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Majoring in The King at Mississippi institute of higher yearning The Deeper Meaning of Elvis

THE BALTIMORE SUN

"Statue of Elvis Found on Mars" -- tabloid headline, 1988.

"This is the beginning of a new era of the understanding of Elvis" -- Prof. Vernon Chadwick, 1995. Oxford, Miss. -- When the University of Mississippi opened this week's First Annual International Conference on Elvis Presley, Mary Hancock Hinds prepared for the landmark academic event like any good scholar.

She put on metal earrings resembling the Presley postage stamp, two necklaces dangling his name in gold and diamonds and a black sequined baseball cap adorned with a large pin spelling ELVIS in rubies. Then she positioned herself close to the stage in Fulton Chapel at Ole Miss to hear one of the "noted scholars" promised by the university.

El Vez did not disappoint.

The "Mexican Elvis" belted out Presley tunes in English and Spanish and gyrated to the accompaniment of his Memphis Mariachis band and the Beautiful Elvettes, two high-stepping dancers with long, swirling dark hair and brief costumes distinguished by artfully positioned pairs of miniature sombreros.

Ms. Hinds whooped and squealed and rocked in her seat, a sight that might raise eyebrows in her buttoned-down office back in Washington, where she is press secretary to Rep. Stephen Horn of California.

"I work on Capitol Hill -- you need something that's crazy to take over your life," explains Ms. Hinds, who is 50 and boasts of having the only altar to Elvis on the Hill.

But like most of this week's participants, she distinguishes herself from the die-hard fans who will gather in Memphis next week for the annual candlelight vigil to mark the anniversary of Elvis' death.

"That's like a whole different crowd of people," Ms. Hinds says. "Very serious. Almost a religious experience."

For her, Elvis is a "hobby" and the trip to Oxford is a welcome break from Washington. Forget what the official brochures say, this is a six-day confertainment -- a blend of fun and seriousness that bears no resemblance to the just-concluded gathering here on Oxford homeboy William Faulkner. Of course, Faulkner doesn't inspire impersonators.

Although Elvis himself has yet to appear at the conference, eccentric folk artist and visionary minister Howard Finster of Georgia all but brought him back yesterday in a "Sermon on Elvis."

Mr. Finster has sterling credentials. In addition to being among the several million people who claim to have seen Elvis since his death, the painter says that he has spoken to the singer, if only briefly.

"Howard, I'm on a tight schedule," Elvis said during a short visit to the Finster home.

Mr. Finster illustrated his sermon with portraits he has done of Elvis, who has become a divine symbol for the 78-year-old artist. "In his younger days God took a liking to him and marked him out for something special," Mr. Finster said.

He held up a painting done on wood, showing Elvis with bright red lips and blue eyes and wearing a red-and-blue checked shirt.

Mr. Finster said that when he completed the work, "I turned it around and I thought I saw the image of Jesus on it."

The "In Search of Elvis" conference began Sunday with bluesman Arnold "Gatemouth" Moore, gospel singer Queen Elizabeth Weeden and four Elvis impersonators, among them "Black Elvis," an African-American shipyard worker from Maine who mimics the black leather look of Elvis in his 1968 televised comeback.

Monday's highlight was a bus trip to nearby Tupelo, where local police provided a motorcycle escort to the two-room, white wood house where Elvis was born.

A museum on the grounds is stocked with mementos lovingly collected by Janelle McComb. At 70, she is the grande dame of local devotees of The King and -- unlike many of the dozens of people who have written Elvis books -- someone who actually knew him. "I collect all of his records and pictures and see all of his movies," Mrs. McComb said.

A chapel built next to the museum houses Elvis' Bible and furnishings paid for by donations from friends and fans, including a flower stand contributed by the T.L.C. Fan Club of Baltimore.

Monday ended with a "special presentation by Tupelo friends and neighbors of Elvis Presley" who gathered in the Lyric Theater for a church-like ceremony complete with gospel choir.

A guitar was propped in front of the lectern as friends and neighbors bore witness to their encounters with Elvis and testified to the impact he had on their lives.

One man recalled that as a small boy Elvis coveted a rifle in a local hardware store but was pressured by his mama to buy a guitar instead.

Mary Jenkins Langston, Elvis' cook, recounted how he personally instructed her on the art of preparing a "fried peanut butter and banana sandwich" (the secret is in toasting the bread first). She also remembered the night she heard gunfire in the great man's quarters.

"He had shot a commode up," Ms. Langston told the crowd. "He was lots of fun."

On Friday, the conference moves to Memphis for the requisite visit to Graceland and an evening of music on Beale Street.

Mixing fun, scholarship

Clearly this is not a university forum where learned people with heaps of degrees ponder, say, the meaning of the whale in "Moby Dick." And many of the people here are more free spirits than scholars, like Mary Hinds and her former college roommate, Marjorie Wilkinson of Mill Valley, Calif., a paralegal who uses Elvis' will to teach a college probate course.

Ms. Wilkinson sported an El Vez T-shirt, a "Don't Be Cruel" tattoo on her right ankle and a star-shaped pin with red roses framing a ruby-lipped Elvis.

She did not bring with her, however, the black velvet painting of a peacock, illuminated by Christmas lights, that once hung at Graceland and which she now owns.

Although the conference organizers want participants to have fun, the music and trips are tied to lectures, talks and readings that underscore a novel view in academia -- that Elvis and the Elvis phenomenon spawned during his life and after his death are worthy of scholarly exploration.

Elvis, who loved the gaudy and garish and never pretended to be intellectual, might be amused by the high pedestal built for him by Vernon Chadwick, co-organizer of the conference and English professor at the university.

"Elvis' career, in a way, encapsulates the first 200 years of our country," Dr. Chadwick intoned in an introduction to the conference. "He began in revolution and ended with uncertainty and drift, which in some ways characterizes the late 20th century in America."

Conferees dig into Elvis' black musical roots, brought to life by the performances of blues and gospel singers like "Gatemouth" Moore.

Speakers probe the disparaging label of "redneck," often applied condescendingly to the fans who make August pilgrimages to Graceland. This image crumbles at the conference, where Elvis' admirers are well educated and at least middle class.

Cable from Elvis?

Lest the first academic conference on Elvis become too academic, Dr. Chadwick and co-organizer William Ferris, director of the Center for the Study of Southern Culture at the university, also have scheduled presentations by Elvis People like Paul and Elvis MacLeod.

This father-and-son team runs the truly weird Graceland Too, a shrine to Elvis in Holly Springs, Miss., north of Oxford and deep in the Twilight Zone of obsession.

The MacLeods boast that they dress like Elvis, decorate their home like the real Graceland and maintain volumes of references to Elvis painstakingly compiled by monitoring television and clipping newspapers and magazines. As one of their homespun press releases informs: "They can tell you that at 4 a.m. on Tuesday the 26th, Elvis' name was mentioned on cable channel 23."

While scholars might find this research invaluable, Mr. MacLeod's wife did not.

As the story goes, she asked her husband after decades of marriage to choose between her and Elvis. To which he replied: "Goodbye."

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