MEMPHIS, Tenn. – Elvis Presley pretenders in bespangled jumpsuits and 1950s sportscoats gyrated across a Memphis stage Sunday for the opening round of the first "tribute-artist" contest with an official Graceland blessing.
"I just love watching these guys," said Debra Russell, of Elkhart, Ind. "This is a neat idea because it keeps Elvis' legend going on."
Finals for the contest sanctioned by Graceland's management company, Elvis Presley Enterprises Inc., are set for Friday as a weeklong remembrance of the 30th anniversary of Presley's death winds down.
The contest marks a big change for managers of Graceland, Presley's former Memphis residence and the center of a $40 million a year business in all things Elvis.
Since Presley's death on Aug. 16, 1977, Graceland managers have had little to do with the thousands of Elvis impersonators haunting the concert halls and barrooms of the world, regarding them at best as minor pests and at worst as downright embarrassments.
But with a new company, CKX Inc., controlling EPE and the Elvis world, that attitude has changed.
Two dozen "artists" — Graceland doesn't like "impersonator" — made it to Memphis by winning preliminary contests around the country and abroad.
Ten contestants from the qualifying round at the Cannon Center for the Performing Arts, a downtown concert hall, were to be picked for the finals and a shot at the title of official "Ultimate Elvis Tribute Artist."
Brandon Bennett, 24, stood out from the jump-suited contestants by performing "G.I. Blues" in an Army uniform.
Bennett, a veteran of impersonator contests, said the Graceland sanction made the show special.
"You've got judges who know what to look for," Bennett said. "They know what they're doing."
CKX, which also owns the "American Idol" TV show, bought the business arm of the Presley estate two years ago from Lisa Mare Presley, Elvis's daughter and sole heir.
Lisa Marie Presley still holds title to the famous white-columned house, but CKX controls it and the sprawling tourist complex that draws almost 600,000 visitors a year.