Peter Alden, the Elvis tribute performer. Photo by Tom Burton

Peter Alden, the Elvis tribute performer. Photo by Tom Burton

When I first met Peter Alden, he didn’t look like what I thought – and that put me into a low-level, panic state.

Alden is a singer who performs an Elvis act at Cypress Gardens, an old-time tourist attraction in Winter Haven, Fla. He was to be the subject for a weekly feature I had just started doing in The Orlando Sentinel called A&E Gallery. The column features people and events in the arts and entertainment community. I write the short copy block, but the main element is a four-column black-and- white photo. Hopefully, it’s an interesting four-column photo.

I met Alden just before the 20th anniversary of Presley’s death. The plan was to take him into downtown Orlando just before dusk to make a portrait. He said he’d started doing Elvis songs when he was in high school when he figured out that the girls loved it when he sang “Teddy Bear.” He was still doing the Elvis act because he loved the music, not because he was fascinated with the Elvis cult. And he admitted this about his Elvis look;

“I think there are guys out there who look more like him than I do,’ he said. But when he puts on the outfit, starts moving and begins to sing, “I’m the closest thing to Elvis out there.”

Walking around the clubs and shops downtown, we talked and I made pictures. A spot near the railroad tracks worked for a photo, but I was still hoping for something with more “pop”. Although he was a great subject for a word story, Alden just wasn’t looking enough like Elvis to make a great picture.

We stopped for a moment as I changed film in one of my cameras. I was kneeling next to my bag when I glanced up at Alden. He was contemplating a building across the street. I grabbed a second camera with fresh film and made one quick frame. He looked at me but I told him to turn back to where he had been looking. I shot two more frames and we moved on.

At that moment, in that lighting, with that angle and background, Peter Alden looked just like a young Elvis. Nothing but hopes and dreams were ahead of him.

The picture wasn’t what I had expected and that made it work even better. I’ve found that my best work happens when I surprise myself.Peter Alden performs as Elvis for a simple reason – he loves the music.
The week after the story ran, Alden went to Memphis to compete in an international Elvis impersonators contest. He had never entered before and was eager to see how he’d do against hundreds of other singers. Alden placed fifth overall; an honor for a first-timer.

It’s people like Peter Alden who make it worthwhile to stay in this business. In doing the story, I learned something from him about motivation (“it’s about the music”) and about not taking yourself too seriously. I hope that in my future contributions to this forum, I can remember this and stay “true to the music” while still having a little fun.

Tom Burton

published originally January 28, 1998 on digitalstoryteller.com

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