August 15, 1997

King lives on in Vegas

Impersonators keep Elvis' memory alive

By Ed Koch
LAS VEGAS SUN

Roddy Ragsdale was playing with his toys on the living room floor when word came over the television that Elvis Presley had died at age 42.

The 8-year-old Memphis boy watched his mother, Brenda, weep over the report. She would tell him many stories about growing up in the same town with the truck driver who would forever change the face of entertainment.

"Mama used to pass by Elvis when he sang on a street corner in Memphis," said Ragsdale, a five-year Las Vegas resident. "I didn't know much about Elvis at the time (of his death), but I have learned a lot over the years."

As a teenager, Ragsdale overcame his shyness by mimicking Elvis in school shows, more or less to attract girls.

In his early 20s, with his mother accompanying him, Ragsdale began performing regularly as the king of rock 'n' roll, winning several contests and earning acting gigs in commercials and movies.

On the 20th anniversary of Elvis' death on Aug. 16, 1977, Ragsdale and other Elvis impersonators say they are merely carrying on the great body of work left by the legendary performer.

"You can say all you want about today's superstars like Garth Brooks and Michael Jackson, but until they sell a billion records like Elvis, they will never dethrone the King," said Ragsdale, who appeared in the movie "Honeymoon in Vegas" and as Elvis on the GMF Motors commercial.

"Elvis set an impossible standard for every entertainer to top. It will take somebody pretty special in the centuries to come to do what Elvis did. He was the total package."

On the day Presley died, Darrin Race, who portrays Elvis in daily afternoon shows in front of the Aztec Inn casino on Las Vegas Boulevard, was getting his broken arm put into a cast at University Medical Center after falling off a wall that surrounded the North Las Vegas mobile home where he lived.

"I remember my sister in the waiting room telling my mother that she had heard a lady say that Elvis had died, and we later heard it on the radio," said Race, 32, who also portrayed a young Elvis in "The Watcher" TV series, which was shot locally.

Race became interested in imitating Elvis after attending a 1977 show at the Tropicana hotel-casino featuring veteran Elvis impersonator Alan Meyer. Like Meyer, Race portrays Elvis during all three stages of his career -- the '50s teen heartthrob, the '60s movie idol and the '70s Las Vegas mainstay.

A magician as well as a 10-year Elvis impersonator, Race is putting together a show called "Elvis Magic" with his manager Jason Dorsey, the son of singer Engelbert Humperdinck, a Las Vegas regular.

"For a long time, I was getting heavy into the magic and not doing Elvis so much," Race said. "When I do Elvis, I try to do him as he did it -- without the exaggerated Elvis voice you hear so often."

Like Race, Ragsdale said he never really intended to be an Elvis impersonator, and once thought the whole phenomenon was kind of silly.

"When I was young, I went to a candlelight vigil at Graceland with Mama, and cracked a lot of jokes about what I saw," he said. "The other folks in the crowd wanted to string me up for it -- they really loved Elvis.

"However, when I went to the museum and saw all that the man accomplished, it gave me a whole different perspective. It changed my life dramatically."

Specializing in the 1950s style of Elvis -- he also on occasion does the Vegas jumpsuit Elvis -- Ragsdale won major Elvis impersonation contests in Las Vegas and Memphis.

Last year, Ragsdale had to overcome a tragedy Presley endured when he was in his 20s -- the death of his mother, Brenda Ragsdale, to cancer.

"Mama was my greatest fan," he said. "I really miss her."

Although Ragsdale drives a Cadillac -- Presley's favorite car -- and has been a resident of the same cities to which Elvis remains eternally bonded, Ragsdale says in no way does he want his entire life to mirror Presley's.

"I don't want to be doing this when I'm 45 or 50," he said. "Right now, doing Elvis at night (and construction during the day) pays the bills. I want to eventually do other roles as an actor."

Ragsdale, like Race, works weddings, conventions and parties.

Norm Jones has had steady work as Elvis for the past eight years. A licensed minister, he dons the spangled costume to perform weddings at the Graceland Chapel downtown.

"I was in the lobby of a Utah hotel when I heard about Elvis' death, and I thought, 'Wow, I just can't believe it,'" said the 36-year-old Jones, who won the 1991 Las Vegas Hotel Association's top Elvis impersonator award.

"I like to perform as Elvis because it makes people happy on their very special day. I get the most requests to sing 'I Can't Help Falling in Love,' 'Love Me Tender' and 'Viva Las Vegas.'"

As for the controversy about whether Elvis indeed died on the date reported, Jones, Race and Ragsdale have their doubts.

"He'll always be alive in our hearts -- and in the tabloids," Jones said. "I don't think he died at that time, but I don't think he's alive today."

Race says, "I'm not 100 percent sure, but I don't think he died on Aug. 16, 1977, as reported."

Ragsdale says it is possible Elvis is out there enjoying all the fuss over him.

"I believe there was some conspiracy to fake his death, whether it was to get away from the spotlight or whatever," Ragsdale said.

"If anyone could fake his death and get away with it, he would be the one. And if Elvis is still alive, I sure wish he'd come back."


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