Are You Lonesome Tonight?

When it's summertime in the Twin Cities, even Elvis lives

So you wanted to hit the Fringe Festival but found yourself a little short on funds? Never fear, Twin Citians, there are plenty of ways to skate on the edges of mainstream local kulchur without having to scour the couch cushions for change. From Coon Rapids to Cannon Falls, vibrant substrata are living it up free of self-consciousness, and free of charge.

Perhaps the Burnsville Civic Center's outdoor stage is a somewhat understated venue for a king--especially one known for singing "Viva Las Vegas." But what the Memories of Elvis show lacks in architectural grandeur, it more than makes up for in audience enthusiasm. The Artist Pretending to Be the King, unflappable and endearingly sincere in his white-satin jumpsuit, is surrounded by a manifestation of perpetual motion: two dozen little children who never cease dancing feverishly. Not during the long pauses on the prerecorded Elvis backup tape. Not during "Love Me Tender." Not even when a pint-size fly girl can't find her mommy. When mock-Elvis moves through the crowd to serenade grownup fans amid "Are You Lonesome Tonight?" the throng of admirers follows closely. "I feel like I'm the pied piper here, uh-huh," he jokes.

Children outside the entourage are nonetheless excited to be there, tentatively practicing Elvis swivels, shaking booties, rolling down hills, showing off newly learned back handsprings, and screaming, "We love you, Elvis!" between songs. On the grassy grounds farther from the stage, a more subtle kind of action is taking place. A single guy hits on a pretty group-home counselor who has brought her four clients to enjoy the show. A group of older kids play a fierce game of Pickle in the Middle, breaking occasionally to shout a mocking "El-vis!" Two junior-high boys practice their chip shots, dangerously close to a baby napping on a blanket.

During "Blue Hawaii," I-Can't-Believe-It's-Not-Elvis pauses to lei a middle-aged suburban woman, struggling to pull the garland down over her large, turquoise visor. For a few moments, a heavyset pubescent boy hulas delicately, momentarily freed from thoughts of the swirlies and depantsings that await him next month as he enters junior high.

 

THE MOST PROLIFIC remnants of the self-help-book craze, the Chicken Soup for the Soultomes have brought tears to the eyes and smiles to the lips of Women Who Watch Oprah and Forward Annoying Joke E-Mails everywhere. Which made the reading and signing by the author of the series' latest, Chicken Soup for the Writer's Soul, at the Ridgedale Barnes & Noble, one of the must-see events of the summer. Well, of the past week, anyway.

Try as I might to conceal myself behind the humongous Harry Potter display, writer/inspirational speaker Bud Gardner notices me immediately and stops his talk to offer me a front-row seat and a complimentary Chicken Soup notepad. As Gardner prattles on Paul Harvey-style, enlightening my fellow frustrated wordsmiths and me on the road to literary success as experienced by his personal friends Alex Haley and Catherine Lanigan, my attention wanders to my peers: two twentysomething women in business casual, smiling beatifically and hanging on the speaker's every word; a Jackie Collins wannabe who presumably divides her free time between Dayton's Oval Room and the Lancôme counter; and a preteen girl trying desperately to pay attention while her best friend practices Britney Spears moves in the aisle.

Gardner sucks me back in by pausing dramatically and gravely uttering the mysterious phrase, "Steve Allen is a genius. Period." Though the guest of honor is standing beside a bucket of painfully fragrant chocolate-chip cookies that it never occurs to him to share (Why not a vat of chicken soup? I wonder idly), he does manage to impart some of the finer points of writing to us lowly plebes. Be creative with words when trying to sell an article to a magazine or newspaper, Gardner suggests. "Instead of 'The Art of Flying a Kite,'" he intones conspiratorially, "you put, 'The Art of Wind-Hooking.'"

This tidbit having drawn oohs and aahs from my companions, Gardner opens up the floor for questions. The youngster behind me raises her hand politely. "Um, I'm going into seventh grade and, like, my school has no, like, emphasis on creative writing and stuff and, like, it's all nonfiction and stuff, and no creative writing and, like, it's not fair." Gardner, like, advises her to write in her journal and stuff and, like, informs her of the many contests and seminars for young writers out there.

 

THE FIRST-ANNIVERSARY celebration of the Mercado Cooperativo at Bloomington and Lake is supposed to start at 10:00 a.m. At 10:45 they're still setting up outside, but the Mercado is already open for business, and as I browse through the Stetson hats, elaborate baby clothes, Christian artifacts, Pokémon clocks, and Dos Equis key chains, I'm greeted with friendly smiles and nods, and I get the idea that once this fiesta gets under way, it's going to be a rager.

A couple of children run free, but most are helping their parents prepare to staff the small tents lining both sides of the street. Left unattended, one lucky little boy is sitting atop a display table, digging into a jar of candy. Two young men busily unpack a crateful of bronze chickens for their mother, while a two others sit on the curb waiting for the girls to show up. Lively music emanates from the Maranatha Assembly of God booth, whose attendants chatter with visitors in a never-ceasing bilingual patois.

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