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Next Best Thing to Graceland

Elvis Impersonator Offers Tours of Look-Alike Mansion in Valley

August 17, 1997|JOSE CARDENAS | TIMES STAFF WRITER

The distance between Northridge and Memphis can be calculated in measures other than miles.

But to the crowd that marked Saturday's 20th anniversary of Elvis Presley's death by flocking to a quiet San Fernando Valley street to see a copy of the singer's Graceland mansion, such details are beside the point.

"I've admired Elvis all my life," said Mary Tribble, 49, of Granada Hills. "It's nice to have something around here so we can remember him."

Elvis impersonator Danny Uwnawich said he built the Georgian-style mansion at Parthenia Street and Zelzah Avenue to honor Presley. He calls it Melody Land.

The house features a heart-shaped swimming pool, a 1958 Cadillac Coupe de Ville in the driveway and even a Jungle Room decorated with deer and other animal heads reminiscent of one of the King's collections.

Uwnawich, 42, opens the house for tours each year on Jan. 8--Presley's birthday--and on the anniversary of his death.

"It's for all the people who can't go all the way to Memphis [Tenn.]," Uwnawich said.

Those who stood in line for as long as two hours to get a tour Saturday said the wait was worth it.

"I thought it was very interesting," said Elliott Carmen, 45, of Canoga Park. "I was intrigued by all the jewelry."

Uwnawich, who resembles Presley both on and off the stage, began impersonating him as a 13-year-old in his native Louisiana. The two finally met in 1973 while both were performing in Las Vegas.

Over the years, the Northridge man crisscrossed the country armed with sideburns, jumpsuits and a 22-piece orchestra, finally accumulating enough money to build his $3-million, 8,000-square-foot Graceland West in 1991.

During the Northridge earthquake in 1994, however, the house was badly damaged. The chandeliers came crashing down, marble and glass shattered, and the walls cracked. He moved out--staying on the road performing or at friends' homes until he was able to move in again last year.

"There's no more repairs," he said. "All we need now is more furniture."

Meanwhile, Elvis fans crowding the street were welcomed by a sign at the gate reading: Welcome to Melody Land.

They were admitted in small groups to admire, among other things, the velvet furniture and items Elvis owned--such as gold records on the walls, a jumpsuit, rings and even a pair of glasses on display in a case.

"It's just like a museum," said Mark Stradley, a construction worker from North Hills.

"I like the bathroom" on the second floor, said JanaePorfilio, 14, of Van Nuys. "It has two TVs and a huge bathtub."

When Danny U, as he is known, came down from his bedroom dressed in a black outfit, the visitors surrounded him asking for autographs or to take pictures with him.

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Some gave him presents of Presley memorabilia.

"This is me, my sister and my sister-in-law with Elvis," Don Kirst, a 51-year-old mortgage inspector from North Hills told Uwnawich handing him a copy of a photograph taken in 1968. He said the photo was taken in front of Presley's Beverly Hills rental house at a time when Presley was filming the movie, "Live a Little Love a Little."

Outside, people admired the Coupe de Ville and shared Elvis stories.

"I'm one of the few people left that saw [Presley] on 'The Ed Sullivan Show,' " Ginny Boyle, of Chatsworth, told a group of people, allowing only that she is somewhere between 16 and 100 years old.

"That's when [Sullivan] told him, 'We're not going to show you from the waist down.' "

John Meraz, 53, there with wife Jana, 47, remembered idolizing the entertainer as a kid: "I used to carry around books about Elvis. He was a truck driver. He was even an usher at the movies."

"I idolized the guy because of the way he grew up--his rebellious nature," said Randy Bernstein, who impersonates Elvis at the Ventura Boulevard restaurant where he works as a waiter.

Meanwhile, Uwnawich's own impersonating career came to an end Saturday night with a performance at the Thousand Oaks Civic Arts Plaza, where 1,000 people were expected.

At 42, he said he wanted to quit imitating Elvis at the same age Elvis died. Instead he will pursue a career in acting and record his own music, he said.

"I feel kind of sad," he said. "I've been doing it for a long time . . . but everything has to come to an end."

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