When Elvis Presley performed at the Las Vegas Hilton, many of his fans dressed for the occasion.
They dressed as Elvis, actually.
“They’d show up in the jumpsuits and the fake sideburns, everything,” recalls Linda Thompson, Elvis’ girlfriend from 1972-76, a period covering most of his appearances at the Hilton. “He got a kick out of it.”
A karate kick, most likely.
Thompson is in town to help judge a rite of spring in VegasVille, the Ultimate Elvis Tribute Artist Contest at Fremont Street Experience. The fourth installment of a preliminary round of the national contest takes place at 8 p.m. Friday and Saturday hosted by Elvis Presley Enterprises and the producers of “Legends in Concert.” Admission is free, and there are $20 VIP seats set aside in front of FSE's 1st Street Stage.
Eighteen contestants are entered in this year's preliminary round. The Las Vegas winner advances to the international semifinals scheduled for Elvis Week in Memphis from Aug. 10-17 and receives a trip to Graceland and a $2,500 cash prize. The Las Vegas winner from the 2010 contest, Justin Shandor, went on to win the international contest.
Joining Thompson on the judging panel is her brother, Sam, who was a security guard for Elvis in the years leading to Elvis’ death; Review-Journal columnist Doug Elfman; and yours truly.
Sam Thompson is a returning judge and a treasure trove of Elvis information and anecdotes, but his sister has never appeared at such a competition.
Why did she agree to participate this weekend?
“Sam talked me into it,” she says with a laugh. “I’ve been told I’m supposed to take the microphone and talk to the contestants. I’m like, ‘No! I don’t want to have to be mean to anyone!’ ”
It might not be necessary to consider meanness, as the ETAs — Elvis Tribute Artists, as they are formally dubbed — are typically very good (except for they guy last year who seemed to evoke Neil Diamond and “Sweet Caroline” rather than Elvis).
It’s not all Elvis for Thompson in Vegas. She also is in town to support her son and daughter-in-law’s music act, Brandon & Leah. They appear at 7 p.m. on the 3rd Street Stage leading up to the Elvis competition. Their song “Showstopper” is the theme to the E! Entertainment reality TV series “Kourtney and Kim Take Miami,” and the duo are to appear regularly on the upcoming season of “Keeping Up With the Kardashians.”
Brandon Jenner is the oldest son of Thompson and Bruce Jenner, married in the early 1980s. Brody Jenner is the couple’s other famous son.
“It’s a good way for them to reach an audience for their music,” Thompson says, “and for Brandon to spend some time with his father.”
Thompson was interviewed in 2010 as part of a lengthy story honoring The King on what would have been his 75th birthday. She considers what Elvis himself might have thought of dozens of artists performing on a Vegas stage as … Elvis.
“I think he saw it as a way to hold on to his ideology. Elvis was really a most gracious and humble person,” she says. “He lived in his own skin, which is to say he didn’t feel any ill feelings toward his fans. I think he would have been flattered that he inspired this type of tribute — I really do.”