When Presley died, Frank Wagner was born again as Frank El Elvis Lives ...in DUNDALK

September 07, 1994|By Kevin Cowherd | Kevin Cowherd,Sun Staff Writer

They say Saturday night in Highlandtown isn't what it used to be, but here at Teamsters Local 557 on Erdman Avenue, they're not exactly sitting in a semi-circle and saying the rosary, either.

Inside the cavernous union hall, ringed with American flags and solidarity slogans on the walls, some 500 people are picking crabs and drinking beer and dancing the Electric Slide. Obviously this party for Steelworkers at the Polyseal Corp. and ,, their families is off the beaten path of the Health Gestapo -- great clouds of cigarette smoke hang everywhere.

Suddenly, the DJ on stage, who calls himself the Wicked Pick, makes an announcement, which you can't really hear because an old guy with thinning, slicked-back hair is nudging you hard in the ribs and shouting over the music: "I was 20 years younger, ain't a broad in this place'd be safe."

Seconds later the lights dim, a thick cloud of smoke appears in the center of the stage and . . . good God Almighty, it's Elvis! Elvis in full '70s Vegas mode. Elvis when he hung out with Wayne Newton and spent his spare time speed-dialing every Kentucky Fried Chicken outlet within 50 miles of Graceland.

Actually, this Elvis doesn't have the gut, but he's got everything else: the dark shades, the lacquered hair and long sideburns, the blue jumpsuit with white trim and blue sequins, the thick blue belt, the white boots.

L "Ladies and gentlemen," intones the Wicked Pick, "Frank El!"

And right on cue, Frank El, aka Frank Wagner, 37, of Dundalk windmills one arm, gyrates his hips and launches into "The Wonder of You." Which is when it occurs to you that Frank El sounds more like The King than The King did.

You could say a hush falls over the crowd as Frank El performs, but if you said that, you'd be lying.

A folding chair crashes to the floor, then another and another. A roulette wheel clatters noisily somewhere in back. Then this one old girl (she's been hitting the Budweiser pretty good, you can tell) starts twirling alone in front of the stage.

Her friend, or maybe it's her daughter -- this is no time to rush up there with a pen and note pad and ask: "Say, is that your mom?" -- tries to guide her back to her seat.

But the old girl, she just pushes the other woman away and continues twirling lazily with this beatific, Stepford Wives smile on her face.

This is what Frank El has to work with. It's not exactly Carnegie Hall, is the point here.

But Frank El appears not to notice, moving briskly into "You Gave Me a Mountain" and "Burning Love." Pretty soon there are cries of "Do it, Elvis!" from the audience and people standing and holding up -- you talk about a Kodak Moment -- flaming Bic lighters.

By the time he takes the cordless mike and wanders into the crowd to sing "Wear My Ring Around Your Neck," there are 30 women encircling him, pawing at him, giggling, pleading for one of the dozen or so blue scarves that his light man, Sonny Mugrage, keeps handing him.

The scarf routine

Frank El and Sonny, they have this routine all worked out. To ratchet the intensity up a few notches, Sonny trails behind Frank El with an armful of scarves that have been sprayed with Elvis Cologne ("A fresh, contemporary, masculine blend of woods, herbs and amber!" according to the marketing literature.)

As he sings, Frank El takes a scarf from Sonny and wipes the perspiration from his face. Then he drapes the scarf lovingly around the neck of the nearest giggling woman, who lights up as if he just handed her the keys to a Ferrari.

Now who knows, maybe these women take these sweaty scarves home and end up using them to change the oil in their cars. But right now, it looks like the scarves are headed for a trophy case.

"God, you smell fantastic!" a woman says to Frank El.

"Please come home with me tonight, Elvis!" says another.

"You look at these women," Sonny says later, "they got tears running out of their eyes. It's unbelievable."

Yeah, that's a good word for it, unbelievable. The women move with him in a tight knot as Frank El riffs through a few more songs ("Return to Sender," "My Way," "Suspicious Minds" and an Elvis medley) and closes out the set with a sultry version of "Can't Help Falling In Love With You."

"You've been with The King!" the Wicked Pick shouts.

"Thank yew! Thank yew very much," says Frank El. And just like that, The King is gone.

Maybe he's even left the building.

And if you close your eyes and listen to the waves of applause and shouts of "Elvis! Elvis!" you can almost imagine it's a Vegas ballroom, circa 1977, with women in beehive hairdos and guys in lime-green leisure suits screaming for an encore.

Except then someone's leaning over you and dumping a tray of medium crabs on the table and a woman is saying: " 'Nother beer, hon?" and you remember it's Highlandtown.

Which, on this Saturday night, with The King working the room, is not a bad place to be.


Who knows how to explain America's enduring fascination with Elvis Aaron Presley?

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