees to keep the TV sound level below 47 decibels, the same as the juke box? Wouldn't that be OK?

"The board probably could justify that," Stansbury says. "That could be done. I imagine the board would probably agree to that."

So the problem may be solved. Bonnie may get to turn her TV back on and her customers may come back and her Elvis shrine may be saved.

And some day, a tall dark stranger may enter the bar around dusk. He will not talk to anyone. He will just stand in the corner in his white silk jumpsuit, a white silk scarf tied loosely around his neck. And he will look at all the paintings and photos and he will utter the line that made "Jailhouse Rock" immortal: "Flippy. Real flippy."

Then he will smile that half-smile of his and leave as quietly as he came.

And that man will be Elvis Presley.

Or me.

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