TAMPA — Tucked into a back corner of the sprawling campus of the Humane Society of Tampa Bay on Armenia Avenue is a scattered collection of stones and statues with an odd connection to Elvis Presley.
It’s a pet cemetery. And it’s about to get dug up.
What’s the connection? The cemetery and the King were, in a way, both the creation of one man — a Florida man, of course.
While Elvis hailed from Mississippi and lived in Tennessee, his stardom owed a lot to Florida. According to author Bob Kealing’s book Elvis Ignited, the Sunshine State helped launch his career.
His first song to hit No. 1, Heartbreak Hotel, was written by a Jacksonville woman named Mae Axton. He filmed a movie in Central Florida called Follow That Dream, during which he met a young Tom Petty, inspiring the boy to become a rock star, too. And a photo of him performing one of several shows at a Tampa armory show became the iconic image on thecover of his debut album.
But this Tampa pet cemetery is the weirdest Florida connection of all.
It involves a man who was born in Holland under the name of Andreas Cornelis van Kuijk. In the 1920s he made a hasty departure from his homeland and found his way into the United States as an illegal immigrant.
He worked in sideshows and carnivals, learning the ins and outs of show business. Then he joined the U.S. Army under a phony name and soon earned a promotion to private. While stationed at a base in Pensacola, he went AWOL for five months. His punishment: solitary confinement for two months. It wasn’t exactly Jailhouse Rock.
When he was released, he seemed a mess — incoherent, full of rage, all shook up. Doctors who examined him threw up their hands. He was classified psychotic and released. It’s not easy to get an honorable discharge after being convicted of desertion, but he pulled it off.
He found work at a carnival based in Tampa, showing horses, reading palms and putting on stunts like a phony marriage atop the Ferris wheel. He also sold "foot-long" hot dogs that weren’t, hamburgers that were mostly filler and raffle tickets for a ham that always went home with him. He wed a Tampa woman, although as with many other things he did, there’s some question about whether it was legal.
Between tours he found other ways to scrounge up a buck in Tampa. For instance, he buried a pony up to its knees in the dirt, put a curtain around it and charged people to see "The World’s Smallest Horse."
He was a classic Florida hustler, and money was always on his mind. That background proved valuable when in 1940 he landed a new job as a "field agent" — i.e., dogcatcher — for Tampa’s Humane Society.
The job not only brought him a steady paycheck, but also provided his family with a rent-free apartment above the Humane Society’s shelter. His employer furnished him with a uniform and cap as he went on "ambulance runs" to check on reports of cats in trees and boys shooting at birds.
According to his biographer, he started telling people to call him "doctor." He invited local merchants to donate money for pet supplies — although that ended when they figured out he was instead buying food for his family.
He engineered stunts to get the Humane Society’s name in the paper. He dressed up as Santa and gave away puppies to children. He dug a deep but narrow hole, put a dog in it, told reporters that the dog had fallen in and invited people to send in contributions so he could hire a circus midget to rescue it. The shelter was in bad financial shape when he started, and within a year he had it out of the red.
Then he started the pet cemetery, which, as Kealing puts it, "was totally a scam." The biographer called it "his most inspired and creative moneymaking scheme."
The "doctor" was aided by a gofer named Bevo Bevis. He bestowed on Bevis the title of "General Manager for Perpetual Care for Deceased Pets," then told him his first assignment was to clear weeds and debris from the site. Then, Kealing said, he had Bevis build small coffins from wood scraps.
To seal the deal, the dogcatcher fast-talked a monument maker into giving him a small tombstone for free, inscribed with "HERE LIES SPOT, A BELOVED AND FAITHFUL COMPANION." He had Bevis dig a hole, then refill it so the dirt made a mound, then stuck in the phony headstone.
The fake grave made for a dandy sales pitch for bereaved dog and cat owners. The "doctor" charged them up to $100 for each "Fido funeral," Kealing said. He used headstones that cost him only $15, and decorated each plot with daisies he’d gotten as cast-offs from a local florist.
How much of the profit went to the Humane Society? Nobody knows, but Kealing said, "My money is on (him) keeping a ridiculously high percentage for himself."
Soon, the dogcatcher found a new way to make money: organizing a fundraising concert for the Humane Society starring country music star Roy Acuff and Minnie Pearl. The concert at the Homer Hesterly Armory in Tampa — where Elvis would later get his picture taken — was a huge success.
Concert promotion proved to be where his true genius lay. He began promoting more shows, but not for charity. Soon he was neglecting his duties at the shelter because country music paid better. He trained himself to present more of a Southern-fried image, wearing string ties and drawling at all times, as he moved into managing big-name country stars.
Then, in 1955, he laid eyes on the hunka-hunka burning talent that was the young Elvis. Through some shrewd gamesmanship, the onetime dogcatcher maneuvered Elvis away from the people who had been overseeing his career up until then and took over his management. He shaped and guided the young singer’s image, his career, his whole life, until the King died in 1977.
By the time he met Elvis, the former private had gotten a promotion. He was known as Col. Tom Parker, the rock ’n’ roll Svengali who would grow fat by taking 50 percent of his client’s profits.
The Humane Society of Tampa Bay — a far more respectable organization these days — maintains what’s left of Col. Tom’s pet cemetery. No new graves have been added since the 1980s because now people generally cremate their pets, said CEO Sherry Silk.
Some of the cemetery had to be moved or dismantled years ago when the society expanded a dog play area. Now, Silk said, because of a recently announced $11 million expansion, "we will have to relocate the headstones to another part of the property."
The society staff keeps on the office wall a big photo of Col. Tom Parker from his "doctor" days with one of his canine clients. His life is proof that any Florida man can be a success, even if, at heart, he’s nothing but a hound dog..
This story contains information from "Elvis Ignited: The Rise of an Icon in Florida," by Bob Kealing and "The Colonel: The Extraordinary Story of Colonel Tom Parker and Elvis Presley," By Alanna Nash. Contact Craig Pittman at [email protected] Follow @craigtimes.