Graceland to Let Elvis Impersonators Keep Blue Suede Shoes

Elvis impersonators can relax: No one's coming after their bespangled jumpsuits.

At least not anytime soon.

"It's not even on the radar screen right now," said Robert F.X. Sillerman, the head of the entertainment company that owns the legal rights to Elvis Presley's name.

CKX Inc. took control of Elvis Presley Enterprises last year, and Sillerman wondered aloud in a recent interview with The New York Times if the company should do something about "unauthorized Elvis impersonators."

That shook up the pompadoured crowd of impersonators in Memphis, Las Vegas, London and elsewhere around the world, and since then Sillerman has backed off a bit.

"The only comment I have made about the future of Elvis impersonators was simply an answer to a reporter's hypothetical question," Sillerman said in a statement from his New York headquarters. "In truth, the issue is not something we at CKX are actively looking into."

Impersonators still worry about an uncertain future.

"Nobody seems to have any answers," said Ed "Doc" Franklin, founder of "Images of the King," one of the oldest and best-known Elvis impersonator contests.

Held in Memphis for five straight days on the anniversary of Presley's death at Graceland on Aug. 16, 1977, it attracts contestants of all ages, races, nationalities, even sex.

"It's such a worldwide thing, you can't just jump out there and say, `Hey, wait a minute. You can't do this anymore, boys.' It would be like a big revolt," said Franklin, a retired veterinarian who took care of Presley's horses and other pets.

Elvis Presley Enterprises, the former business arm of Presley's estate, has a long and successful history of shutting down interlopers trying to horn in on its business.

But most of those battles focused on trinket or souvenir hawkers, and the impersonators, who like to call themselves "tribute artists," were largely left alone.

The impersonators could be embarrassing at times, but Presley fans enjoyed having them around, and shutting them down for violating the estate's publicity rights would be tricky.

It's one thing to tell a souvenir maker to quit putting Elvis' face on coffee mugs, but it's something quite different to shut down a singer because he favors white jumpsuits, rhinestones and sideburns.

"It's entertainment, which has traditionally been accorded a wide scope of protection," said Roberta Kwall, a DePaul University law professor and specialist on publicity rights.

If an impersonator includes a bit of his own style in his act, it becomes an interpretation — or even a parody — rather than a mere copy of Presley's work.

"It's a bit of a moving target," Kwall said.

Matt Lewis, an impersonator who has toured the world and now performs 12 times a week at the Imperial Palace casino in Las Vegas, says CKX would be hurting itself if it went after Elvis acts.

"Elvis impersonators drive the popularity of Elvis," Lewis said.

"We get new fans all the time, which sells merchandise, sells CDs, which promotes Elvis' name. People don't go out and buy my T-shirt after the show — they get an Elvis T-shirt somewhere."

Lewis works for one of the few licensed Elvis acts around, the "Legends in Concert" show owned by Las Vegas-based Onstage Entertainment Inc.

Onstage CEO Tim Parrott said his company signed an agreement with the Elvis estate in 1995 authorizing the use of an impersonator. A crackdown on unlicensed Elvises could help the company, he said.

"If they start closing other people down, we'll be the survivor," he said.

Presley's daughter, Lisa Marie, and her Elvis Presley Enterprise sold the rights to her father's name to CKX last year along with Graceland's souvenir shops and museums for about $100 million in cash and stock.

She retained title to the house itself, but CKX controls it, too, through a 90-year lease.

Elvis Presley Enterprises became a subsidiary of CKX, which also owns the "American Idol" TV show, a Hollywood talent-management company and most of the marketing rights to boxer Muhammad Ali's name and likeness.

Michael Hoover, a professional Elvis impersonator who took over the "Images of the King" contest two years ago, said he is a little concerned but expects the show to continue.

"If it comes down to somebody saying you can't wear that wig or you can't wear that shirt or you can't sing that song, that will upset a lot of people," he said. "You would see some really serious reaction from the impersonators."