No one's lonesome tonight

Ordinary Joes become The King himself

December 08, 2003|By Sarah Schaffer | Sarah Schaffer,SUN STAFF

With its large, arched murals of Eastern European folk-life and faint odors of brat-and-kraut-style food, the dimly lit basement lounge of the Lithuanian Hall on Hollins Street, doesn't immediately suggest a place of transformative experience.

But Friday night, for the hundreds of faithful gathered at Baltimore's annual Night of 100 Elvises, it became just that, thanks to the sort of alchemy achieved by true Elvis believers like Sterling Riggs and Jeania Hyson.

In one of the hall's three performance areas, swirling specks of light from a disco ball picked up the tassels of his white jumpsuit as Riggs, as Elvis, sang a few gospel numbers and then bopped in place to Presley's 1957 hit, "Teddy Bear."

The understated performance seemed to suit the low-key atmosphere; each of his numbers was followed by a polite round of applause from the seated audience.

But then Riggs changed gears, belting out a smoky version of Elvis' late '60s hit "Suspicious Minds," and the audience came to life, cheering excitedly. In a moment, the tribute artist was transformed.

Clearly caught by the spirit of the king himself, Riggs began gyrating across the dance floor, interspersing quickly changing poses with low-down, kung fu-style moves. Neither his face nor frame really resembled The King, but that didn't matter. On this night, during that song, Sterling Riggs was Elvis, and Jeania Hyson wanted nothing more than to be next to him.

She left her seat and crept onto the floor, pouncing on the sweat-soaked Elvis wannabe. She grabbed him by the legs of his jumpsuit and kneeled at the surprised perfomer's feet. Riggs let out a brief, husky Elvis-esque chuckle, but kept on singing.

"I know they're impersonators," Hyson said a bit later, still regrouping from her show-stopping antic. "But the phenomenon is so incredible that I just have to get out there and touch them."

For Hyson, a self-proclaimed Elvis fan who was celebrating her 40th birthday, Friday's 10th annual Night of 100 Elvises event was a way to get her hands - literally - on a little bit of the Elvis magic.

But for others at the event, a two-night affair which typically features live performances, a little partying and a whole lot of Elvis look-alikes, the continuing charisma of The King more than 25 years after his death is not so simply grasped.

Many attending the yearly celebration of all things Elvis, begun as a charity event in 1994 by Craig Curley and Carole Carroll, said that the late entertainer has a mystical force, a power to unify people of diverse cultures and different generations. Others agreed that Presley is an inspiration who provides fodder for artists of all types. Some went so far as to say that he even heals the sick.

And for a few in the crowd in the hall's similarly decorated ballroom Friday night, the Mississippi boy-turned-international superstar was reaching out from beyond the grave to touch and heal their emotional wounds.

Not to say that there were visions or any other paranormal experiences at the Night of 100 Elvises. But in a real and simple way, the late singer's preternatural charisma and musical legacy was helping people like Rex Blagg through the tougher times in life.

"I had quadruple bypass surgery and I told the doctors, `Please let me come to the Elvis show,'" said Blagg, using a wheelchair for now, as he clutched a heart-shaped therapy pillow he'd been given during his hospital stay just two weeks before.

The show was an important motivator in the recovery process for the 70-year-old Blagg, who is also grieving the loss of his wife, said his niece, Karen Moore, who took him to the event.

"He had just lost his wife ... a year ago on that exact date. I thought, he'll be grieving, of course, but this might turn him around."

It appeared that it did.

"I'm havin' a ball!" said Blagg, who had parked himself just a few feet away from the hall's large ballroom stage.

Spectators weren't the only ones who were benefitting from the night's Elvic karma.

An Elvis impersonator who goes by the moniker Jerry G. said embracing The King has helped him to start a new chapter of his life.

After his wife of 42 years died, the Pikesville resident said, he was lost: "For five months, I stayed in the house." The long period of solitude was broken when a few friends dragged him out to a karaoke night.

That night, Jerry, an Elvis fan, sang "Love Me Tender," the only song he knew well enough to perform. The karaoke crowd's response, he said, was overwhelming, and lifted his spirits. He went out, bought his own karaoke machine, and began practicing.

"I started studying [Elvis'] voice, his mannerisms," he said. Now, he says, performances like his Lithuanian Hall set have become a hobby that's made him feel good again.

The Night of 100 Elvises has been making thousands feel good since the mid-1990s.

Each year, hundreds of fans descend upon Baltimore to witness the spectacular event, which always plays host to lots of performers and fans who sport rhinestones, black wigs and curled lips.

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