At Curran’s, ELVIS is forever

From a Rastafarian Elvis impersonator to a potentially lethal grandma, hardcore fans celebrate their idol each month in Southwest

Rock ‘n’ roll historians still debate just who made the first rock record and when they did it.

There’s no argument at Curran’s Family Restaurant on the first Tuesday of every month, however. The crowd gathered in the back room honors one man known by one name: Elvis.

They don’t debate whether Jackie Brenston’s 1951 "Rocket 88" or Bill Haley’s 1955 "Rock Around the Clock" or Elvis’s "That’s Alright" was the first real rock ‘n’ roll record. They’re more interested in sharing memories and eyeing the memorabilia that their fellow Elvis addicts bring with them to the get-togethers.

The crowd at Curran’s, 4201 Nicollet Ave. S., is made up of a couple of men and a baker’s dozen of women from around the Twin Cities, most in their 50s and 60s. The dress is casual and distinctive: all of the women wear Elvis-adorned clothing or jewelry. The word "Elvis," often spelled out in sparkling rhinestones, embellishes bracelets, necklaces, earrings and belts.

Amid the laughter and smiles, there is no shame in coveting all things Elvis. When someone holds up a pair of gaudy Elvis underwear purchased at JC Penney’s, people giggle — and ask how much the undies go for.

"Are they men’s or women’s underwear?" someone shouts out.

"Who cares?" is the reply, to much laughter.

It’s quickly agreed around the table that the $6.99 black, neon blue and red underthings are worth a trip to Penney’s.

It’s also agreed that Kingfield-based Curran’s is probably the most appropriate place in Southwest for such a gathering. Established in 1948, the then-carhop/drive-in adopted cutting-edge technology in 1955 when it installed a speaker system on which customers could order their food. It was just a year before Presley took over the world of music, and Curran’s removed the speakers in 1978, a year after he died.

A mess of blues

Ginger Gilmore looks a bit out of place. The Whittier woman has a single, dark dreadlock dangling from her head — not the norm among E’s fans. Gilmore tells the story of her visit to Jamaica in 1989 as she eats her sandwich and fries.

Before visiting the island, she’d played drums in various local rock bands, and was not as focused on the man from Memphis as she is today. Jamaicans took a look at the black-haired, olive-skinned American and told her she looked like a member of the Presley family.

"Before then, I was not an Elvis fan. I mean, he crossed my mind, but not like he does now," Gilmore said. "I was in a period of my life, ‘Yeah, I’m getting older, my music is going nowhere.’ It was really a down period of my life when I went. I was getting discouraged as a drummer because I couldn’t get jobs because I don’t drive. Just getting stuck in these bands I didn’t even want to play in."

The visit changed her life. She began to listen more carefully to Presley’s music and she became a Rastafarian — a follower of the island’s popular, herb-scented religion.

"I studied Elvis, trying to see what the Jamaicans were talking about. They felt something. Even some of the tourists said the same thing. They just felt something in me.’ "Ginger, you should be a singer if you’re not. If you’re not a singer, you should be a singer.’

"They just felt all these vibes. I don’t know what they felt, but they sure knew their Elvis. He was right up there with Nelson Mandela, Muhammad Ali and Bob Marley, of course."

It wasn’t long afterwards that Ginger began to take up singing and a stage act — becoming one of the planet’s few Rastafarian, female Elvis impersonators.

"I’ve got to admit I’m using Elvis as a footstep to get into show business myself," she said. "It can’t hurt me as a musician or performer."

The 51-year-old said she wants to eventually shift her music to blues, singing and drumming azure rhythms.

"I just want to be a busy musician, out there on tour, just playing music and entertaining folks," Gilmore said. "I want to be a full-time entertainer, bottom-line."

A big hunk o’ love

Karen Anderson harbors no such dreams and doesn’t feel a need to see anyone perform Elvis’s music but him.

"I’ve never paid to see an impersonator," the South Minneapolis grandmother said. "It’s like if I want to hear or see Elvis, I’ll put the tape in or listen to the music. I know a lot of them and some of them think they’re Elvis. They really do. Some of them change their names and they have plastic surgery and their whole life is into that. It’s not that I don’t like them, it’s that I don’t need them."

Anderson’s love of Elvis blossomed in 1956 when the 16-year-old heard his first nationwide hit, "Heartbreak Hotel" on the radio.

"I just heard it and I thought, ‘Wow, this is so different. Who is this?’ So we started calling the radio stations and asking them to play it over and over and over," she said with a girlish laugh.

She had to wait another 15 years to actually see The King in person at Bloomington’s old Metropolitan Sports Center in 1971.

"I was very pregnant and I said, ‘I’m not going to leave this.’ Let’s see, that was November 8th, and I had my baby on November 16th. So I said, ‘No matter if I have labor pains or whatever, I’m not leaving this show,’" Anderson remembered.

"It was unbelievable to see him perform onstage. You could feel the electricity. Honest you could. People say that all the time, but it’s true."

One of her most prized possessions is the Elvis autograph she carries with her everywhere. She sent a copy of a photo from that 1971 concert to Graceland and received it back, complete with autograph, just 10 days before Presley died.

She said Elvis’ cousin, Billy Smith, upon seeing the autograph during one of her trips to Graceland, assured her that the signature was authentic rather than one scrawled by one of Presley’s underlings.

"[Smith] told me that before that last tour that Elvis was supposed to take, he spent about three or four days catching up on all his mail, answering everything himself. You just kind of wonder was there something back there in his mind that said, ‘I’ve got to get this done. I’ve got to do this. I’ve got to get it done now.’"

Someone at the table at Curran’s asked Anderson what would happen if someone tried to steal her cherished memento. The 64-year-old smiled broadly.

"They would die," she said.

Anderson’s planning on going to Memphis for Elvis Week — the annual celebration surrounding the Aug. 16 anniversary of his death — as she usually does this time of the year.

"When we went down to Memphis for Elvis’ 10th anniversary, it was huge and we were just amazed. And they had the magazines out. ‘Rolling Stone’ did the cover, and they did special things on TV. We thought, ‘OK, it’s going to start to die down. How can it keep going on and on and on?’

"Then we went to the 20th and I thought that was the biggest ever. Then I went to the 25th and it was even bigger.

"I think it could just go on forever and ever and ever," she said.