The King in Okemah

by Natasha Ball


Debbie Keef sat on the sidewalk in her black sweat suit, Elvis Presley’s signature in nail heads on her right hip. She showed me her necklace—a reproduction of one Priscilla used to wear, she said—and her earrings, the letters that spell Elvis sparkling in rhinestone as they dangled.

She’d never seen her husband clean-shaven until he emerged from their bathroom with sideburns and greased hair. “There was only two men ever made my walls when I was young: Elvis Presley and David Cassidy,” she told me. “I couldn’t have the real Elvis, so this is the next best thing.”

We’d left our purses inside, in the belly of an old mercantile-turned-pub on Broadway in downtown Okemah, less than a block from where Woody Guthrie scratched his name into a patch of wet concrete. I’d flicked the paper sign hanging from the ceiling as I descended from the dining room, awash in the light of the sunset outside, into the 100-year-old basement. The sign was the kind that gets hung from fireplaces and doorways at birthday parties, the ones that spell happy birthday with individual letters pinned together. This one, too small to fill the space properly where it was hanging, said, “Aloha.”

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Away from the lights of a big city, members of the Elvis Fan Club of Oklahoma had come to this Blue Hawaii party from as far away as Sayre, the end of the line of Route 66 in west Oklahoma. They’d come together to commemorate the 35th year since The King met his maker. There were couples with babies, made-up Creek and Seminole grandmas giggling at the back table, men with weathered skin in cowboy boots and t-shirts. Tim stood in front of them all, sweating in his white leisure suit, trimmed in gold and red satin, an official reproduction of the ’70s-era Eyelet Suit. This crowd expected nothing less than perfection. Debbie stood in the dark behind the lights, clapping and mouthing the words as her husband vaulted into the melody of “Suspicious Minds.”

“There are a lot of guys who throw on a cheap wig and some sideburns and they’re overweight, and they throw on a cheap jumpsuit, and they look ridiculous,” Keef said. “And that’s what I try to stay away from—to me, that’s what an Elvis impersonator is.”

Tim and Debbie are a crime-fighting duo by day. While Debbie works as a jailer in Grady County, Tim heads up the police force in Alex, population 700. “These are real sideburns, and this is my real hair,” he said. “I’ll try to wear a cap to tone it down on the stops and stuff, but I still get a lot of people asking me to sing ‘Love Me Tender’ on the side of the road.”

Charle Reeves had her back to the show, buzzing along some tables loaded down with snarling coffee mugs and coiffed magnets up for auction. She’d organized this event for the first time 14 years ago, two years after she’d formed the club and jumped through the hoops to earn Graceland sanctioning, the coveted and singular mark of approval from Patte Ann Drive in Memphis. Her first memory of Elvis was when his death interrupted her morning cartoons. Local legend has it that he used to stop in her home town Okemah and gas up his own bus on his way out to the west coast and back: “There are credit card slips, and it was in the paper at the time—I’ve seen it on microfilm,” Charle tells me. She hosts the theme party in her hometown because, well, she still lives there. She’d show me the Woody stuff the next time I’m in town, she promised. “I think Elvis and Woody Guthrie are a lot alike,” she told me. “They both had humble upbringings, and they both cared for their fans. They really were deeply rooted in their hometowns, and they never really forgot where they came from.”

Ronnie Kaye is the Oklahoma Broadcasters Hall of Famer and ’60s teen dance show host who DJs the event each year, and he called us to rise from our chairs and meet in the center of the room. “You’re here tonight because you have a deep, burning love for Elvis in your heart,” he said into the microphone. He told us to form a circle. It was dark, and the music had died. Tim had disappeared up the stairs, a bottle of water sweating in his hand. Kaye never told us to join hands—we didn’t yet know he’d just cast us in the annual dancing of the Hokey Pokey—but we did, anyway.