Elvis lives in Lancaster.
That’s what they say at The Pub in the Essex House--the high desert’s very own Heartbreak Hotel. Regulars have been showing up six nights a week for three years running, often with friends and relatives in tow, to hear Alexander Longrifle’s unique tribute to Elvis Presley.
Longrifle, a Navajo Indian, disdains high-collared rhinestone jumpsuits, pompadour hairdos, sunglasses or any of the other elaborate trappings of the impersonators who would be the King. When the 39-year-old entertainer is taking care of business, he prefers a no-frills approach that is short on glamour but long on endurance.
“They seem to love him,” said Mike Axley, manager of the Essex House Hotel. “It’s varied enough that some people show up night after night after night.”
In The Pub, a dimly lit lounge decorated in a colonial motif, ceiling fans turn slowly through a cigarette- smoke haze. The lone Presley-inspired prop in Longrifle’s act is a framed poster of Elvis that hangs in the corner on a blue curtain.
Longrifle, wearing jeans and a casual shirt, settles behind a converted piano bar that he covers with self-made, silk-screened sweat shirts (with his image) that are for sale. Flanked by a surreal painting of himself propped on top of an amplifier and accompanied by a variety of recorded instrumental tracks, Longrifle simultaneously plays a rifle-shaped guitar, drums, keyboards and chimes while belting out everything from “Blue Suede Shoes” to “Viva Las Vegas.”
Twirling drumsticks during a few of the numbers and cracking inane jokes between almost all of them, Longrifle serenades old and younger customers alike with Elvis melodies sung in a voice strikingly similar to that of the man who made them famous.
“As long as he sticks with the Elvis songs he’s great,” said Jim Hagon, a security guard at the Essex House. “He does a lousy Michael Jackson.”
Longrifle’s musical talents have resulted in minor cult-hero status in Lancaster. They also enable him to earn $700 a week--a portion of the money necessary to keep afloat the Alexander Longrifle Youth Reservation, a privately funded, nonprofit education and counseling project that has made him something of a legend to more than 200 teen-agers and their families throughout Los Angeles, Ventura and Kern counties.
“I’m sure that Elvis, with everyone else grabbing his shirttail, would be glad it’s going to something good,” said Phylis Holland, a Lancaster resident who has seen Longrifle perform several times. “He takes people other people give up on and he gets them to go straight.”
The reservation, on 10 acres in Mojave, is about 15 minutes north of Edwards Air Force Base--25 minutes outside Lancaster. It was established in September, 1983, by Longrifle, who says he was a teen-age runaway from home, and four other founders, including actors Iron Eyes Cody and Randolph Mantooth, Paul Wolfe and Ben Lee.
Today, it is Longrifle’s permanent residence and the temporary home for as many as 10 teen-agers of varied nationalities between the ages of 13 and 18. Most of them are sent through word-of-mouth referrals from parents and former residents. Some are hardened runaways or drug and alcohol abusers. Others are experiencing problems at home or in school.
The length of stay at the reservation, which is partially supported by $350-a-month donations from parents, can range from a few months to a few years, and is determined by Longrifle and the parent and child.
“I love kids and I don’t like people saying kids are no good,” Longrifle said. “I don’t care how bad you’ve been, no one can tell you that you can’t learn. All these kids can learn, and I have faith in them and trust in them.”
Like his musical act, Longrifle’s reservation is a no-frills affair. Access to the property requires travel on a dirt road capable of rattling the most sophisticated of suspension systems.
“It’s an island in the middle of the world,” said Donna Briant, a matron with the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department who helps Longrifle track down residents who occasionally flee. “There’s no fences and no barbed wire. It’s not meant to be a prison. It’s a place where they can grow.
‘Lost Their Identities’
“Some of these kids have been through the court system where they’ve lost their identities. They gain it back out there.”
Longrifle, three paid counselors and a number of volunteer professionals oversee the daily activity. This includes four hours of schoolwork through a state-approved independent study program coordinated by the Mojave Board of Education. Students meet once a week with a teacher at Douglas High School, an alternative school located on the campus of Mountain View High in Mojave.
“The kids really bring in the work,” said Charles Brannen, principal of both Mountain View and Douglas. “Some of them earn a lot more credits than kids in regular high school. It’s working well.”
Many former residents are enrolled in community colleges and trade schools. Others have joined the armed forces.
“Some of these kids have been in and out of programs like these and they think they’re never going to change,” said counselor Cyndi Turner. “Alex has his own way of getting to them. He pushes them to learn and see that the whole world is not like the past.”
Glimpse of Future
New residents get a glimpse of the future immediately upon arrival. An empty booth near the entrance to the property is inscribed with the slogan, “Built by the Youth of Today for the Youth of Tomorrow.” And that is literally the case at the reservation.
Longrifle and the residents built everything on the property--except two mobile homes that serve as dormitories and classrooms--including a stage, corral, makeshift pool hall, skateboard ramp, remote-control car track, baseball backstop, dirt basketball and volleyball courts, and croquet, weightlifting and karate areas.
Longrifle gives lessons in karate for self-protection and self-esteem. He also gives music lessons. Five or six times a year, musical fund-raisers are staged at the Essex House, with Longrifle and the residents providing the entertainment.
The activities provide a forum for communication that Longrifle believes is unobtainable in a formal setting.
“I would never sit here with a kid and counsel him,” Longrifle said during an interview in his office at the reservation. “I do it every day, outside, when I’m riding bikes with them or whatever. If they’re feeling down, we talk about it while we’re shooting some baskets. We talk with them and counsel them, and they don’t even know we’re doing it.”
Life on the reservation, however, is anything but a day at the country club. Longrifle and boys are addressed as “Sir,” and female counselors and girls as “Ma’am.” Punishment for misbehavior includes push-ups, ditch digging and collecting buckets full of rocks.
“Alex makes you think about what you’re doing,” said Dawn Tomlinson, 14, who, her mother said, spent seven months at the reservation after the death of an infant niece sent her into an emotional tailspin. “He shows you that you can turn it around if you want to. You can help other people by helping yourself.”
Said Diana Wilson, Dawn’s mother: “They have to face themselves out there. There are no city games to play. . . . She came back a whole person.”
Longrifle does not hold a college degree in psychology. In fact, he is just short of completing his associate of arts degree in business administration at Pasadena City College. His methods, he says, are borne out of his Indian heritage, a tour of duty in the Army, work with youths in gangs and his own experiences as a runaway.
Born in Holbrook, Ariz., Longrifle moved with his mother, two sisters and “a bunch of cousins” to Texarkana, Tex., when he was 5. At 13, he “ran away” with his guitar and began performing with bands and as a solo act in bars throughout Texas and the Southwest.
“I never had any lessons or formal training,” said Longrifle, who often slept in back rooms or in the basements of the establishments where he played. “I just picked up chords and things from Okie-redneck singers. I guess it was just in me.”
So, apparently, was a voice like Elvis Presley’s.
Longrifle was 15 and performing at a bar in Texas when a trio of female patrons who thought that he sounded like Elvis requested that he perform a few of his songs. Longrifle knew none--but said he picked them up quickly with the aid of some records from the bar owner, who threatened to fire him unless he learned.
“Once I noticed the tip jar went from $25 a night to $50 or $60, I thought, ‘Hey, there must be something to this,’ ” said Longrifle, who has recorded several albums of original material and cover versions of other songs.
Longrifle’s musical versatility and his development as a one-man combo came from his experiences with temperamental musicians. On many occasions, Longrifle said he filled the void left by band members who failed to appear for performances.
“If the bass player didn’t show up, I’d play that,” Longrifle said. “If the lead guitar player didn’t show up, I’d play that. Same thing with drums. One time, nobody else showed up.”
When Longrifle first showed up in Mojave in 1982, he was a burned-out Las Vegas entertainer looking to start a new life dedicated to helping wayward youths.
After winning the Gong Show’s “Elvis Presley Tribute” competition with a performance of “Jailhouse Rock” in 1976, Longrifle worked the Holiday Inn circuit for a few years before making the jump to Las Vegas in 1980.
He fronted a band, earned marquee billing, rode in limousines and led a life style that he said included drinking and drugs. “It was a custom as an entertainer. Most of the entertainers partied together. It got to the point where it bothered me and bothered my body. . . . Unfortunately, it was a movie-type situation--entertainer gets wrapped up with bucks.
“I was making five grand a week, but it was a plastic world,” Longrifle said. “All of a sudden, it’s a little fame, big bucks. I had to get out--so I left.”
Longrifle bought the property in Mojave after seeing it while driving back from Nevada. He performed at the Burbank Holiday Inn during the week and drove to the desert and cleared the property of brush on the weekends.
Now Longrifle is hoping to grow. He has applied with the Fresno-based Community Care Licensing Division of the state Department of Social Services for a permit that would allow 15 residents at the reservation.
He plans to continue performing at the Essex House indefinitely so that he can continue earning money and seeking donations in an effort to keep both the legend of Elvis and the reservation alive.
“I’m honest with people,” Longrifle said. “When I give my word, it’s my word all the way, whether I like it or the situation is bad. I stick to my word and that’s what I teach these kids.
“When you’re trying to get your message across to people, to kids or adults, music is a hell of a universal language.”