Elvis impersonator reviews his career highlights, wardrobe
JASONVILLE, Ind. -- Thumbing through dozens of bedazzled jumpsuits hanging on a portable garment rack, Bruce Borders hoisted one and handed it to a reporter visiting his insurance office on Jasonville's Main Street.
"Feel how heavy that is," Borders said.
His guest compared its weight to that of medieval chainmail.
Not quite, but one of Borders' nearly 40 Elvis Presley replica jumpsuits weighs 38 pounds. Borders wears that "Desert Flower" jumpsuit and others, accessorized with equally weighty capes and belts, while impersonating the late King of Rock 'n' Roll in more than 50 shows a year. "It takes quite a man," Borders said, laughing.
The 57-year-old has performed more than 5,000 times as Elvis, but he'll go to Memphis this week primarily as a fan to revisit Presley's 13-acre Graceland mansion and experience "Elvis Tribute Week." Those annual festivities mark the observance of Presley's death on Aug. 16, 1977. This year is the 40th anniversary, and Borders expects the turnout "to be huge."
Borders was a teenager when he began impersonating Presley, but it wasn't until Borders performed on "Late Night with David Letterman" in 1988 that his wardrobe of Elvis-style jumpsuits got more diversified and sophisticated. That February night in New York City, Borders sang "Heartbreak Hotel" on national TV, dressed in a jumpsuit sewn by his pastor's wife in Jasonville. "And she did a pretty darn good job," Borders recalled.
After the show aired, Borders - then the mayor of Jasonville - got a call from Butch Polston, owner of B&K Enterprises Costume Co. That small business in Charlestown makes recreations of jumpsuit costumes worn by Presley, with authentic embroidery and stones in patterns created by Elvis' original wardrobe designers and passed on to B&K under copyrighted licensing.
Polston watched that 1988 Letterman show featuring Borders, phoned him and said, "You'd be surprised at what we can do for you."
Polston was right. Once Borders saw their variety of replica Elvis attire, "I was blown away." Borders was then the 29-year-old mayor of Jasonville, population 2,200. The customize-made B&K jumpsuits aren't cheap, with some costing more than $4,000. Borders bought one. "I was a young, poor mayor, and buying a B&K was a big deal," he said.
"That definitely led to a huge leap in the jumpsuits" in his wardrobe, said Borders, who followed up his eight years as mayor with six terms in the Indiana House of Representatives, where he remains the District 45 rep.
For an Elvis impersonator, wearing a B&K jumpsuit is like a violinist playing a Stradivarius. Polston, his wife Kim, their son Michael, and the B&K staff make 200 to 350 Presley-style suits a year. The business began in 1980, and the Polstons traveled to Memphis to sell their products two years before Graceland opened to the public. "We started doing this when there were only 15 (Elvis) tribute artists worldwide," Polston said Tuesday by telephone from Charlestown, northeast of Louisville, Kentucky.
Today, his company has thousands of customers from the United States, Europe, Africa, China, Israel, Japan and even third-world countries. Their costumes have been used in 37 movies, including 30 featuring Elvis characters. Though B&K battles online competitors that, Polston said, violate his company's licensing, B&K benefits from its legacy and quality. The company recreates the embroidery and glass stone patterns crafted by Presley's original designers, Gene Doucette and the late Bill Belew. Doucette does embroidery work on Elvis jumpsuits for B&K, Polston said.
Most take 80 to 200 hours to make. The embroidery alone on a re-creation of Elvis' familiar sundial jumpsuit could take 160 hours to complete. B&K tailors sew the colored threads and material with sewing machines, not computers. "The way we do it is the way Elvis' (costumes) were done," Polston said. "It lasts forever, but it's very time consuming."
Loyal, longtime customers - veteran Elvis impersonators such as Borders - are special, "a dying breed," in Polston's view. "A lot of them are still in high demand to do shows, because their accuracy is not mechanical. It's like Elvis," said Polston, who calls Borders "part of our B&K family."
Borders' first attempts at imitating a legend with 600 million records sold were humble. As a teenager, Borders worked de-tasseling corn for Pioneer Seed Co. One of his co-workers and Shakamak classmates served as the high school show choir's designated singer of Elvis songs, a role he didn't want anymore. So the kid taught Borders how to sing Elvis' "Jailhouse Rock." Borders got proficient enough that his fellow de-tasselers offered him Twinkies and Ho Hos - Borders' favorite snacks - to sing the song. ("Of course, there at the last, we know that Elvis had that same problem," Borders said of the King's weight problem.)
Urged by his de-tasseling co-worker, Borders tried out for the Shakamak show choir. Borders asked the director to let him stand in the corner with his back to her while auditioning. "I was so shy," he said, chuckling. "I don't have that problem anymore."
He got the part, sang "Jailhouse Rock" at an open house in the school cafeteria while backed by a band of classmates "and we got a standing ovation." Borders hasn't stopped since. In fact, that high school band included Rick LeDune on lead guitar, and he still fills that role when Borders tours as the Mayor of Rock 'n' Roll and the City Council Band.
His older sister, Linda Sue Lee, had no idea Bruce's early Elvis impersonations would lead to his touring the Virgin Islands with famous disc jockey Wolfman Jack, opening for stars such as Willie Nelson, Loretta Lynn, Kenny Rogers, Conway Twitty and "Tennessee" Ernie Ford, a week of shows at the MGM Grand in Las Vegas, and appearances on talk shows hosted by Letterman, Oprah Winfrey and Joan Rivers and network news programs.
"When he would sing (as a teenager), my friends would come over, and we would just laugh about it," said Lee, who works at Bruce's insurance office. "Who knew he would make money from it?"
Actually, Borders' interest in Presley's music bloomed during his boyhood in Jasonville, as his parents raised eight kids. The family's next-door neighbor resembled Elvis, with swept back dark hair, and the likeness got noticed. Also, Borders' dad bought the family a stereo for Christmas, and it came with the choice of a new album. His dad selected "How Great Thou Art," a 1967 gospel album by Presley. Borders' mom often sang its songs.
"Hearing that album, over and over, and having a next-door neighbor that looked like Elvis probably made me a fan," Borders said.
The Elvis gospel songs that helped make Borders a fan often turn up in his own shows, especially a somewhat obscure number titled "Stand By Me" (not the famous Ben E. King hit). "It talks about how God is with us in all stages of our life," explained Borders. He routinely shares his Christian faith in conversations. Likewise, Borders typically includes a few of Elvis' secular songs in his performances at churches.
"I'll look over at husbands and I'll tell them, 'Take your wife's hand,' and then I do, 'Love Me Tender,'" Borders said.
"I think church needs to be so that we let our hair down a little bit," he added.
A casual Friday atmosphere pervaded the Borders Insurance office during an interview there earlier this month. Customers came and went, walking past the walls decorated with Elvis movie posters and a couch designed like the rear-end of a '50s car. They greet him on a first-name basis. A Jasonville resident walks in to tell Borders a tail light was out on his truck, which was pulling a trailer loaded with the mower he'd used on his daughter's lawn earlier on that unusually cool August morning.
It's a rural town, and his hometown, quite a bit smaller than Elvis' birthplace of Tupelo, Miss., population 38,842. Jasonville is where Borders and his wife, Lola, raised a family of three children. His dad, now 90, still lives here. Borders' mom passed away four years ago, and Bruce still performs her favorite Elvis song, "I'll Never Know," in her memory.
But during January, February, March and April, Borders spends much of his time in downtown Indianapolis as a member of the Indiana Legislature. He's well-known as a staunch, socially conservative Republican, whose stances occasionally stir controversy. (Wolfman Jack, who became a close friend, called Borders "Monk, because I was the most conservative entertainer he'd ever met.")
If anyone asks which task he enjoys most, time in the Statehouse or his Elvis show, "I say, that's easy, the Elvis show," Borders said.
The two roles merged last year. He and the City Council Band performed at a Statehouse send-off for Mike Pence as the former Indiana governor assumed the job of vice president. Borders and the guys' scheduled playing time got reduced because of security concerns, but after their allotted three songs, "Mike told me, 'Would you mind continuing playing?'" Borders said. So, they played on for 2 1/2 hours. Then Pence and his VP motorcade sped away. "That was one for the memory book," Borders said.
He wore the "American Eagle" replica jumpsuit that day. Presley began wearing the jumpsuits - his were made with Italian wool - later in his career for comfort as he gained weight, Borders said. However, "jumpsuits aren't flattering for a belly," he added, "and they aren't any more flattering for me than they were for him." Alas, Borders said he fights to lose pounds, too.
Contrary to some presumptions, though, Borders doubts that Elvis wore the jumpsuits to "mask" his additional weight. "I think he just liked the Superman-like look of the suits," Borders said.
The jumpsuits stand out as the most eye-catching component of Borders' Elvis memorabilia, which also includes the movie posters, books, commemorative plates, an Elvis painting on black velvet and a pair of Super-8 film reels that a teenage Borders discreetly shot during Presley's final concert on June 26, 1977, in Indianapolis' Market Square Arena.
On the evening of Aug. 16, nearly two months later, Borders watched that Super-8 footage with a next-door neighbor at her house. A television set was turned on in the background. "We were literally watching his last concert, and the news (that Elvis had died) came on TV," Borders said. "And we were both crying."
Source: (Terre Haute) Tribune-Star, http://bit.ly/2fGz0XI
Information from: Tribune-Star, http://www.tribstar.com