Elvis Reenters The Building
The Atlantic|June 2021
In rural Ohio, a performer bookends a year of struggle and survival.
By Tim Alberta

Strict guidelines had been announced before the show: There could be no kisses on his cheek, no holding of his hand, no accepting of his garish, sweat-drenched scarves. In short: There could be no physical contact with Elvis. But the King was caught up in the moment, playing by his own rules. He had been waiting a year for this. And so had Sue Paszke, although for her it had felt much longer.

The last time Paszke and her fellow “Blue Hawaii Ladies” had caught a live glimpse of Dwight Icenhower—one of the world’s foremost Elvis “tribute artists”—was on March 7, 2020. It had happened here, inside Stuart’s Opera House, an elegant concert hall tucked into the hollows of Appalachia, in Nelsonville, Ohio. For 20 years, the ladies— uniformly clad in sky-blue aloha shirts— had been Icenhower’s groupies, following him to shows all around the country. Paszke, a 78-year-old retired lunch lady from Columbus, had struck up a ritual with Icenhower: Every time she saw him perform, he autographed her favorite scarf. When Icenhower came to Stuart’s Opera House last March, he signed the scarf for the 99th time. Once more, Paszke joked, and she could die a happy woman.

And then she almost died an unhappy woman. Several months into the coronavirus pandemic, Paszke awoke in the middle of the night unable to breathe. Her husband rushed her to the emergency room. “Good news,” the doctors told her. “It’s pneumonia.” She was flattened for the next two months. Despite orders to avoid human contact—an infection being a likely death sentence—she couldn’t seem to stay out of the hospital. Having recently undergone surgery on one knee, she soon had the other knee operated on as well. Later, her heart rate began spiking uncontrollably, the result of a previously undiagnosed cardiac condition. She wept and wallowed and cursed her circumstances: too frail to attend funerals, too compromised to meet her first great-grandchild. “It was hell,” Paszke told me. “All I could do was wonder …” She paused. “I didn’t think I’d ever get that 100th autograph.”

One year and six days later, she stood in an elevated box on the right side of Stuart’s stage, a Juliet awaiting her Romeo. This was a special occasion— and not just for Paszke. It was a homecoming for Icenhower. (Yes, Dwight Icenhower is his real name.) Having grown up nearby, he had achieved some level of fame as Elvis reborn— he’d performed around the world and starred in a Super Bowl commercial for Apple that has 1.4 billion YouTube views. But the pandemic left him with considerable time to reflect on his life and career. When he talked with Stuart’s about headlining its first show upon reopening, he asked not to perform as Elvis Presley. He just wanted to be Dwight Icenhower from Pomeroy, Ohio.

He ditched the white jumpsuit and sunglasses for a mustard jacket and black skinny jeans and performed not only Elvis’s greatest hits but also a medley of Johnny Cash and Ricky Nelson and Elton John songs. When the time was right, he called out to Paszke. Her scarf had been sneaked backstage before the show for Icenhower’s signature. Now, telling the crowd their story, Icenhower took Paszke in one hand and raised the faux silk with the other. The moment was one part triumph of the human spirit, one part proof that beauty is in the eye of the beholder.

“I know it might sound weird—all this fuss over an Elvis tribute artist,” Betsy Naseman, Paszke’s niece and a fellow Blue Hawaii Lady, told me afterward. “But being back here a year later, it feels like we’ve come full circle. Like we’ve survived.”

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