Germany is marking Elvis Presley’s 70th birthday with television specials, a rash of live shows, and four straight days of "Elvisiana" in the town where the young star was stationed as a GI.
Elvis was stationed in Bad Nauheim for 18 months
Germans have long claimed a special relationship to the King. Not king as in "Kaiser", but as in Elvis: King of Rock n' Roll.
Presley spent nearly two years in Germany, one of the biggest music stars to have ever been in residence here. From 1958 to 1960, he was assigned as a GI in the 3rd Armored Division to Ray Barracks, in the small town of Friedberg near Frankfurt.
Elvis checks in at Friedberg's Ray Barracks
At the time, officials worried that Elvis's visit would corrupt the area's youth. Now, the town is tapping the Elvis myth to help keep itself on the tourism map.
Bad Nauheim and the neighboring village of Friedberg were utterly dull until some local hardcore Elvis fans decided to liven up things, said Hans-Ulrich Halwe, founder and honorary chairman of the Bad Nauheim-Friedberg Elvis Presley Club.
Elvis slept here
The club was formed in 1998 by Halwe and a handful of others, but has since grown to more than 200 members. They meet once a month in the bar of the "Best Western Hotel Rosenau", which is decked out in Elvis memorabilia, and stage Elvis events, and give tours of the area. This weekend, Freidberg and Bad Nauheim are Ground Zero for the celebration of the King's 70th birthday.
Along with Elvis impersonators doing a Las Vegas revival show and a gospel concert (harking back to the King's church music roots), there will be an exhibit of "Elvis art" and daily Elvis tours featuring anecdotes about his 18-month stay.
Up to 50,000 people are expected to attend, with "chartered buses coming from Berlin, from Belgium, everywhere," Halwe said.
Anyone planning a last minute visit can pretty much forget about staying in Room 10 of the Grünewald Hotel, though. That's the room in the family-run hotel where Elvis slept for several weeks in 1958, and "the only place in Europe where you can sleep in the same bed Elvis slept in," Halwe said. For big events it gets booked up to a year in advance, however.
An honored guest at the Bad Nauheim festivities will be Karl Heinz Stein, Elvis’s military barber and the ace in the hole of Bad Nauheim's Elvis lore.
As someone who could handle the heartthrob's head on a regular basis (haircuts were given every eight days or so) Stein was forward-thinking enough to stash away a few locks of the star’s hair and hang on to his scissors and combs.
These objects have since been sold, ending up in private collections or, alternately, at the Museum of German history, where a reconstruction of the military barber shop in Friedberg is a centerpiece of the current "Elvis in Germany" exhibit.
The interior of the Bad Nauheim hair salon where Elvis got a trim, now in a museum
Stein clearly enjoys talking about his days as barber to the King and even claimed a certain kinship with the young Tennesseean.
"There was something different about Elvis, he was very special. He was so generous ... so polite, so genteel. You couldn't say the same about all of his compatriots," said Stein. "I said even then, 'Its like he is really a German, like he has German blood.' And I turned out to be right."
Hamburg based Elvis imitator, Shelvis
Stein's feeling that the Presley family came not from English but German ancestry found a supporter a few years back in the form of Donald Presley, a distant cousin of Elvis who was researching his roots.
Donald claims that Elvis's bloodline reaches back to winemakers from the Rhineland Palatinate region named Pressler. (With Scottish and English lineage researchers also claiming Elvis as their own, it is up to each branch of the Presley family to fight for their versions of the truth.)
Of course, the Elvis following in Germany, as well as the celebration of his birth, goes well beyond the borders of Bad Nauheim.
The country's oldest and largest club, founded in 1978 and with about 2,000 members, is the Elvis Presley Gesellschaft. The web site of the Elvis Club Berlin lists some 33 other active Elvis clubs in Germany, though it is an unofficial count. Members of these clubs use the Internet to keep in touch and keep informed, with messages from Germans with suspiciously southern-American names (Maybelline, Caroline, Jacky, Shakey) discussing topics like the size of Elvis's jumpsuits and announcing Elvis radio specials.
Fans hold vigil on Elvis death anniversary, in front of Elvis performance image
Late night channel flippers around Germany can expect to stumble across a lot of Elvis movies, and anyone in a big city looking for an Elvis party on Friday or Saturday won't have too much trouble finding one.
In Hamburg, an Elvis imitator called Shelvis performs, while Berlin's Estrel theater has revived its popular "An Evening With Elvis." The well-reviewed show stars versatile Irish Elvis tribute artist Grahame Patrick Doyle, who Estrel fished out of Las Vegas' teeming Elvis waters several years ago.
With his music, Elvis did, indeed, help usher social disarray into German society. But today, the aspect of the King's persona that most seems to warm German hearts is his history as a gospel singer.
An award-winning German Elvis impersonator known simply as "Rio, the Voice of Elvis" (yes, he has had his name officially changed) will do an Elvis-sings-gospel show over the weekend in Friedberg's 600-seat church. Two years ago, a similar concert sold out.
Singing the gospel
"The best thing about Elvis is his versatility...few people realize this, but Elvis is the only white singer to win Grammy awards for his gospel music," said the 40-year-old Rio, who has been doing Elvis since the age of 10. "Its amazing to play a concert and move people to tears. Any music that touches the heart, that's gospel."
When Elvis left Bad Nauheim, "he said he would come back and sing for all the people who had been so good to him here," Hans-Ulrich Halwe said. Because Elvis's manager refused to leave the country, though, Elvis never took his show abroad.
"I'm still waiting," added Halwe with a laugh.