Tributes, events fit for The King on 16th anniversary of his death

August 15, 1993|By Rafael Alvarez | Rafael Alvarez,Staff Writer

If Graceland is the holiest of sacred grounds for the Cult of Elvis, then Bonnie's Bar is Baltimore's First Church of Elvis.

The Eastside gin mill may not be the Memphis mansion where thousands of pilgrims from around the world are converging on the King's tomb for tomorrow's 16th anniversary of Presley's death. But it is a perfect place to do field work that argues for

the secular canonization of Elvis Presley.

Ask Gary Vikan, a Byzantine scholar, curator of medieval art at Walters Art Gallery, and the author of "Graceland as Locus Sanctus," an unpublished scholarly paper documenting parallels among the Elvis cult and early Christianity.

"Aug. 16 has become a sacred day in the calendar of this phenomenon, and Bonnie's is the local outlet for it. It's the place you go when you can't go to the real place," said Dr. Vikan, who has found The King to be too inane for mainstream academics and his research too arcane for most Elvis fans.

The tavern at Fleet and Port streets is a place where, if you are of a certain mind, time collapses and a mystical mingling of grief, relics, icons and the voice of The King of Rock and Roll transports believers back to Aug. 16, 1977.

It is the day a global wail sought the heavens.

The day that Elvis died.

And it seemingly cannot be overlooked, whether you care or not.

Lavonda "Bonnie" Hunt has never been to Graceland because she can't afford to be away from the tavern that is her livelihood. But with Dr. Vikan's most recent visit to the bar -- where he has taken anthropology students for a look at history in the making -- Miss Bonnie's Elvis Shrine moved a little closer to the empyrean.

In preparation for tomorrow's nationwide observance, in which Miss Bonnie will simply open her front door at noon and see who shows up, Dr. Vikan has made a loan of an iron pole that once kept half of the fabled Music Gates swinging in front of Graceland.

The pole failed to hold a few years ago when madman piano-rocker Jerry Lee Lewis inexplicably smashed his car into the gates.

On a recent visit to Memphis, Dr. Vikan met the welders who repaired the damage and they gave him the pole, which the scholar has verified as genuine through graffiti on it that says: "Hi Elvis. Hope to see you again in heaven."

The relic -- along with a recipe for "Uncle Vester Presley's Sunday Meatloaf," and hundreds of artifacts contributed by fans -- is now displayed at Bonnie's for anyone who cares to stand before it, particularly those attending tomorrow's annual "Salute to Elvis," a few blocks away in the Fells Point square.

Baltimore's Elvis salute, sponsored by the Adventures in Fun office in the city's Department of Recreation and Parks, began in 1977 and has taken place every year since.

"Some lady asked [former Baltimore] Mayor Schaefer to do something for Elvis back when [Elvis] died, the mayor turned it over to me, and it's been packed every year since," said Virginia S. Baker, who has been involved in playground fun and games in Baltimore for 53 years and has never seen anything like the public's affection for Elvis. "I wasn't a fan back then, but I am now. When I see how Elvis makes all the people happy, I'm happy, too."

'It gets bigger'

The noon event will feature a musical tribute to Elvis by Kevin Booth, a teddy bear contest, and tables of Elvis memorabilia and trinkets.

"It gets bigger and bigger," said Ann M. Meyers, president of the Elvis Fever Fan Club of Middle River, which helps Miss Baker put on the annual festival.

Where will it end?

The industry that markets Presley's image and memory is estimated to have reached sales of $100 million a year.

This year, the U.S. Postal Service relented under intense pressure from Elvis fans and honored Presley with a postage stamp. The post office printed 500 million Elvis stamps, twice the amount of other commemorative issues; as of this weekend, about 8 million remained.

This week's events in Memphis -- due to draw 10,000 to 12,000 fans for a candlelight vigil past Presley's grave that begins tonight -- includes a contest between 128 Elvis impersonators, many of whom have their own fan clubs.

pTC Baltimore television station WNUV ran a series of Elvis movies at the beginning of the month to avoid getting lost in the glut of Elvis celluloid that will circle the TV dial this week.

"You don't want to Elvis your audience out, like when you see too much of 'It's a Wonderful Life,' at Christmas," said Bruce Binenfeld, the station's program manager.

And in Fort Worth, Texas, a rock promoter named Bill Smith is suing the Presley estate, claiming that Graceland is costing him revenue by refusing to acknowledge that Elvis is still alive.

The suit seeks $50,000 in damages, alleging unfair trade practices and unfair competition.

Said Mr. Smith: "There's no bit of proof that Elvis is dead. I have to do what I can to get the truth out."

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