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Eddie Clontz, 56; Tabloid Boss Kept Elvis Alive

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Times Staff Writer

As the editor of a national weekly publication, Eddie Clontz always knew what he would do if he received a phone call from someone who said he had a Martian living in his bedroom. It wasn’t what other editors would do.

“I’d tell the guy, ‘Great, we’ll send a reporter right over,’ ” Clontz said in a speech to the Florida Press Club some years ago.

As the longtime editor of the Weekly World News, America’s most outlandish supermarket tabloid, Clontz operated in an alternate journalistic universe -- one populated by space aliens, talking cats and gardeners who married their vegetables.

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Clontz, the man who turned an obscure woman’s claim about the late Elvis Presley into a front-page headline -- Elvis Is Alive! -- that sold over a million copies of the paper and launched a nationwide frenzy of Elvis sightings, has died. He was 56.

Clontz, who left the Boca Raton, Fla.-based tabloid in 2000 after 19 years, died Jan. 26 of liver and kidney disease and complications of diabetes at his home in Salt Springs, Fla., said his son, Bryan.

The Charlotte, N.C., native held a special place in the world of tabloid newspapers, one that spurred the mainstream press to dub him the King of Supermarket Tabloids and the Yoda of the industry.

For his part, Clontz saw himself as something of a tabloid P.T. Barnum.

“We are a throwback,” he told the Philadelphia Inquirer in 2000. “We are a sideshow, and we’ve got to get people into the circus tent. So we will put the three-headed woman out there, and we will put the 1,000-pound fat guy out there.”

At the Weekly World News, Clontz encouraged his reporters to follow the axiom: “Never question yourself out of a good story.”

“We don’t sit around and make them up,” he said, “but if we get a story about a guy who thinks he is a vampire, we will take him at his word.”

Out of that philosophy came stories that inspired memorable Weekly World News headlines such as:

“12 U.S. Senators Are Space Aliens.”

“Fire Breaks Out on the Moon.”

“Blind Man Regains Sight and Dumps Ugly Wife!”

From his desk in the middle of the Weekly World News newsroom -- in Lantana, Fla., during his heyday -- Clontz kept his 18-person staff motivated with his booming baritone, raucous laugh and sense of fun.

He’d whip out his SuperSoaker water gun and squirt unsuspecting staff members, or he’d don his rubber dog mask to keep the newsroom energized.

“He was very much a jokester and there was comedy club humor all day long, and that would spark what we did and how we worked,” Sal Ivone, who was the tabloid’s managing editor during Clontz’s reign, told The Times.

Describing Clontz as being “at once impish and a very powerful, strong-willed personality,” Ivone said he “was very much a performer and a showman, and he could deliver a speech on any subject. He was a student of the Confederacy, a voracious reader, and he loved to make the case for why the South should have won the war; it was part of his routine, his shtick.”

The idea behind Clontz’s newsroom antics, Ivone said, was that the staffers were doing something that “required a different way of thinking.”

“Eddie tried very hard to get people loose enough and out of their protective zones so that they would be working at optimal creativity, and he believed the energy in the newsroom was transmitted to the reader.”

The proof was in the product, Ivone said. “It was really creative, and we were very, very successful.”

The Weekly World News was launched after its sister publication, the National Enquirer, switched to color in 1979 and publisher Generoso Pope was looking for a way to keep the old black-and-white press in operation.

Clontz, who early on worked as an ironworker and scallop fisherman, entered journalism in 1971 as a copy boy on a small daily in North Carolina.

He then spent eight years editing wire stories at the now defunct Evening Independent in St. Petersburg, Fla., before growing bored with traditional journalism and moving over to the Weekly World News in 1981.

Under Clontz, who began as a desk editor and soon worked his way up to managing editor and then editor, the Weekly World News became increasingly profitable and, depending on what was on the cover that week, sold as many as 1.2 million copies.

“His genius was to create a new breed of tabloid that is less dependent on celebrity stories and more visceral, more fantastic, more energized and exciting,” Ivone said. “He directed this evolution into more what he called mystifying stories. That being Big Foot and alien abduction -- the kind of things that strain your credibility, but if presented correctly get readers to ask, ‘Is that possible?’ ”

Searching for story ideas, staffers read through 275 U.S. and 55 foreign papers as well as magazines, and they monitor TV and radio broadcasts. The writers are then given free rein to, as Ivone described it, “enliven, energize and sell the story in true tabloid fashion.”

Clontz set the tone for the staff that turned out such classic Weekly World News stories as Bat Boy, a half-bat, half-human creature with razor-sharp teeth that was supposedly discovered by a research team in West Virginia.

Clontz also took pride in writing the famous 1988 “Elvis Is Alive!” headline, whose subhead read: the “King of Rock ‘N’ Roll Faked His Death and Is Living in Kalamazoo, Mich.!”

The Elvis edition became the tabloid’s biggest seller, gave birth to the Elvis-is-alive phenomenon and led to dozens of spin-off Elvis-sighting stories.

The tabloid became so associated with the Elvis phenomenon that in 1993, Clontz received a phone call from Washington Post humor columnist Gene Weingarten, who passed along a suggestion from Miami Herald humor columnist Dave Barry: that the Weekly World News consider reporting that Elvis had just died.

As Weingarten wrote in the Post last week: “I could hear those oily wheels turning. Eddie knew this would end a tabloid cottage industry of Elvis-still-lives articles. My God, it would basically cripple the franchise.”

But Clontz knew a great story idea when he heard one. In a few weeks, the Weekly World News hit the newsstands with this front page headline: Elvis Dead at 58.

“Of course,” Weingarten wrote, “some weeks later WWN exclusively disclosed that prior reports of Elvis’ death had been a hoax. And it was back in the Elvis business.”

In addition to his son, Clontz is survived by his wife of 34 years, Lenora; his parents, Harold and Betty; and brother, Derek, who worked with him at the Weekly World News.

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