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Investing in Elvis Inc.

Bob Mackie design
Mackie's Back in Town: The glitter and sparkle for San Jose Cleveland Ballet's Elvis-themed show is supplied by designer Bob Mackie.

Can the King's 'Blue Suede Shoes' save the performing arts as we know them?

By Zack Stentz

    DEAR FRIEND: The fine arts in the U.S. are in trouble. Faced with government funding cuts, increasingly tight-fisted private foundations and the gradual dying off of the WWII generation that forms the core audience for most American theater, opera and ballet companies, performing-arts groups are entering a crisis phase.

    And don't look to the postwar generation for help, either. The "baby boomers," the biggest, most affluent demographic pig ever to slide through the python called America, simply don't feel connected with the so-called high arts.

    Clearly, something drastic has to be done to coax the baby boomers to spend their entertainment dollars on something other than $150 Eagles reunion tickets. But what can convince this jaded group that the performing arts aren't just for blue-haired matrons and aged elitists?

    That's where we come in. As the trademark-holders on the creative output of 20th-century America's greatest musical entertainer, we're working together with the nation's fine arts and performance groups in an effort to use our product to forge new audiences.

    And the name of this product? Elvis Presley™. As a symbol of youth, virility and unpretentious popular culture, Presley is the ideal bridge figure to bring new audiences into established groups, without alienating existing patrons. Before you toss this letter in the wastebasket, ask yourselves this: Can you afford not to use the Elvis name? Don't be cruel--put Elvis to work for your group today.

    Thomas Parker III,
    Elvis Presley Enterprises, Inc.

stage design

A FANTASY, PERHAPS, but the idea is already at work. Consider San Jose Cleveland Ballet Company's newest show, Blue Suede Shoes, an evening of dance numbers choreographed to three dozen of the King's biggest hits, costumed and staged to the hilt for maximum aural and visual impact. In our words, it's not your mother's Swan Lake.

"It's been spectacular," says Dennis Nahat, San Jose Cleveland Ballet's artistic director and the creator of Blue Suede Shoes. "The show was a huge hit for us when it was performed in Cleveland and Detroit, and it's given the company worldwide attention. We're going to be touring it around the world at least through 1998."

The secret to Blue Suede Shoes' appeal, Nahat believes, lies in the way that the music of Elvis Presley so perfectly encapsulates the American zeitgeist of the postwar period. "Life at high school, driving around in your car with a little money in your pocket and wanting to have fun, joining the army--it's a classic American story that we're telling through music and movement."

And spectacle. The show features 17 scenic changes and 280 fabulous costumes, all designed by the legendary Bob Mackie (the man who made the 1980s glitter and dressed Barbie herself). "Bob's done a stunning design look for us," Nahat says. "It's a very contemporary take on the 1950s, and the stage is always filled with so much action that the audience barely has time to blink or else they miss something."


Disgraceland, a very funny yet comprehensive web site listing many Elvis web sites.


Did Blue Suede Shoes receive any criticism from the ballet's more traditional patrons? "In the beginning, yes," Nahat answers candidly. "We had some people say, 'How can you use Elvis in this classical art form?' but I just said, 'Elvis is classic.' "

Nahat continues, "We've had people we've never seen before come to Blue Suede Shoes. And they're definitely coming because of the music. And hopefully, by giving them an experience that has artistic integrity, but is as easy to enjoy as watching a movie, we'll give them new ideas about ballet."

stage design

IF NAHAT is right about the infinitely malleable appeal of Elvis, then perhaps other performing-arts groups ought to take the hint. In the near future, perhaps, we might be seeing the following intriguing projects:

Opera: The Who did it. Ex-Police member Stewart Copeland did it. So it's only fitting that the life and work of Elvis Presley be used as fodder for a full-scale operatic production. The Memphis Oratorio charts Presley's life from his birth in Tupelo through the death of his mother and his army enlistment.

Symphony: Some of you might be familiar with composer Philip Glass' efforts to turn David Bowie's Low and Heroes albums into symphonic works. What is less well known is that Glass was recently approached with the idea of composing an original symphony based on the musical career of Elvis. Under the working title The 'That's All Right, Mama' Variations, the composer is currently in-studio with famed guitarists Robert Fripp, Johnny Marr and James Hetfield.

Performance art/solo monologue: Here the competition is fiercest to bring a definitive version of Presley onstage, which is no surprise, given the powerful economic incentives toward solo performance. The Graceland estate is still in the process of selecting a franchisee to portray the authorized Elvis Presley from a roster of finalists who include Eric Bogosian, Josh Kornbluth, Sandra Bernhard and Wallace Shawn.

The prospect of Elvis Presley swallowing up opera, theater and classical music like so many fried peanut butter and banana sandwiches might seem like a bitter elitist's paranoid conspiracy theory. But in an age when the Artist Formerly Known As Someone Else composes for the Joffrey Ballet, and public television seems to be an endless tape loop of John Tesh and shirtless dancing Celts, no sphere of the arts is off-limits to pop culture proselytizing.

Whether projects like the ones listed above signal a path toward renewed prosperity and attendance or the death of the performing arts as we know them depends on whether one agrees with the first or the second part of Chuck D's famous statement: "Elvis was a hero to most / But he never meant shit to me."

Blue Suede Shoes plays April 24, 29­May 1 at 7:30pm, April 25 and May 2 at 8pm, April 26 at 2 and 8pm, April 27 at 1:30 and 7:30pm, May 3 at 2 and 8pm at the San Jose Center for the Performing Arts, 255 Almaden Blvd., San Jose; tickets are $15­50. (408/288-2800)

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From the April 24-30, 1997 issue of Metro

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