Elvis is his good luck charm

Richard Holmes' boyhood stories about The King can't be proved, but maybe that's not the point

Baltimore ... Or Less

January 09, 2000|By Gerard Shields | Gerard Shields,SUN STAFF

The residents at the Irving House group home in Catonsville don't much believe Richard Holmes.

But then, not everyone claims they got their first and only job from Elvis Presley.

That's Elvis, the recently crowned "Entertainer of the Century." The bigger-than-life singer/actor/legend who, it seems, more people have seen since his 1977 death than when he lived. The man who, had he survived his outsized appetite for life, would have been 65 yesterday.

Holmes doesn't have much to prove his story. There's no picture of them together. He had a get-well card Elvis once sent him in the hospital, but he lost it. But sit with him on his sister's porch down the street from Irving House, and he'll tell you of growing up with the man who would be The King.

Back in the late 1940s, they lived in the same Memphis, Tenn., public housing project, Lauderdale Homes. Elvis and a few of the other guys would gather in the center square, playing guitar and singing. Presley and Holmes weren't best friends, just acquaintances whose conversations always started with the same exchange.

"Hey, Richard."

"Hey, Elvis."

As a quiet youth with a Forrest Gump innocence, Holmes often got teased by the other kids. When the bullies picked on him, he said, Elvis was nearby.

"Leave him alone," Presley would say. "He's not bothering you."

So when the stress of finding a job in the working-class town began building, Presley approached Holmes.

"Find a job yet, Richard?"

"Not yet."

"Want one?"

"Aw, c'mon Elvis," Holmes said. "What's the joke?"

No joke, Presley said. He had been working at the Loews Theater downtown on South Main, rising to head usher. The theater operator was looking for new ushers, so he told Holmes he'd talk to the manager. Everything worked out, and Holmes got the job.

Years passed. Elvis left Loews to pursue his singing career. Holmes watched as his friend became an American legend, performing to screaming mobs of women, recording 38 Top 10 hits such as "Jailhouse Rock" and appearing in a string of big-screen movies that had him starring as everything from "Kid Galahad" to "Stay Away Joe."

When Elvis came back home, too popular to travel the Memphis streets without getting mobbed, Holmes would open the back door of the theater after hours to let his old friend and his growing entourage in for private screenings.

Holmes worked the theater for 11 years before he quit. He continued tracking Elvis on the news, though, and remembers with sadness the day he died in August 1977.

"It was those doctors," Holmes says, referring to the infamous prescription medicine liberally given to Presley. "They didn't have to give him all that junk."

Almost to the day, Holmes recalls the last time he saw Presley. He was walking toward South Main Street in Memphis in 1975 on his way downtown, he says. A white stretch limousine pulled up beside him, the tinted glass of the back window whirring down.

"Hey, Richard."

"Hey, Elvis."

"Want a ride?" Presley asked.

"Nah, that's OK, Elvis," Holmes replied. "I'll walk."

With so many outrageous stories of Elvis sightings since his death and no photographic proof of their acquaintance, it's understandable how the folks at Irving House could be skeptical. Details of Holmes' story, however, check out with the writings of Peter Guralnick, who has written a two-volume biography of Presley's life. In his 1998 work, "Last Train To Memphis," Guralnick notes that Presley worked at the Loews Theater as a teen and details his family's life at Lauderdale Homes.

Holmes is 70 now, and his friend has been gone more than 20 years. But as Holmes' sister, Betty Wilburn, notes, The King is still taking care of her brother.

Because Holmes worked those years in the movie theater, Wilburn said, he qualified for the Social Security benefits that today help pay for his care at Irving House.

As he ages, Holmes continues to enjoy sitting on the porch Sunday afternoons, no matter how chilly, remembering the kindness of The King. And he doesn't care who believes him. It matters to only two people.

Him and Elvis.

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