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Elvis TALES OF THE KING; Neighbor who knew him when

Jeannette Fruchter is ready for her close-up. Her teen-age granddaughter offers a lipstick, but she scoffs. ("Black? I should wear black lipstick?") Instead, she settles for a more conventional pale pink, and smiles.

"You have a beautiful smile," the photographer says. She really does. Although her back is bent from two operations, Jeannette Fruchter is almost as striking at 73 as she was on her wedding day. A few minutes later, she can see her beautiful smile for herself, as Channel 2 airs a short clip of her on the television.

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But they spell her name wrong. They always spell her name wrong. Albert Goldman, Peter Guralnick, they got it wrong, too. It's two n's, two t's, is that so hard?

The other name they get right. Elvis Aaron Presley. The King of Rock and Roll, the guy who made his inelegant exit from this world 20 years ago today. We may not remember where we were when Elvis died, but we can't forget where he was.

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"I don't know why he took the drugs," Fruchter says. "I think if his mother had lived, things would have been different. She died at 42. And he died at 42. Isn't that something?"

Fruchter was in Troy, N.Y., on Aug. 16, 1977. The papers called, but her husband, the Rabbi Alfred Fruchter, was still alive, so he gave the interview. Later, both would talk to the Elvis biographers, Goldman and Guralnick.

The rabbi died three years ago, just before their 47th wedding anniversary, and Fruchter is the sole custodian of their memories now. She has been a little blue lately, and speaking of Elvis seems to cheer her up.

"Lived with Elvis," it says beneath her smiling face on Channel 2, which sounds, well, more exciting than it was. Then again, "Lived above Elvis" begs explanation.

So here it is.

At the behest of a friend, Rabbi Fruchter came to Brooklyn from Memphis, met Jeannette and it was love at first sight. For him anyway. They married Dec. 28, 1947, during one of the worst snowstorms in the city's history.

The Fruchters returned to Memphis and settled on Alabama Street. Children started coming: Debbie, David, Harold. On the day Jeannette Fruchter came home from the hospital with Harold, her young downstairs neighbor carried the baby upstairs. He was the nicest boy, that Elvis Presley, well-mannered and polite.

"I'm learning more with each interview," says daughter Judy Minkove of Northwest Baltimore. She has been coordinating her mother's media appearances while she's here from Albany, visiting three of her five children in the area -- two in Baltimore, one in Silver Spring.

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Minkove's house has suddenly become Fruchter-central. CNN is definitely interested. New York magazine has called.

Back to our story.

It was 1953, and Elvis was 18. He sat on the front porch and played his guitar for his girlfriend. It cost $12. "And that was a lot of money in those days."

One day he came home with a record he had made, "That's All Right, Mama," and borrowed the rabbi's phonograph to listen to it.

Albert Goldman would later write that the rabbi's habit of listening to cantorial records may have influenced the stylings of the young Elvis. The New York Times sniffed at this conjecture, but Fruchter finds it credible.

"My husband listened to his records every Sunday, with the windows open, because it was so hot in Memphis, and you could hear them all over."

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Peter Guralnick did not weigh in on the significance of the cantorial recordings, but he did note that Elvis shared Sukkot feasts with the Fruchters. Elvis also volunteered to turn the lights on during the Sabbath.

The Fruchters' last meeting with Elvis came two years later, when they were in Oakland, Calif. They picked up a newspaper on a Saturday and saw Elvis was in San Francisco. "Could that be the same Elvis Presley?" the rabbi wondered.

When Elvis learned his neighbor was nearby, he summoned him to his concert. The rabbi mingled backstage, was even introduced at the press conference. Want to know how small a world it is? One of Elvis' bodyguards had been bar mitzvahed by the rabbi.

And that was that. Elvis became Elvis. The Fruchters moved from congregation to congregation.

In South Bend, Ind., a fire claimed all the photographs they had of their famous neighbor. Who knows what happened to the cufflinks and tie clip that the Fruchters gave Elvis for high school graduation? (They were onyx set in gold, very nice.)

It was the children, five in all now, who dined out on their parents' brush with greatness. Even the grandchildren: Judy's son, Jonathan, wrote a piece for the school newspaper at Beth Tfiloh, the other kids were incredulous.

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"Right, and my family lived above Michael Jackson," one said.

But the children, the grandchildren, couldn't know all the details. How the daily coffee breaks with Gladys Presley, a nurse, inspired Jeannette Fruchter to pursue her own nursing degree years later. How Elvis loved her challah. How he fixed up an old Lincoln coupe, after buying it for $50. And that was a lot of money in those days.

"He was a good boy, a nice boy, a fine boy," she says.

Talking about Elvis always makes her happy.

She holds a photograph of Elvis as a teen-ager, the Elvis she knew, as opposed to the bloated one she can barely recognize. "I'm proud to be photographed with Elvis because he was a wonderful boy."

If only his mother had lived, she thinks, he might still be with us. A boy needs his mother, you know.

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Pub Date: 8/16/97


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