I live in Portland, this is my church.
The 24-Hour Church of Elvis
Not a lot of praying goes on at the Church of Elvis in downtown Portland, even though the walls are covered with semi-religious velvet images of the King, and an altar sits in the center of the cluttered room. The altar is on wheels, adorned with body parts of old Barbie dolls and stickers of famous people from the 1970's, painted in a storm of unmatched colors. No worshippers pray at this altar because it actually is the Loveseat Chariot for newlyweds. People come from all over the world to get married in it. Stephanie G. Pierce, Spokesmodel/Minister of the Church, peers out from her thick glasses talking incessantly, laying out the options. "Alright it's $25 dollars. That's if you want the legal wedding. The Cheap not legal wedding is $5. You get the bridal veil and the trip around the block with the 'Just Married' sign, trailing the cans. And if you want Elvis to sing, it's $25 dollars extra." Elvis? "Yeah, you know, Elvis with the cape."
There is a lot to be confused about concerning the 24 hr. Church of Elvis. First, it's not open 24 hours, on some days it isn't even open. That baffles many of the tourists who manage to find its tiny alleyway. Many end up drinking beer at the brewpub across the street. Tugboat Brewery owner Megan McEnroe-Nelson can pick them out by the guidebook in their hands. "It's the kind of experience that is better when you're half-lit," she claims. Secondly the church isn't a church at all. The closest thing you could say is that it's one part art gallery, one part museum and shrine and a large part a desperate money-making enterprise. Up the tiny stairs from the street one encounters a collection of 70's and 80's memorabilia, the most tacky and kitschy things imaginable. A real Bionic Barbie workout set, the world's largest collection of Snap-on Tools Girls (Large Cardboard cut-outs of women suggestively offering tools hanging from their chest area) and T-shirts commemorating the Attica prison riots. Visitors are treated to a full tour of the every-evolving collection and offered a chance to put coins in the Elvis doll-head machine. Tiny doll heads of the King dance and wiggle on wires, as lights flash behind the glass of an old cigarette vending machine. Tours always end with a feverish pitch for visitors to buy a 24HCoE T-shirt, or an elegant cooking apron. Stephanie doesn't take kindly to the non-paying customer. "She hasn't developed the art of keeping one's financial desperation at bay while serving customers," says cabdriver Greg Bowman. There have been reports of people locked in the Church until they agreed to buy, and of Stephanie shouting obscenities at departing tightwads.
Perhaps the greatest mystery of all: what or who is the Church of Elvis? There is little factual evidence to go on. Five years ago the Church moved into the space and set up shop, just shortly after Stephanie Pierce "Artist to the Stars" won a $45,000 damage award from Tri-Met, the city public transportation authority. Where Stephanie comes from she isn't telling; she purports to have been a practicing lawyer, which might explain how she won the award by claiming she suffered mental damage after a Transit Cop gave her a $15 fine for riding the train without a fare. The coincidence of those two events, the money and the founding of the church cannot be verified. No records exist registering the church as a religious institution. No business license. Not even proof of fire safety inspection. The Inspector was frightened away by a thin woman in thick glasses. There is no paperwork anywhere to prove that the Church of Elvis exists.
Elvis himself, who also goes by John, is equally elusive. Elvis is a 40 something year old man with thick glasses and mild mental retardation who lives in a group home. For many years he has been performing on the street, screaming a cappella renditions of his favorite King songs, wrapped in a blue cape. Elvis is slowing down a bit, he prefers only to sing at weddings now. Elvis, or John, becomes possessed by the spirit of the King when he sings, his face flushed with passion. He is channeling Elvis.
Stephanie's theology is more nebulous, ill-defined. Getting her to talk personally is impossible, just getting in a question can be difficult, especially if she is busy showing visitors the likeness of Elvis discovered burned onto a Tortilla Chip. If she is channeling anything, she is channeling the spirit of a junk sale. "I grew up in a poor neighborhood, and this reminds me of the old couple selling stuff on the corner all weekend, just junk that they'd picked up here and there. After all the selling is done the unsold stuff too ratty even for them to take home ends up in box with a free sign. That's the Church of Elvis collection," says McEnroe-Nelson.
No two guidebooks give the same description of the 24 hour Church of Elvis. There are no exact figures of how many people visit the Church. You can bet, though, that all remember the experience vividly, and most have a T-shirt to show for it. Culture jamming as authentic and emotionally destabilizing as a tour of the Church is rare, and the bafflement is what visitors seem to enjoy most. As long as the experience is so unique, and the outcome of a visit so uncertain, people will continue making the pilgrimage. Like any good prophet, Stephanie G. Pierce, "The Shaman of Kitsch," encourages the pilgrim not to dwell on what the Church is, but to imagine the beauty of its next incarnation. She sells one more T-shirt and begins to purr. "In the new Church of Elvis everything will work, all these coin machines. You will ride my bicycle with the vibrating seat around the new Church of Elvis, it will be wonderful…."
Iv acctually been there and bought the T-shirt. I am saved.