"Our motto is `Don't Be Cruel,' and the other one is `Let's have a party,' " says Carole J. Carroll, the perky event coordinator for this evening's annual "Night of 100 Elvises" celebration at Baltimore's Lithuanian Hall. "So you could say it's `Let's have a party, but don't be cruel.' "
The point of tonight's Elvis tribute, other than raising money for Johns Hopkins Children's Hospital, is unconditional acceptance of what Elvis scholars now refer to as "the charisma package" of the King: the pageantry, the excess, the food, the icon, the man, the music, the babes, the boy, the hips, the jumpsuit, the hunka, the thank yew, the life, the legend, the death and this beguiling transfiguration that now seems part religion, part reverie and part ridiculousness without the R-I-D-I-C-U-L-O - Usness!
Modern Presley Pedagogy begins with Party and ends with Usness!
The attire is, Carole J. Carroll says, "holiday casual," anything from a leisure suit to a bikini. Tolerance is key at "Night of 100 Elvises."
From 6 p.m. until the wee hours, hundreds of beautiful and not-so-beautiful people paying up to $55 apiece will embrace the fullness of the Taboo Man in his not entirely embraceable memory. For seven hours, they will pack three floors of the Hollins Street hall that a reviewer from a previous year described as "like a Knights of Columbus lodge" to bow before a four-foot ice sculpture of the King, ogle buxom showgirls, take a limo ride, meet a score of Elvis impersonators and dance to more than 30 mostly rockabilly, power pop bands doing continuous 8-minute shows of Elvis songs. They will eat his favorite foods - grilled peanut-butter and banana sandwiches, green beans and mashed potatoes, pizza and hot dogs - and "P-p-p-party! Gnnh!"
Dare you remark, "This is kitsch." Carole J. Carroll will stop you dead.
"We don't use that word," she says, after an icy pause. "We don't use that word because I think that implies a sly sense of humor when you use that word.
"One of the things we have said from the beginning is anything that outright makes fun of Elvis is inappropriate. Anything else, including irony, is OK, and you can go right up to the door of that, but then you've got to stop. We focus on the happy times. We do nothing that would be mean-spirited."
Event's widespread appeal
The event originated in 1994 during a stretch when "event coordinators" around town had done a series of tribute-theme fund-raisers. There had been a Bob Dylan Tribute, Rolling Stones and Beatles tributes. Elvis came up because he had left a large volume of work. The Elvis repertoire had particular appeal because the King made his own music, but he also left a legacy of mixed work in pop ("Bridge Over Troubled Water"), blues ("CC Ryder") and country ("Your Cheating Heart"), so the "event coordinators" could easily find bands for the show.
The name "Night of 100 Elvises" spontaneously combusted in the excitement of preparation, when the event committee decided to pack the room with Elvis tribute artists and Carole J. Carroll crowed, "It could be the night of 100 Elvises!"
Well, everyone said, that is just perfect.
After the first event, though, no one wanted to do it again, Carole J. Carroll recalls.
"But I did."
Now, after six years, the event has become perhaps the most notorious Baltimore party in the world. Spinoffs have occurred in Washington and Chicago, and Carole J. Carroll gets e-mail from Elvis fans around the globe.
"There's a guy in Nairobi we talk to and a guy in Maui and a guy in Iceland - the Icelandic Elvis - who I'm hearing from. He sent us a picture of himself on the edge of a glacier."
This year, a film team from a Ukrainian TV show called "Melorama" will attend, if the crew can get visas.
One year, a reporter from the Washington Post wrote an unkind story focusing on the tawdry aspects. He said he couldn't find a single "authentic" Elvis moment all night, and the headline read "They Parodied All Night."
But he missed the point, according to Tucker Fulwiler, 39-year-old president of Blue Moon True Believers EPFC, a Baltimore Elvis fan club.
"He had a filter blocking out some of what is going on there," Fulwiler says. "True believers have gone beyond the kitsch-and-mock barrier, so you can look back on that and you're beyond that stage, and you recognize that part is not an uncritical worship of the guy, but you're beyond irony.
"It's not some tongue-in-cheek thing, or people who enjoy him as a singer thing or people who think he's still alive when, no, he's not. ... It's a very affirming celebration of all of it, not just his life or any detail. It's not something that's beyond words, but it's something that no longer needs words."
That might sound like a lot of greasy gumbo, but it's not really.