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VENTURA COUNTY NEWS | VALLEY LIFE

Forget the Presidency . . . Long Live the King

August 11, 2000|STEVE CHAWKINS

Millions will be thinking of the presidency next week, but Darwin Lamm will be thinking of the King.

As usual, his opinions will be sought by far-flung news outlets. Talk-show hosts will ask him: Just how do you feel--how does the nation feel--on the 23rd anniversary of Elvis' death? On Wednesday evening, Lamm will drive from his home in Thousand Oaks to an interview with a Japanese TV crew at a friend's bar, where the event will be observed with quiet dignity, and perhaps an impersonator or two.

Next week, Lamm stands to be the only individual in Southern California who will be questioned by reporters about anything besides the onslaught of the Democrats. The publisher of a quarterly magazine called the Elvis International Forum, Lamm will deliver a message achingly familiar to his 140,000 subscribers: Elvis is far from dead, at least in the hearts of his admirers.

In an office crammed with Elvis portraits, posters, records, photos, even bottles of chardonnay bearing the Graceland label, Lamm underscores the point.

"Twenty-three years later and we're sitting here talking about him," he points out. "I can tell you how big he still is: Last year, fans gave charities from $270,000 to $300,000--in Elvis' name! Can Garth Brooks do that? Can Sinatra?"

True fans will take pause on Wednesday.

For it was at 2:30 p.m. on Aug. 16, 1977, that Elvis was found dead in a Graceland bathroom, his heart disease aggravated by a wild stew of prescription drugs. He was wearing blue pajamas and browsing through a volume called "The Scientific Search for the Face of Jesus."

Every year since, the anniversary of his death has been an occasion. In Memphis, thousands gather for Elvis seminars, tours of Elvis' favorite nightspots, candlelight vigils at Graceland, special showings of "Viva Las Vegas."

All that seems a world away from Lamm's headquarters in a Westlake Village office park. Shouldn't Graceland's officially sanctioned fan mag be based in the King's own mansion . . . or in a converted Tupelo chicken shack . . . or an old blues club somewhere 'cross the fields and down the river?

"Computers," Lamm explains. "We can be anywhere."

At 59, Lamm has been a musician--"How Long" was his one-hit wonder--a radio producer, an agent, a talent scout. Struck by the immense response to "The Elvis Hour," his series of radio tributes, he came up with the magazine idea in 1988.

"I knew nothing about publishing," he says. "One night I put together a sample issue by clipping bits and pieces from People."

Now, he has subscribers and ardent contributors throughout the world.

In a recent issue, a fan lambasted Time magazine for its failure to list Presley as one of the most influential people of the 20th century.

"It has been 23 years since ELVIS left us but there is literally not a day that goes by, that we do not hear or see him or his impact on society," the outraged fan wrote. "Countless books continue to be published, college courses taught, memorials, even a statue in Israel--Hello Time, any brains over there?"

Another writer urged shopping malls to think out of the box each December:

"Some year, one of the malls in an area could get a huge advantage on the others by skipping Santa and instead offering an Elvis impersonator. Sure, it's a far-out idea, but it has some merit . . . ."

*

The magazine is packed with full-page four-color portraits of you-know-who, historical discussions (air-traffic controllers nicknamed his private jet Hound Dog One), and descriptions as breathless as any in a romance novel.

"He was adorned in a clinging white jumpsuit that caressed his perfect body and a macrame belt with silver decorations sexily embraced his hips," a fan recalled of her first Elvis show in Las Vegas. "He looked out at the audience then, glancing down at me, smiled and mouthed me a kiss. I was enraptured. The hair on my arms stood at attention . . . ."

However, Elvis International Forum steers clear of Kingly put-downs, of jokes about cheeseburgers and drugs, of references to the fat--that is, the portly--Elvis, of any allusion that could tarnish the myth.

"There are plenty of books that do that," Lamm says. "We just remember the man for his music."

If Lamm has been kind to Elvis, so has Elvis been kind to Lamm. He's moving to a home in Malibu and is preparing three books for release in 2002--the 25th anniversary of the King's death.

"That's all anyone is talking about," he says. "The 25th."

Will they be talking about the 30th--or will the true fans fade away like so much burning love?

Lamm, who wrongly forecast a general Elvis cool-down after the 15th, doesn't pretend to know.

"It just keeps on goin' on," he says.

*

Steve Chawkins can be reached at 653-7561 or at steve.chawkins@latimes.com.

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