In the middle of the room’s back wall is a stage. Veiled in sheer, glittery curtains it features a low, handrailed staircase front and center. There’s a commotion, something is afoot behind the drapes. The house lights go dim. Whoops and howls arise from the audience. Strauss’s “Also sprach Zarathustra” (aka the theme from 2001: A Space Odyssey) issues from the PA columns, flooding the room with its dramatic wall of massed brass and pounding kettledrums. Then, amid flashing strobe lights, the curtains part and the prerecorded music changes to a driving, drumroll-propelled “C.C. Rider.” Onto the bandless stage bounds a lone, gyrating figure, the sparkling of his jewel-encrusted, powder-blue jumpsuit and the sheen of his glossy black pompadour and sideburns glisten under the spotlight that follows his every hip-swiveling, karate-chopping move. Ladies and gentlemen, will you please welcome the one, the only…Elvis Presley!
Okay, not really. It’s been 31 years since Presley’s passing. But in the Catskills on a Saturday night it’s safe to say that this is about as close as one is likely to get to the man many still call Entertainer of the Century. This is Elvis impersonator Joseph John Eigo doing what he does best—playing the role he’s held for nearly as many years as Presley has been gone. During the performance, he eggs on a solo by an invisible Ronnie Tutt (Presley’s explosive Las Vegas drummer) and sings as he walks through the audience to shake the hands of the men, kiss the cheeks of the ladies, and drape scarves around the willing necks of both. As he belts out “Teddy Bear” from the stage he tosses, you guessed it, plush toy bears to the eager kids down front. But one thing Eigo never does, however, is lapse into the expected po-faced Elvis-speak between songs. Yes, he does do Presley’s music and even his moves, but, unlike other Elvis impersonators, he knows he’s not fooling anyone.
“What I do is pay tribute to Elvis; I’m not trying to be him,” Eigo maintains, somewhat emotionally. “My act is about celebrating his music and his talent, not the other parts of his life. I see other guys doing an Elvis show and they do the accent, the ‘Thangyaverahmush,’ all of that, try to act like him—even when they’re not on stage—which really bothers me. They’re making a joke out of it. The man was the greatest, and he deserves better than that.”
He certainly does. The irony-laced, tail-swallowing, perpetually churning kitsch mill of popular culture has shamefully recast Elvis Presley as a clownish caricature; his staggering talent as both a vocalist and a dramatic interpreter and distiller of musics ranging from gut-bucket rhythm and blues to rollicking bluegrass, jubilant gospel to honky-tonk country and even operatic arias has been all but eclipsed by his tabloid-ready personal life and sad demise. Additionally, he is often maligned for “ripping off black music” when nothing could be farther from the truth: Presley loved black music and wanted the whole world to hear it, and, largely thanks to him, much of it did—including the legions of young Britons who would become the Beatles, the Rolling Stones, the Who, and Led Zeppelin. And more subconsciously, deep beneath his larger-than-life abilities and influence, lie unspoken subtexts that further fuel the public’s undying fascination with the Presley myth. His messiah-like ascendence from abject Deep South poverty to worldwide adoration and his eventual fall via the self-inflicted crucifiction spurred on by his uncaring handlers is almost biblical in resonance. And this same life can be seen as a metaphor mirroring that of America itself: a rise from bootstrapping, renegade frontier beginnings to inspirational young democracy—followed by a slow descent to a deplorable state of bloated, decadent gluttony and tragically squandered innocence.