When Carole J. Carroll tries to describe the enduring, worldwide fame of a rock 'n' roll legend who died more than 35 years ago, she points to the wilds of South America.
"I was watching a television program where these people traveled up the Amazon," said Carroll, a co-founder of Baltimore's Night of 100 Elvises, "and the natives they encountered there only knew of Avon [cosmetics], Jesus and Elvis from the modern world."
Such iconic status is the lure of the Elvis Presley-themed holiday charity celebration, now in its 20th year and scheduled for two nights running. Elvis tribute artists — "ETAs" as they're known in the business — and other acts perform the King's classics over three stages to benefit the Johns Hopkins Children Center. That falls right in line with Elvis' philanthropic tendencies, Carroll said.
"In part, I knew it'd be perfect," Carroll said. "Elvis gave very generously to charities, just because he wanted to. Even from when he was a young man, he gave to something called the Memphis Milk Fund, to make sure poor children had milk to drink. He'd find sad stories in the paper and anonymously help out.
"He didn't have any shoes as a little boy, he was so poor, so I knew this would be what he'd want."
Carroll believes the enduring obsession with Elvis is due to the performer's multi-faceted legacy.
"His career spanned three decades, and he recorded all kinds of music. He was part of the beginnings of rock 'n' roll, and blues, gospel and country. That what makes it really fun in to replicate him," Carroll said.
It's Elvis' famed genre-hopping that keeps the night interesting. In what could have become a greatest hits parade, the show's organizers actively try to avoid redundancy. Songs performed span each era of the King's career, though crowd-pleasers such as "Burning Love," "Suspicious Minds" and "Hound Dog" receive the most applause.
"We make every effort to have no duplication of songs," said Carroll. "Sometimes it happens anyway, though very rarely."
Since its inception in 1994 at the Lithuanian Hall, the scope and magnitude of the event have exploded.
"That first year, we had 24 acts. By year four, we added entertainment on the lower level too, which we call the lounge. The space above the ballroom was a legion hall, but they moved. The following year, it became available and now it's the Jungle Room," said Carroll. "We try to stop time at 1968 in that room. We focus on the rockabilly stuff, no jumpsuits."
Again, Elvis' international appeal surfaces.
"We're mailing tickets all over the country. One fellow even comes from Australia," Carroll said.
Each act is allotted a brief period on the main ballroom stage, due to the 60-plus artists slated to perform.
"The only way we can incorporate new entertainment is to keep the set lists to five minutes at a time for bands in the ballroom, seven for ETAs. The jungle and the lounge feature longer sets, about 10-15 minutes each," said Carroll. "Some performers will play on all three."
Elvis had multiple eras, but each ETA must pick a favorite to represent.
Jim Parsley, 49, is a heavy machinery operator for Baltimore County and semi-professional ETA. He prefers Presley's '70s phase.
"All of Elvis' eras are great," said Parsley. "I have the vocal abilities to do them all. I love the '70s era because that's when the jumpsuits came into play."
Other ETAs, like Rob "E" Lutz, a 46-year-old lawncare technician from Delaware, prefer the less represented eras of Elvis.
"A lot of his movie songs were underrated, and they're more obscure," said Lutz. "The jumpsuit stuff, everyone does it. It's not appreciated quite as much as some of the lesser-known stuff, because they hear it all the time. Other eras might bring back different memories in listeners."
Despite all the competition, there's a strong sense of brotherhood in the ETA community.
"There are over 35,000 ETAs in the world, and it's as competitive as far as trying to get ahead of the better guys and stay ahead of the up-and-coming guys," says Lutz. "However, there's a huge camaraderie between ETAs because we're all trying to remember Elvis as he was and bringing back that bit of hope and memory to fans."
They're confident that the King will never leave the spotlight.
"The people at Elvis Presley Enterprises are brilliant marketers," said Parsley. "They're now marketing him to children. As long as you have people pushing Elvis, he'll always be around."
Though there are many new additions to the event this year — a tap-dance troupe, a brass marching band, and a guest emcee spot from Mrs. Maryland America, Dr. Zereana Jess-Huff — the focus will always remain on Elvis.
"The actual show has to have fresh excitement," said Carroll. "However, people cling to traditions in Baltimore. People will still talk fondly about restaurants and clubs that have shut down a decade ago. Here, people look for something to count on. A lot of the components can never change."
If you go
The Night of 100 Elvises runs 7 p.m.-2 a.m. Friday and Saturday at Lithuanian Hall, 851-3 Hollins St. Doors open at 6 p.m. Admission is $65; $57 advance. Details: nightof100elvises.com