The keepers of Elvis' flame have decreed that this year's Elvisfest in Ypsilanti cannot use The Sequined One's name.
Elvis Presley Enterprises has crashed its mighty cash-stuffed fist upon the table, and now the Michigan Elvisfest has to either change its name or hold an Elvis festival without Elvises.
The third annual nonprofit Elvisfest drew more than 7,000 people to Frog Island Park in Ypsilanti last summer. The Depot Town Association charged $5 per ticket and rendered unto Elvis 10 percent of the net in exchange for the use of his name.
Next year's celebration of the dead singer is scheduled for July 11-12, and plans were proceeding nicely until director Tracy Briggs received a letter Thursday from one Iris Houston, a licensing account coordinator for Elvis Presley Enterprises.
EPE, based in Memphis, is entrusted with safeguarding Presley's image and squeezing as much money as possible from his memory. Apparently, it has decided that Elvis impersonators -- or tribute artists, as they prefer to be called -- sully the memory of the beloved drug-addled glutton who liked to fire pistols at his television and ultimately died on the toilet.
"We have decided to focus our efforts on the real performance material and the actual persona of Elvis Presley," the letter says. "... Hopefully, you can understand our decision to no longer license any festivals that include tribute shows or talent contests."
Actually, Briggs thinks it's short-sighted. "To me," she says, "when you go to an Elvis festival, the first thing you want to see is a sequined jumpsuit." And won't impressionable kids be more inclined to grow up and buy Elvis CDs if they're exposed to his music by impressionists?
Briggs, a stay-at-home mom from Ann Arbor, directs the Michigan (This Space Available) Fest as a volunteer. The rest of the staff makes the same $0 per year she does. "We can't attack Elvis Presley Enterprises with our legal team," she points out, "because we don't have one."
Besides, she probably wouldn't have a leg to shimmy on. So she's being careful to keep things as friendly as possible with EPE while she prepares to beg for an extension.
"We'd like to use the name for another year," she says, "but it doesn't look promising."
The 2002 festival featured a dozen or so performing Elvises and at least 80 more strolling the grounds. Other replica acts included the Blues Brothers, the Beatles, Roy Orbison and Ray Charles.
The show will go on in 2003, Briggs promises, even if it has to do without Elvis' name and likeness. The Elvisfest hasn't begun considering a new identity, but if the goal is a portly, deceased entertainer, there's always Burl Ives.
The protectors of all things Elvis declined to explain why they don't like tribute artists. "I'm not answering any questions right now," snapped Houston, the licensing agent. "You need to put all questions in writing."
The written questions weren't answered, either, but at least EPE was consistent. Briggs says that from what she's been told, the real Elvis always got a kick out of the fake ones. "He would take pictures with them. He'd ask for their autographs."
The impersonators did not charge him for the signatures.
If i've seemed unduly harsh toward the King, by the way, it's only out of irritation with the keepers of his flame. The truth is, I like Elvis. I know all the words to "Jailhouse Rock," and a key evening in the courtship of my eventual spouse involved me singing a karaoke rendition of "Teddy Bear." I would explain further, but she's spent nine years trying to wipe that picture from her mental Etch-a-Sketch.
Anyway, as penance for the weight jokes, I will go home tonight and listen to three of my favorite Elvis tunes, "Love Me Tenderloin," "His Latest Flambe" and "Return to Zehnder's."
By Neal Rubin.