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Nail sculptor tries his hand at imitating Elvis

The first time Bill Beck saw him, Elvis was a flickering dream in black and white, a lip-curling vision of the future of rock 'n' roll - and, although the 8-year-old Beck didn't know it then, a harbinger of Beck's future. That was 1956, when Elvis Presley appeared on Tommy Dorsey's television show, scorching the airwaves and letting the country have a gander at the man who had set Memphis on fire. It was his first TV appearance, even before his now-famous turn on Ed Sullivan.

Not yet the king of rock 'n' roll, the Elvis that Beck saw was swiveling his hips and singing songs most decent folk had never heard: Tutti Frutti and Blue Suede Shoes and Baby, Let's Play House.

"That's when he was real greasy and just starting out," Beck said. "When you're 8 years old, you're real impressionable. I just thought he was really cool."

These days, Beck is the one playing it cool, impersonating Elvis every Sunday night at The Bank Restaurant and Lounge on Treasure Island. He sings 16 or 17 songs, including his favorite, Are You Lonesome Tonight?

His new manager loves him. "I'm a die-hard Elvis fan myself," Anna Nojadera said. "But he moves even better than Elvis himself.

He's going to the top. He'll be in Vegas within the year."

Viva Las Vegas, maybe, but now Beck is sculpting nails part-time in Oldsmar to make ends meet. His boss, Linda Oxendine, loves him, too.

"He's very, very good at nails, one of the best I've ever seen," Oxendine said. "And to top it off, he's a super guy. He's not conceited about looking like Elvis at all."

Beck, 41, doesn't aim to duplicate that young and greasy image he saw so long ago, the hillbilly cat who still could remember growing up in a two-room shack in Tupelo, Miss. He shoots for the more mature Elvis, the one with a marble-pillared mansion on the hill.

Does he succeed? Consider this: Even when not in costume, strangers stop him in the mall and ask for autographs or sing Hound Dog at him or just look at him like he's a little tutti-frutti himself.

"It gets a little nutty," Beck said.

When a stranger stops him, Beck doesn't give away Cadillacs. He does hand out $100 bills. But, as befits an Elvis impersonator, the bills he hands out are not the real thing, merely imitations - more Love Me Tender than legal tender. The bills bear Beck's picture and phone number, for anyone who wants to book him for a party or a show.

"I treat it like a business," he said. When in costume, he wears a ring that bears Elvis' motto: "TCB," short for "taking care of business."

In fact, playing Elvis started out as just a way to make a little pin money, the Clearwater native said.

"It seems like everything I've ever done was by accident," Beck said.

Until one Halloween eight years ago, Beck wore a beard. Then, hearing of a costume contest offering a $150 first prize, he shaved the beard up to the sideburns. And using the expertise from his job as a tailor, he sewed himself an Elvis jump suit.

With his kingly raiments and visage, Beck swept the contest - and another the next year, and another and another.

People started asking him to perform at parties and bar mitzvahs. Then, last year, he won the "Best Elvis of Florida" contest on a local television show.

That's when he decided to turn pro.

He tries hard to get the details right on how Elvis looked and sounded and moved, and he makes his own costumes and jewelry. He now has seven Elvis outfits, four of them one-piece jump suits with high collars and open necks. He even makes the three or four scarves he gives out at each show.

At 6 feet 3, Beck towers over his fellow employees at the nail salon. According to the Elvis Presley Memorial Society, Beck is a little larger than life. Elvis himself stood exactly 6 feet tall in his stocking feet.

The 100-member society, established in 1978, takes no position for or against impersonators such as Beck, president Sue Fetchko said.

"It's an individual thing," she said. "Some people like them;

some don't."

There are more than a dozen organizations like Fetchko's society, all devoted to keeping Elvis' memory alive. One is the 300-member E. P. Impersonators International Association, founded last year by Illinois square-dance caller Ron Bessette.

"When I toured Graceland last year, I got the feeling something was missing," Bessette said. "Who was going to be carrying on his legacy? The fan clubs can't carry it that far. I asked, 'Where are the impersonators?' " Bessette figures there must be 3,500 Elvis impersonators throughout the world. He is planning the first impersonator convention in Chicago later this year, featuring seminars on stage presence and so forth. He hopes 10,000 people will show up.

Don't look for Bill Beck to be one of them. This is one Elvis fan who doesn't join clubs or collect memorabilia.

"I kind of shy away from stuff like that," he said. "I'm not really into the carnival atmosphere."

As for Graceland, he's never been. And no, he doesn't think Elvis is alive and well and scarfing down cheeseburgers in Kalamazoo, Mich. "He touched a lot of people," Beck said. "People want to keep that going. It amazes me. I don't quite understand it."

But that's good for business, too, he said. "It's helpful for my end of it if people think he's alive," Beck said. "They can come see me and fantasize."

Beck tries to be Elvis yet not be caught up in the myth, the hype, the hoopla of the King. It means treading that fine line between identification and obsession.

"When I'm offstage, I'm just me," he said. "I haven't gotten swept away."