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Monday, Jan. 24, 2022

Burning Love

A matchbook diary unearthed at a local thrift shop chronicles a yearslong affair between a semi-professional Elvis impersonator and his lover

I don’t know what I was expecting to find in the giant glass drum of matchbooks — more than 600 of them — that I cautiously carried to the counter of a thrift store in downtown Magnolia, Ark., recently. I don’t know why I thought these matchbooks were worth $25.

The glass container itself — cracked top to bottom like a biblical tablet, but still in one piece — was a gigantic Tom’s cookie jar advertising “Peanut Butter Sandwiches and Sweet Sandwiches” in stylized blue lettering.

“You know what that is?” the lady behind the register asked. “That’s a cookie jar. Kids used to give the cashier a nickel, then just reach in and pick out their own cookie.”

I thought about it for a moment.

“Were the cookies individually wrapped?” The cashier drew back slightly. She’d likely expected a response more along the lines of “those were the good old days.”

“No, the cookies weren’t wrapped,” she said.

“That’s nasty,” I said. “Have you ever seen an 8-year-old boy’s hands?” “I have 10 grandchildren,” she said. “They’re filthy, aren’t they?” She stared back at me blankly. Later that night, back home in Shreveport, I sat cross-legged on a 15-year-old IKEA rug, surrounded by hundreds and hundreds of matchbooks advertising hotels, motels, restaurants and nightclubs within a couple of hundred miles of Shreveport. I loved their colors: the muted, mid-century seafoam greens and the reds still vibrant after spending who-knows-how-many decades tumbling through the junk drawer of history only to come to rest in this cracked cookie jar.

Just like I don’t know why on earth I bought 600 matchbooks, I don’t know why I popped one of them open for closer inspection. The matchbook itself was for a place called BRIO: The Party Place — no address, no phone number. Just BRIO: The Party Place. Inside, in tight, claustrophobic script, I found the following note:

“3-26-86: Wed. 7:30 p.m. Lot of Elvis fans hollered at Steve. One woman 33 had picture made with Steve wearing white Elvis jacket, white pants, and fuschia shirt.”

I sat the matchbook down and paused Yellowjackets. “Lot of Elvis fans hollered at Steve?” What a fun thing, I thought. A matchbook with notes about an Elvis impersonator. The next matchbook that I grabbed was from a ‘50s-themed diner called Studebaker’s. Just out of curiosity, I flipped it open. There it was: the same tight cursive, leaning toward the right-hand margin like a crowd heading for the exits.

“12-15-85: Steve sang along with 2 Elvis records. Manager asked him in disc jockey’s box. 7 p.m.”

That was when I realized that I hadn’t purchased a bunch of matchbooks; I had purchased a diary composed in tiny, matchbook-sized entries — a diary belonging to the traveling companion of an Elvis impersonator named Steve. I looked around at the hundreds of matchbooks and wondered how this kind of thing kept happening to me.

Many of the matchbooks were from restaurants and nightclubs in Dallas or Shreveport. About one hundred of them were from Las Vegas, mainly the large casino resorts but also bars and clubs far from the Strip. Add to this mix a dozen or so trips to Hawaii and an assortment of roadhouses, gay bars and topless clubs between Shreveport and Las Vegas, and you have the bulk of the collection.

Several dozen of the matchbooks appeared to be for gay bars — places with names like The Pink Flamingo, Rainbow Room and Encounters — leading me to wonder if Steve’s partner was also a man. Whenever Steve whips his fans into a frenzy, the diarist notes if they are women, often going so far as to count the women. The diarist will write, for example, “Five women told Steve he was great” or “Steve danced with two women” in a way that, somehow, strikes me more like something a male partner would make a note of, for reasons that I can’t quite explain.

Each time I reached into the pile and pulled out another entry into this couple’s diary, my understanding of who they were became less and less clear. It was as though the more I learned about them, the less I knew.

One of the first questions that arose was whether or not Steve was a professional Elvis impersonator at all. As I read more diary entries — in matchbooks from places like The Moulin Rouge in Shreveport and Yesterday’s Club in Rockwall — I began to think it was possible that Steve was just a guy who couldn’t help belting out Elvis tunes whenever he had one Colorado Bulldog too many. Lots of nights, the matchbooks don’t mention Elvis at all. Some nights, Steve and his scribe are just another young couple in love.

“12-27-85: Steve + I danced 4 disco dances. Really worked out. Steve had all women watching every move he made.”

I transcribed all of the matchbooks over the course of a weekend, adding all of the notes to a spreadsheet that could be sorted by city or date. I read accounts of good nights and bad nights, nights when Steve spent more money than he should have or dragged his unnamed partner to one too many bars. I read along as what may have been Steve’s career as an Elvis impersonator sparkled and faded. One gig in particular seemed to aggravate the diarist, a swanky bar mitzvah at the Four Seasons Hotel in Dallas.

“5-3-86: S. sang 3 songs for $100.00 Bar Mitzvah. Disc jockey told Steve they spent $95,000 on this party. 2 big spotlights video camera on Steve all 3 songs. They were not sociable to us. Very cold + distant. S. paid $4.50 for ONE BEER IN LOUNGE.”

After that awkward bar mitzvah, there were a handful of hotel grand openings, one last trip to Hawaii and a weekend stint at the Hard Rock Cafe in Dallas that appears to have been the end of the line. I hated to see it end for Steve, who I felt had a good thing going there for a while.

Underneath a snaggle-toothed disco ball, its million flashbulbs glittering off of his new fuschia shirt while exactly five women watched him belt out “Jailhouse Rock.” Back at the table, his long-suffering partner, his Priscilla, doggedly flips open a matchbook to write, “Five women watched Steve’s every move.”

In our lives, I think, we’re supposed to love a lot of people. Some of them will be perfectly normal, and others will be semiprofessional Elvis impersonators. And maybe you decide to go on tour for a while, see what that’s like. Maybe the road suits you for a year or two, watching that goodlooking man of yours make beehive-haired

Frisco grandmothers feel things they haven’t felt since Aug. 16, 1977. Then, a bar mitzvah with bad vibes turns out to be the last gig that you can stand the thought of, and it’s over — just like that.

I don’t think anyone should regret a love like that. Sure, you joke about it for years to come (“Remember the Elvis impersonator?”), one of your life’s great loves having become just a story that you reel off at parties. But while you’re cracking those jokes, the people who know you best may recognize the glint of stardust in your eyes. They know that you’re miles away, timetraveling, back at some roadhouse on Route 66, sitting stage right, sipping a weak Cuba Libre through a cocktail straw and waiting for Steve to launch into “Can’t Help Falling in Love.”

Postscript

I intend to continue researching this story, with help from friends, and with any luck you’ll read part two of this story soon in 318 Forum. If you believe that you may know Steve F., a semi-professional Elvis impersonator who performed at The Moulin Rouge several times in Shreveport in the mid-’80s, please contact me at ChrisJay318@gmail.com. Thank you. Thank you very much.

ON STANDS NOW!

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