Elvis Presley's biggest Long Island fans still love him tender

When Elvis Presley played Madison Square Garden in the summer of 1972, one of the first in line for tickets was Michael Minuto of Malverne.

Minuto, then in his 20s,   said he camped out in front of the Garden with a sleeping bag, drinking water and a guitar to keep him entertained. He stayed there for seven days, he said, but time passed quickly as he socialized with friends and fellow fans. 

“It was well worth it,” said Minuto, who came away with enviable center-stage seats in the first three rows for Presley’s multiple concerts.

So when Minuto, now 79 and living in Franklin Square, heard that tickets were going on sale for a sneak-peek screening of Baz Luhrmann’s “Elvis” earlier this month, he sprang into action once again. This time there was no camping out; he simply bought tickets over the internet. Still, Minuto said he was looking forward to seeing old friends and other fans at an early screening of the movie.

Elvis Presley at the Nassau Coliseum on June 22, 1973, and Austin Butler as Elvis in the upcoming film. Photo credits: Newsday / Jim Peppler; Warner Bros. Pictures / Hugh Stewart  

“I’m excited just to be with people I’ve known for a long time,” Minuto said. “And we’ll see what it’s like.”

“Elvis,” which arrives in theaters June 24 (coincidentally, 49 years to the date of his fourth Coliseum concert), has generated strong reviews since its premiere last month at Cannes, where it received a 12-minute standing ovation. Austin Butler, the relatively unknown actor who plays Presley, drew praise for capturing the singer’s hip-swiveling sex appeal; Luhrmann, the director behind music-driven spectacles such as “Moulin Rouge!” and “The Great Gatsby,” reportedly chose Butler over Harry Styles, Miles Teller and Ansel Elgort. Tom Hanks, as Presley’s enigmatic manager, Col. Tom Parker, has earned less enthusiastic reviews for his peculiar-sounding accent (Parker was Dutch-American).

Lifelong fans on Long Island continue to celebrate Elvis Presley's impact.  Credit: Newsday/Thomas Ferrara; Debbie Egan-Chin

For Presley’s fans on Long Island, the release of “Elvis” comes with a note of poignancy. Throughout his career, the singer toured exhaustively but avoided New York. It wasn’t until the 1970s that Presley finally played here — first at the Garden, then four shows at Nassau Coliseum in June 1973 and again for two shows in July1975. A seventh Coliseum show was planned for Aug. 22, 1977, but Presley died six days before, leaving thousands of grieving fans holding tickets for shows they would never see.

Newsday reached out to local fans who shared their memories of Presley and the impact he had on their lives. Some followed him around the country and managed to get close to him. One was his co-star in a couple of his mid-1960s movies. Another ran away from home as a teenager to meet him. All seem forever altered by their connection to him, no matter how tenuous. For Long Islanders, it seems, even almost 45 years after his death, Elvis has still not left the building.

THE FANS

Though Presley had a reputation for appealing to screaming teenagers in the postwar 1950s, his fan base stuck by him throughout his career. Lyn Conklin of Holbrook remembers collecting Presley’s 45 rpm singles and seeing him on "The Ed Sullivan Show.” Yet even into her 30s, Conklin wasn’t too old to spend Easter of 1973 with a friend camping out for Presley tickets at Nassau Coliseum.

At the time, her daughter “thought her mother was crazy,” Conklin, 80, said. “But I was going to do it. The whole thing was an exciting adventure.”

Fans attend the Elvis Presley show at Nassau Coliseum in 1973. (Credit: David L. Pokress; Jim Peppler)

Kathy Corlis, a Presley fan as a kid growing up in Levittown, went to even further lengths. After first seeing Presley live at the Garden, she made an effort to see him just about anywhere she could — from Hartford to Philadelphia to Las Vegas. Corlis, now 78 and living in Pembroke Pines, Florida, said she developed a network of fans who would do favors for each other: Someone in Hartford, for instance, might offer to buy her tickets in exchange for a promise to return the favor in New York someday.

"We had connections everywhere,” Corlis said. “If we knew tickets were going on sale, we would get a phone call, a couple of us would drive or fly to wherever we were going. And we would all chip in and buy the person’s food.”

Along the way, Corlis collected nearly two dozen of the scarves Presley famously draped over his female fans; she now keeps them in a safe-deposit box at a local bank. All told, Corlis said, she saw Presley 56 times. “That’s concerts and that’s getting on and off at planes,” she clarified. “When you know what time he’s coming in and landing, you’re there.”

For Richard Hess, a former airline and railroad worker in Lynbrook, being a Presley fan was a way to push back against the hippie counterculture of the 1960s and ‘70s.

"I hated the Beatles," said Hess, 79, throwing in an expletive. "I’ve never taken drugs, I never smoked pot, I never did any of that. I was a family man that went out and got a job and worked."

Hess, who co-founded the King’s Court fan club, amassed a trove of Elvis memorabilia over the years. These days, his collection resides at the Nassau County home of his son, Ed, 53, who also runs a YouTube channel under the King’s Court name.

Buttons, cardboard cutouts, photos and more memoriabilia belonging to Richard Hess, whose son, Ed, runs an Elvis-themed YouTube channel. Photo credit: Linda Rosier

The younger Hess said the surprise success of his YouTube project proves that Presley’s appeal endures even today. “My main idea for doing the channel was to commemorate Elvis and his memory,” he said. “I started it thinking I wouldn’t get five subscribers, but I’m just shy of 5,000 at this point. I’m amazed every day — I’ll post a video, and within a day I could get 500 to 1,000 views on it. I didn’t expect anybody to click on these things, and they do.”

THE RUNAWAY

Credit: Newsday/Cliff de Bear

Like a lot of teenagers in the 1950s, Marion Weisbarth had a passion for Presley. Hers, however, made headlines.

It was the summer of 1956, not long after the release of Presley’s self-titled debut album, and Marion, a 14-year-old living in East Meadow, had become so obsessed with the singer that her parents were growing concerned. “It’s like a frenzy,” her mother said, according to a Newsday report from that year. “She hardly left the house. She just played those records all day long.”

About noon on the last Monday in July, the Weisbarths got a shock. After entering their daughter’s strangely quiet room, they pulled back the bedsheets and discovered a lump of clothes. Their daughter had slipped out of the house early that morning with a suitcase. Her goal: to meet Presley in his hometown of Memphis.. She left a note that read she was tired of quarreling with her parents and added: “If I get into trouble, I’ll call you.”

Wearing makeup to help her look a little older and holding a Greyhound bus ticket purchased with the babysitting money she’d been saving, Marion rode the 1,000-mile trip to Memphis. By the time she arrived, however, police were waiting. Her mission was cut short, and by Wednesday she was back home.

Marian Esther Weisbarth unpack her clothes at her East Meadow...

Marian Esther Weisbarth unpack her clothes at her East Meadow home from her trip to Memphis as her parents looks on. Credit: Newsday/Cliff de Bear

“I had chutzpah back then,” recalled the onetime runaway, now 80 and living in Ormond Beach, Florida, under her married name, Marion Capizzi. “I guess I’m a little embarrassed about it now.”

The media had much fun with her story at the time, but Capizzi recalls that time differently. “I had a very unhappy childhood,” she said. She was overweight as an adolescent, and the story of her big journey followed her into high school. “Oh, God, what they didn’t do to me in high school,” she said of her peers. “’Oh, Elvis, Elvis, Elvis! What he would want with a fat person like you?’ That kind of thing.”

Nevertheless, she said, she did get to meet Elvis backstage at one of his appearances on “The Ed Sullivan Show” later in 1956. “I was invited,” she said. “I don’t think he said much, except I think he said it was great I was home with my family.” She added, “He was beautiful. Just beautiful.”

As Capizzi grew up, got married, had children and worked as a bookkeeper and cable customer service representative, she tried to forget about her runaway past. Her seven grandchildren don’t know anything about it, she said. And her passion for Elvis has cooled, replaced by a fondness for Frank Sinatra and Nat King Cole.

“You grow up,” she said. “I’m happy where I am, so I don’t have to run away. I’m very content.”

THE IMPERSONATOR

Portrait of Elvis impersonator, Steve Mitchell of Massapequa, pictured here...

Portrait of Elvis impersonator, Steve Mitchell of Massapequa, pictured here in Sergio’s Italian Restaurant in Massapequa where he frequently performs. June 13, 2022 Credit: Newsday/Thomas A. Ferrara

Steve Mitchell, of Massapequa, has been a Presley fan since he was about 8 years old, when he saw the famous 1973 concert “Aloha from Hawaii via Satellite” on his family’s 19-inch Zenith television set. That appearance caught Elvis at his jumpsuit-period peak, spangled in jewels and wearing a wide, low-slung belt. “It was like, boom, something clicked,” Mitchell recalled.

Fast-forward to his 20s, when Mitchell, then a struggling musician, rented an Elvis costume for Halloween and performed with a local band at a bar in Freeport. Mitchell’s show went over so well that he began wondering if he could make a career  of it. He called a booking agency, which called him back with a gig at a party.

"I had no equipment, so I grabbed my acoustic guitar, I learned three songs and I went in,” Mitchell said. "I got 150 dollars in cash. I was like, ‘Wow!'"

Thus began a roughly 30-year career impersonating the King of Rock and Roll. The pay varies, Mitchell said, from $200 to $600 per appearance; Mitchell is also a DJ and ordained minister.  With the income he makes as a butcher in Queens, it’s been enough to help raise a family.

Being Elvis has also provided Mitchell with good stories. “I’ve done funerals,” he said. “People have asked me to sing ‘How Great Thou Art.’ It’s kind of weird, singing to a corpse. But it’s kind of an honor when you think about it.”

Mitchell said he takes his job seriously and works hard on his vocals. The best moments, he said, come when his audiences “recognize my love for Elvis first. It’s not about me, it’s about my responsibility to them. That’s the greatest thing I can do for Elvis.”

THE CO-STAR FROM LI

 Will Hutchins (l) and Elvis Presley in the 1967 movie "Clambake."

 Will Hutchins (l) and Elvis Presley in the 1967 movie "Clambake." Credit: Everett Collection

Will Hutchins is surely one of the few Long Islanders who considered Presley a co-worker. The 92-year-old actor, who lives in Glen Head, worked with the singer on two films during the mid-1960s, the car-race musical “Spinout” and the beach-themed “Clambake.”

A Southern California native who pursued acting after a stint in the Army during the Korean War, Hutchins became a familiar face thanks to a starring role on the CBS Western “Sugarfoot,” which launched in 1957. Nearly a decade later, he landed a role on “Spinout.” Hutchin splayed a cop named Tracy Richards — a backward riff on Dick Tracy, he said, though few probably caught the joke.

Being on that set “was like Dorothy going into the Land of Oz,” Hutchins said. “It was like the whole world changed.”

“Spinout” led to a starring role in “Clambake” as Tom Wilson, a poor water-ski instructor who gladly trades lives with a rich kid named Scott Hayward (Presley). Hutchins described the atmosphere on set as convivial, even party-like, though he was impressed by Presley’s acting skill and professionalism.

“For me, he was just about Mr. Perfecto,” Hutchins said. “I’d forget a line and he’d tell me what it was.”

Actor Will Hutchins in the living room of his home...

Actor Will Hutchins in the living room of his home in Glen Head, Sunday, Dec.18, 2016. Credit: Jeff Bachner

Hutchins’ one regret: Elvis talked about playing buddies with him again in a karate-themed comedy, he said, but it never came to pass. Still, he remembers his two Presley films as highlights of his acting career.

“Maybe the epitome, in a way,” Hutchins said. “Unfortunately, they were only five weeks each. I didn’t want to stop going to work every day. It went too fast.”

THE LEGACY

Presley-mania may have waned over the decades, but even today it’s hard to think of another star with such massive and lasting fame.

Nothing seemed to dim the love of his fans — not his critically panned movies, not his occasionally dismal live shows, not the visibly flagging health that marked his final days. Presley has remained one of Forbes’ highest-earning deceased celebrities for the last 20 years, often topping Andy Warhol, Marilyn Monroe and Charles Schulz. Presley memorabilia is still a thriving market, too: A watch reportedly worn by him on stage and then given to a bodyguard recently went on sale for $24,850.

Corlis, the superfan from Commack, said one of her most treasured possessions is an 11x14 photo of Presley that he paused in the middle of a concert to sign for her. Whatever the photo might be worth, however, she doesn’t plan to sell it.

“I keep telling my kids,” Corlis said, “when I die, that better go in my coffin.”