OLYMPIA, Wash. — He has 15 minutes to become Elvis. Three hundred people are waiting for what the posters promise will be "one astounding, unforgettable, chilling performance."
And Lary Glen Anderson, standing at his motel room mirror in just briefs and black socks, stares at a reflection that looks no more like the King than a mule resembles a racehorse.
He has thinning brown hair, cut short, no sideburns. World-weary eyes. A belly that sags over his underwear. "Harrumph. Come back to me, voice, come back to me," he mutters tensely, without the hint of a drawl.
This guy, do Elvis? He'll need a miracle.
He plugs in a tape and the real Elvis croons "Don't Be Cruel" as Anderson pastes two strips of black fuzz to his cheeks to make mutton-chop sideburns.
Carefully, reverently, he lowers a black wig onto his head. Next, he climbs into a white jumpsuit clattering with beads. It's a tight squeeze. And now white boots, red scarf, gold medallion, a ring for every finger and a pair of sunglasses given to him, he says, by Elvis himself.
Time! someone calls, but he's not ready. "Gotta pray first," he says, then kneels by the sink. "Dear Lord Jesus. . . . "
Now he hurries across the wet grass toward the motel's banquet hall. Inside, the band is playing the theme from "2001: A Space Odyssey." Red and blue spotlights sweep the stage.
"Ladies and gentlemen, help me welcome Lary Glen Anderson . . . and ELVIS MANIA!"
He leaps onstage. The band breaks into a rock 'n' roll riff, and Anderson belts out "C.C. Rider" in a slurred, Southern-fried baritone that is unmistakably Elvis. The crowd goes wild. Women shriek.
Miracles do happen.
Elvis Presley died on Aug. 16, 1977, at the age of 42. Twenty years later, it's clear that he is missed. Elvis has become the most impersonated performer in the world, with thousands of Elvis look-alikes swiveling hips from Bangkok to Boston.
The laws of supply and demand suggest there wouldn't be so many faux Elvi if we didn't need them. But why do we need them?
Answers unfold in surprising places--like Olympia, Wash. Far from Graceland, in a reserved Northwest city more inclined toward espresso and scones than RC Cola and moon pies, you would not expect to find Elvis devotion at its rawest and most sincere. But it's here.
On a recent Saturday night in the banquet hall of a Holiday Inn Select, a hard-luck entertainer could summon up greatness in the name of Elvis. Three hundred fans eager to suspend their disbelief could drink and hoot and relive happier days. Together, they could tend the spirit of a legend who reaches from the grave to inspire, entertain--and, yes, even heal.
"Once he's touched you," Anderson says, "you're touched for life."
In a world flush with Elvis upstarts, Anderson is a seasoned veteran. He has done Elvis for 24 years, since he was 16, and says that of all the Elvis impersonators, he considers himself No. 8. (He declines to name the seven he ranks above him, saying, "There's a lot of jealousy out there.")
The son of a tour guide at the Olympia Beer brewery, Anderson showed an early flair for entertaining. He recalls singing "Jesus Loves Me" in church at age 7 and hearing a Sunday-school teacher say, "You're going to make it, kid. You're going to be somebody someday."
For a while, he was well on his way. By 12, he was doing Carol Burnett impressions for radio commercials. By 16, he was working Elvis into an impressionist act he did in gigs throughout Washington.
After Presley's death, Anderson seized the moment. Growing out his sideburns and dying his hair blue-black, he headed to Southern California and then to Las Vegas, seeking fame and fortune.
Instead, he found one-night shows at Elks Lodges, taverns, casinos and county fairs. Today, at age 40, he's back in Olympia, living in an old school bus.
To make ends meet, Anderson has been a security guard, limousine driver and auto detailer. He started two businesses, but they failed. Two marriages did the same.
Through it all there was Elvis, like a ray of sunlight beaming through the clouds.
"When I'm doing Elvis, it's the happiest thing in the world," he says.
So now Anderson is following his dream. He has quit his job at Lacey Collision, determined to make a show-biz comeback by combining Elvis with the 150 other celebrity impressions he does.
If he succeeds, he says, it will be because people sense his genuine love for Elvis. He doesn't do Elvis jokes. He has turned down couples who asked him to marry them as Elvis. And he's not the kind of guy who uses Elvis to gain a woman's favors, though he's seen it done enough.
"I'm not some carnival act," he says. "This is a very true, spiritual thing I do, and I take it very seriously. He comes through. I think the fans really can see that. I don't know if it's a channeling thing or what. I know it sounds bizarre, but it's his performance, not mine."
He says he has a gift the new generation of impersonators does not: He witnessed the charisma of the living Elvis.