Anyone who heard Danny Uwnawich warble “That’s All Right Mama” before television cameras crowded into his King-sized bathroom Friday might conclude two things about the Elvis impersonator.
One is that he is a talented self-promoter. The other is that he has carried the art of imitation to psychologically unhealthy levels.
On the 14th anniversary of Elvis Presley’s death, the Northridge resident unveiled Melody Land, his $1-million replica of Presley’s Graceland mansion, after four years of construction. The two-story Georgian house features gold-plated sinks and Italian toilets shaped as crouching lions. Elvis’ favorite jelly doughnuts were served for breakfast, while Uwnawich walked about in spangles talking in a down-home, “Thangyaveramuch” drawl.
“If it wasn’t for Elvis I wouldn’t be who I am,” said Uwnawich, 37, who tours as Elvis eight months a year. But he insists he knows who he is and who he is not, even if he does plan to move Elvis’ old couch into his house.
Added Tony Wood, one of Uwnawich’s bodyguards, collectively dubbed the Melody Land Mafia in tribute to Elvis’ Memphis Mafia bodyguards: “Everybody who idolizes somebody tries to copy them a little.”
Wood paused and looked around the cavernous, expensively appointed bathroom where Uwnawich was holding an impromptu jam session. “This is maybe overdoing it,” he laughed.
KRLA radio morning personality Jimmy O’Neill, broadcasting live from the driveway of the house facing Parthenia Street, welcomed his listeners to “America’s first sneak-peak look at Graceland-replica Melody Land.”
Scores of fans showed up with cameras, but they were not allowed in for safety reasons. Workers are still putting the finishing details on the ballroom where the white piano will be, and on the glass-lined staircase etched with the musical notes from “Love Me Tender.”
So the faithful stood outside ogling one of Elvis’ Cadillacs, designed by famed auto-customizer George Barris and inlaid with $15,000 worth of gold, and trying to guess the answers to trivia questions from O’Neill. In which category, he asked, did Elvis receive his only three Grammys? Pearl Belanson, 65, of Northridge correctly shouted “religious” before O’Neill could cut to a commercial, winning a copy of a book about Elvis from the radio station that sponsored the event.
Belanson was elated to add the item to her collection of Elvis memorabilia, which includes 500 Elvis songs, recorded so they can be played continuously for five hours at a time. A serious fan, she considered spending Friday at Elvis’ boyhood home in Memphis, Tenn., or on Hollywood Boulevard, where fans last year polished his star. “You can’t be everywhere,” she sighed.
Most fans seemed to enjoy being where they were, getting a glimpse at the mock Graceland, which Uwnawich said is actually bigger than the real thing. But some commuters who stopped to see what all the early morning excitement was about on the busy suburban street seemed taken back by the tall white columns and gates with the image of a guitar player worked into the wrought iron.
“This is a nice tribute, but a funny place to put it,” said Renie Seid, 45, of Mission Hills.
After doing interviews and frequently mentioning his three records and upcoming tour to Japan, Uwnawich conducted a tour for the media and assorted guests.
While Elvis had 13 acres at Graceland, Uwnawich, whose stage name is Danny U, has one acre in Northridge. There is a heart-shaped pool, a fountain, and, instead of a golf course, a putting green. Inside, the furniture in the living room is covered by plastic, “just like Graceland,” said a KRLA official who knew.
The ballroom upstairs has a skylight and room for a huge, Las Vegas-style chandelier. Las Vegas and allusions to it come up frequently in Uwnawich’s conversation. He ended the tour in a huge bathroom with an onyx Jacuzzi, which he described as “my favorite room, sort of like Las Vegas and Hawaii rolled into one.”
“I guess if Elvis was still alive he would have stuff like this,” Uwnawich said.
Hovering always near to Uwnawich were his red-jacketed security men, wearing patches reading “TCB.” That was Elvis’ motto, and stood for “Taking Care of Business.”
Why does he need security? “People do what they did to Elvis,” said Wood, who operates an auto-repair shop in the Valley. “When we go out on stage people surround him and tear at his clothes.”
There are other similarities between the two men. “Elvis had a house on a big boulevard,” said Wood, gesturing toward Parthenia Street. And just as Elvis and his guys, Danny and his guys frequently go out riding motorcycles in the evening.
The similarities do not always work to Uwnawich’s advantage. Wood recalled the time he was playing in a club in Westwood and “a girl came up and said ‘Why don’t you get an identity?’ He didn’t do anything. I give him a lot of credit for that.”
But did she have a point? Impersonating a celebrity for a paycheck is one thing. But living that impersonation is another.
“I’m a normal guy,” Uwnawich insisted. A rodeo buff, he said he usually dresses in a cowboy hat and Levis.
His desire to build this house did not result from a pathological fixation, he said. “I know there are guys out there like that, but I’m not. It was a personal thing. I promised Elvis,” he said. Uwnawich said he met Elvis in 1973 and told the King he would someday like to have a house like his, and the promise was born.
Now that he has the house, he insists he is in no danger of losing track of Danny U inside the Elvis regalia. “I don’t take it that serious.”
But the most convincing evidence that he has not carried his interest in the King too far might be the 20 dozen jelly doughnuts consumed before the crowd departed Friday. Uwnawich was not seen eating even one.