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3717 Elvis Presley Blvd.
Memphis, TN 38116
Only 10 minutes from downtown and 3 minutes from the Memphis Airport.
3600 Elvis Presley Blvd.
Memphis, TN 38116
Free walk-ups to the Meditation Garden are daily from 7:30 - 8:30 a.m.
Welcome to the official blog of Elvis Presley’s Graceland! You can take Elvis-inspired quizzes, get first-looks on events here at Graceland and how-to guides on everything you need to know about Elvis and his home. Like Elvis, we come with a little southern charm
Oh, the life of the ETA. They get to shroud themselves in the coolest of shimmering stage wear, bask in the warmth of adoring fans and take their Elvis appreciation to the stage.
These guys have it made. Am I right? Not so fast, Lucky Jackson. What we fans don’t see are the grueling hours of prep, the mounting pressure and the unrelenting frustrations that can knock the wind out of your morale.
So for Elvis Week 2014, I decided to pull back the ETA curtain at the biggest showdown of the year: the Ultimate Elvis Tribute Artist Contest. Yesterday I shadowed the semifinalists as they headed to their Super Bowl, or World Cup for those international guys.
It was time to walk a mile in their shoes. Today’s blog is entirely dedicated to that experience.
The day began at 8:00 a.m. as the 21 ETAs arrived at the stage door of the Orpheum Theatre for orientation. Some filed in donning casual duds such as jeans, button-downs and T-shirts. However, most of them came decked out in Lansky-worthy wear in the spirit of Elvis’s street clothes. Think bright, chromatic shirts with wide collars, snazzy blazers and slick slacks. Of course, a majority of the guys had their pompadours at full mast.
The first order of business was to get the lay of the land. It would be dark during the competition, so the performers were shown the entrances and exits. They were escorted on stage to get familiar with the layout, the location of the monitors and other logistics.
“It’s beautiful,” said Gino Monopoli as he looked out from the Orpheum’s stage. The ornate movie palace dates back to the late 1920s. The king was known to watch movies there, and got his hair cut at the barbershop next door.
“The acoustics are incredible,” the Canadian ETA explained. “And there’s something about old theaters and their history. It makes it special.”
The group left the stage and gathered in a backstage waiting area. Gaggles of Elvi congregated around tables talking shop from hair tips to stage wear.
When a specific performer’s name was called, he’d be whisked back for a quick conference with the show’s producer and band leaders. Song selection, arrangement, microphone style and other details were put on the table.
In the meantime, the other ETAs continued hanging out, periodically erupting in pockets of laughter.
“Everyone’s playing friendly on the surface,” said Monopoli, who’s participated in the Ultimate before, “but your bitter enemy might be sitting right next to you. We’re all going after that number one spot.”
According to first-time Ultimate participant Frank Werth of Hays, Kansas, he had yet to feel any air of fierce competition. His struggles tend to come from the inside.
“It feels good knowing that you’re at this level,” Werth said, “but at the same I’m still trying to adjust to all of the emotions I’ve got going on. …I haven’t felt any [competition] yet. And I really thought I was going to. The guys who’ve been here in the past give you a lot of advice. I just try and tell myself to relax, because it’ll really bite me if I don’t.”
Brazilian competitor Edson Galhardi, another Ultimate ETA newbie, sat there soaking up the suggestions from fellow performers. The trick is he had to do so through an interpreter. Galhardi can’t speak English.
“It’s a little bit intimidating,” Galhardi said through his interpreter. “It would be better if I could speak English, but the Elvis language is universal. We can communicate with the music and talk to the heart.”
While the hearts of some of the ETAs may had been pounding in anticipation, things lightened when the group was herded off to the new Hard Rock Cafe on Beale Street for a meet-and-greet with fans.
As the troupe of vocalists entered a crosswalk on Beale, it looked like an all-Elvis version of the cover of “Abbey Road.” Some passersby even leaned out of their vehicles to snap pictures.
When the ETAs arrived, they began fueling up on appetizers. A guitar case doubled as a serving bowl for tortilla chips, and the guys were soon devouring fruit, chicken fingers and more.
Hungry for something else entirely, the fans were already lined up around the block, many wearing buttons and T-shirts proclaiming their favorites.
“The meet-and-greet is a nice way to see the guys in a more relaxed setting, to get to know them, and to give them a good luck wish,” said fan Christina Holgate of Calgary, Alberta, Canada.
If you ask David Allen, a Dallas, Texas-based ETA, fans are the lifeblood of this business.
“Fans are number one for me,” Allen explained, “because I’m a fan. I have a great fan base, and it makes the world go round. Without them there wouldn’t have been an Elvis Presley. And guys like me wouldn’t have a career like this. Having the opportunity to bring joy to people is incredible.”
Once the doors were opened, the fans came pouring in. The meet-and-greet was officially off and running as ETAs posed for pictures, rekindled old acquaintances and chatted it up with fans. Others, including myself, were lured by fried peanut butter and banana sandwiches sprinkled with powdered sugar.
Although longtime ETA Ted Torres enjoys mingling with fans, he approached the meet-and-greet with caution.
“You definitely have to watch out for your voice,” he said. “Talking over loud music can really effect you before you go on stage.”
And in a few short hours, those voices would be put to the ultimate test, pun intended.
Upstairs at the Orpheum, a string of dressing rooms branched off a long hallway. The sound of whirring hair dryers and garbled conversation flowed out and into the hall. Less than an hour before showtime, this year’s Ultimate Elvis Tribute Artist Contest performers were in the midst of preparation.
Galhardi, blanketed in a dragon jumpsuit, paced about the dressing room, lyric sheet in hand. Practicing his song, he stumbled over the word “says” and continued working it out with his Brazilian tongue.
Other performers carefully applied eyeliner, and primped their hair or wig, whatever the case. A line of jumpsuits, Lansky Bros. jackets and other various costuming hung from racks, and sequins twinkled under flourescent lights.
Werth, still in his everyday wear, had yet to put on his stage gear. Crossing his legs, he looked across the room at a fellow competitor who was combing out a wig.
“Man, that looks tough,” he said. “But I have to color my hair every three weeks or so. And maintaining the sideburns and eyebrows is a weekly thing.”
The conversation quickly turned to music, and Werth said he was happy with the song selection. Each ETA submitted a list of songs they’d like to sing in competition. In an effort to stay away from duplicates, the band and producers culled together the list, and the performers were assigned their two songs for the semifinals.
As showtime inched closer, the anticipation slowly climbed. “If you think I’m nervous,” said German ETA Oliver Steinhoff with a smile, “You’re right.”
Approximately five minutes before the show’s start, the staff alerted ETA David Lee, who quickly ambled his way down the stairs and through the backstage door. While host Joey Sulipeck geared up the crowd, Lee waited in the wings, practicing windmills and hip shakes in the darkness. With a roar of audience approval, Lee glided across the stage as the Change of Habit Band hit the opening chords of “Promised Land.”
The ETAs took turns delivering one song after another at a steady pace. Then came intermission, and they did it all over again. Among the performances, Cliff Wright dipped into the 1950s with “Love Me”; Travis Powell served up the crescendo of “You’ve Lost That Lovin’ Feelin’”; and Eli Williams channeled the Vegas-era Elvis with “Patch It Up.” Galhardi presented his songs strongly, that Brazilian accent completely undetected.
After the better part of three hours, the quartet of judges passed down the verdict, and the whirlwind day came to a close. Only ten performers were left standing at the end of the night. For the others, the dream of walking away with the Ultimate crown quickly evaporated. Although outwardly masked, the disappointment backstage was palpable.
The chosen few, however, step into the spotlight Friday night, the culmination of countless hours of dedication and determination.
“It’s amazing,” said finalist Ben Thompson. “You start the day off and it just doesn’t seem like it’s happening. And then you’re at the theatre, you’re in your suit ready to go out, and that’s when it hits you like a ton of bricks. …Luckily the judges thought I did a good job, and I’m really grateful for that.”
The Final Round of the Ultimate Elvis Tribute Artist Contest takes place Aug. 14 at The Orpheum Theatre. Tickets for this event are available through Ticketmaster.com, by calling Ticketmaster at 800-745-3000, at any Ticketmaster outlet or at the Orpheum box office.
Elvis Week Video Host Memphis Jones also had a chance to hang out with this year's semifinalists and put them to the Elvis test in today's recap. See below or check out more photos, videos and blogs by visiting ElvisWeek.com.
IN THIS SECTION