I’m Not The King…I’m Just A Singer

3 Oct

There’s no real way to say this without sounding like a complete douche nugget, but…when you’ve worked on Broadway as long as I have, “celebrity” really loses its allure and mystery. Broadway is a very small community and you often find yourself working with, around and for some pretty famous people. Yes, I have only worked on Broadway as a merchandiser (and we are the bottom of the totem pole as far as most people are concerned), but I have worked on over 50 shows on Broadway alone, not counting off-Broadway, national tours and my years working at the Metropolitan Opera. One of the first things my boss told me when I was hired was, “We’re here to do our jobs, not to bother the actors or the patrons – no matter who they are.” And I’ve had interactions with some pretty famous people (hold on tight, I’m about to drop a lot of names here): Hillary Clinton, Ricky Martin, Kathleen Turner, Billy Joe Armstrong, Tyne Daly, Heidi Klum, Ben Stiller, Catherine Zeta-Jones, James Earl Jones, Luciano Pavarotti, Ted Brokaw, Audra McDonald, Mario Lopez, James Franco, Nicole Kidman, Tom Cruise, Katie Holmes…blah blah blah. It’s hard to imagine that I could possibly be nonplussed by these people now, but I am. In New York, you get used to seeing Sarah Jessica Parker walking through Shubert Alley or standing in line at Starbucks with Kevin Spacey and you don’t freak out over them. They’re just people like you and me.

This is not to say that there aren’t still folks out there that would make even me starstruck. Barbra Streisand, Beyoncé and Julie Andrews are the first three that come to mind. I don’t know how I would react if I got to meet any of them. Especially Barbra. And part of me hopes I never do meet them. Julie Andrews came to see a show that I was working in New York a few weeks ago and I was stuck working the booth in the basement, so I never even got to see her. I would like to think that I’d have maintained my sense of professionalism, but…she’s Mary Poppins and Maria von Trapp. I very well might have turned into a blubbering mess. But the fact is, they’re still human beings. They’re people who are fallible and vulnerable and tangible. They are still alive and for that I am very, very grateful. I fulfilled a lifelong dream of seeing Barbra Streisand in concert last year – twice! – and I am certain that it will stand out as a highlight of my life even when I’m old and gray.

One celebrity that I will never get to meet, and one who seems to be so unfathomable to me, is Elvis Presley. He died only a few months after I was born, so I wasn’t around to experience him at the height of his glory. Or, more accurately, the many heights of his 20-year career.

While we were in Memphis last week, several of us paid homage to the King by visiting Graceland, his mansion located on Elvis Presley Boulevard. Of our group, I think I was the oldest and probably the only true Elvis fan of the bunch. I’d been to Graceland before – twice, actually – but this trip was somehow different. I think because I was finally old enough to really appreciate the man’s accomplishments. My previous trips were more for the camp value – the tackiness of the Jungle Room and the jumpsuits – but this time I went with a sense of reverence, awe and respect.

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Elvis Presley’s Graceland in Memphis, TN

Graceland itself is much smaller than people expect it to be. It even looked smaller than I remembered when we drove up to it. Walking in the front door and looking into the living room and music room, most people started commenting about the dated decor. The plush white carpeting and the 15-foot white sofa with blue velvet curtains and the stained glass windows separating the living area from the music room. It wasn’t included in the audio tour, but I remembered from the first time I’d been that Elvis’ body had been laid in state in that music room before his burial.  That also reminded me that he had died just above our heads on the second floor. The house was no longer tacky and laughable – it was somebody’s house. A family had lived here, played here, laughed, cried and died here. But there was no mention of his wake in the music room. The stairs leading up to the second floor have been closed to the public since Elvis’ death out of respect for him and his family, which also adds to the myth and the mystery surrounding him. Graceland is no tourist attraction – it is a shrine.

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The living room and music room at Elvis Presley’s Graceland in Memphis, TN

Walking through the rest of the house, pausing to look at the awful (but original!) carpeting in the kitchen, the bizarre mirrored stairwell leading to the over-the-top blue and gold TV room with a giant lightning bolt painted on the wall, I stopped marveling at the early-70’s decor itself, but I started focusing on the amount of decor. Every last inch of the house is decorated – painted, carpeted, or, in the case of the billiards room, covered in pleated fabric. It became fairly clear that Elvis was making up for the things that he and his family didn’t have when he was growing up. That was also apparent when walking through the Elvis Presley Automobile Museum across the street. But somehow it didn’t come off as pretentious – it just felt like he wanted to provide his family with nice things because he was finally able to.

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The Trophy Building hallway at Elvis Presley’s Graceland in Memphis, TN

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Left: Elvis wearing the black leather suit during the ’68 Comeback Special.
Right: The suit on display in the Trophy Building at Elvis Presley’s Graceland in Memphis, TN

Next to the house is what’s now called the Trophy Building, and it may house the most awe-inspiring/intimidating hallway I’ve ever walked through. On both sides of the 80-foot hallway are Elvis’ gold, platinum and diamond albums (diamond indicates sales of 10 million copies or more!) and his three Grammy Awards, which incidentally were all won for gospel albums. It’s outrageous to think that one human being accomplished so much as a musician in 20 short years. It quite literally took my breath away and brought tears to my eyes. Turning the corner from the trophy hallway into the museum-like trophy building, you’re overwhelmed by another facet of Elvis’ success: the movie and TV memorabilia room. In this room are costume pieces and posters from Elvis’ movies as well as costumes worn in his concerts, including the famous black leather suit he wore in his incredible ’68 Comeback Special. In terms of sex appeal, no one can touch Elvis in that black suit. This was the King at his absolute peak physically, vocally and financially. On the walls of this room are also humanitarian awards given to Elvis for his charitable contributions and old checks that Elvis had written to dozens of charities around Memphis, including the Boys and Girls’ Club of Memphis and the Memphis Jewish Community Center. There’s also a plaque in honor of Elvis’ 1961 Hawaii concert that raised $64,000 to help build the USS Arizona Memorial at Pearl Harbor. This was a good man who gave back to his community, his friends and his family. People are quick to write him off as the overweight man in a too-tight jumpsuit and mutton chops, but he was the real deal: a celebrity – quite possibly the biggest celebrity ever – who remembered where he came from. How anyone could walk out of that trophy room without feeling humbled is beyond me.

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The trophy room in the racquetball court at Elvis Presley’s Graceland in Memphis, TN

But it didn’t end there. From the Trophy Building you are guided to the racquetball court, whose walls are covered from floor to ceiling with more awards – gold and platinum albums from Elvis’ international and posthumous sales as well as a selection of some of his famous jumpsuit costumes. While you’re completely gobsmacked by the sheer number of awards on the walls, you’re listening to Elvis singing what has been called his most emotional and personally connected song, “If I Can Dream,” and “An American Trilogy.” “So hush little baby, don’t you cry/You know your daddy’s bound to die/But all my trials, Lord, soon be over.” It’s nearly impossible to not be moved. I couldn’t help thinking about his daughter, Lisa Marie, and what it must be even now to hear those lyrics sung by her daddy. And as we moved outside to the meditation garden and the Presley’s graves, I was overcome with a sense of sadness and gratitude and awe. There I was, standing at the grave of one of the greatest artists of all time – a man whose work I so admire and grew up on – missing someone I never even knew.

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Elvis Presley’s grave at Graceland in Memphis, TN

Elvis Presley still doesn’t seem real to me. It’s impossible for me to imagine what it must have been like to be him – to walk a mile in his blue suede shoes. His was the ultimate American dream come true – to come from nothing and become a legend. I often wonder if these huge superstars ever regret their stardom. Do they ever wish they could just hop in the car and run to Target and not be noticed? I remember a night when Britney Spears came to see Shrek The Musical on Broadway. She was in town doing her Circus tour at Madison Square Garden and had the night off, so she brought her two kids to see the show and it became a zoo. Paparazzi knocking people down trying to get photos of her and her boys, people screaming her name and scaring the children. She had to be walked into the theatre after the lights had gone down and had to leave before the end of the first act to make sure she got to use the restroom before anyone noticed her. Unfortunately, two young girls walked into the bathroom as she was walking out and started screaming, which started a domino effect and ultimately she and her entourage had to leave before the show ended. And all she wanted to do was take her kids to see a show. I can’t imagine what that life must be like or what kinds of sacrifices have to be made to maintain it or what kind of toll it must take on someone’s life.

I recently heard a story about a man who approached Elvis and said, “Oh, I can’t believe I’m finally meeting the King!” Elvis replied, “I’m not the King. Jesus Christ is the King. I’m just a singer.” I don’t know if that story is true, but I sure hope it is.

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