The Lantern Inn
“I feel like a gay baked potato,” Elvis said to the crowd. I get the sense that this particular impersonator is getting a little tired of his act. Which is not to say it isn’t an entertaining show, because it is entertaining, but sometimes it feels like everyone in the room is embarrassed, from the performer himself to the teen girl playing games on her cellphone. Everyone except Aunt Betty, whose lipless granny face always seems to be enjoying herself, even while she’s waiting on snarky fifty-year old Sarah-Jessica-Parker wannabes in bad pants.
During the performance, I took notes and my wife took pictures. Although the front of the Lantern Inn is dolled up like a ’50s diner with chrome and glass and a jukebox, the dark, paneled back of the joint is where the action is. It’s here, in the ember-red glow of a neon Budweiser sign, that the Southern-style buffet is lined up and “Blue Suede Shoes” is sung.
If the front is the ’50s, back here it’s somehow ’80s. Maybe it’s the stackable metal chairs or the textured red plastic glasses. Huge folding tables are arranged like we’re sitting in a Viking mead hall.
The birthday party I’m with ends up seated between two halves of another party. On this side is that table of tacky ladies, toeing the line between girls-night tipsy and friend’s-wedding drunk. On that side is a table of nuclear families and Cosby-style holiday sweaters. The tallest guy at this table, with sculpted hair and a real-estate agent’s smile, gets touched and talked to by the middle-aged women he’s with in a way that says he’s fantasized about, but his demeanor says he’s an old-fashioned “confirmed bachelor.” A good-looking regular customer at my old Starbucks had this same relationship with the soccer moms in line with him. He had the jaw and the hair of a soap star. He was also a priest.
The buffet’s good. What it lacks in extravagance it makes up for in thoroughness: Macaroni and cheese, a surprising and savory hot tortellini salad, spare ribs, BBQ turkey, corn on the cob, potato wedges, baked beans, two kinds of catfish. While filling my plate, I make peace with the fact that this much of this kind of food, all together, sitting out, is going to make me sick later. Later on, Elvis even makes comments about the inevitable distress (“Weapons of ass destruction,” he jokes. “Not ‘mass,’ but ‘ass!'”). But the regret never came. I wish I’d tried both kinds of catfish.
“This is pretty good,” I say to one of my table-mates.
“Elvis makes it all,” he says.
“Yeah. Elvis is in the kitchen. See for yourself.”
I do. I get back in the buffet line, where I admire our host’s signed picture of Jeff Foxworthy and posted coverage by the Wall Street Journal. When I draw near to the catfish again I see him in his sideburns and sunglasses. He’s passing a metal steaming tray of fish to a young kitchen hand.
When I come back to my table I say, “That’s wonderful. You know this guy’s got to be living the dream, right? Back in the day he says to somebody, ‘I want to open a buffet where people will come and eat and enjoy themselves, and afterward I’ll get up and sing some Elvis tunes and have a good time.’ And now here he is, doing it for a living.”
“He’s also a garbage man,” my friend says.
Elvis comes out after the buffet’s done. He’ll do three eras of Elvis: old-school rockabilly Elvis, black-leather Elvis and jumpsuit Elvis. But it’s not like he’s an impersonator. He doesn’t pretend to be Elvis. He just sings his songs. Actually, parts of his songs.
Most of the show is made up of scatological improv (the aforementioned diarrhea gag), pop-culture jokes (he does some “rap” moves, stirring with his arms and chanting “Go Eddie! Go Eddie!”) and self-deprecating bits (I now know that Elvis is on Ridalin because he told me so with the kind of chuckling faux-casualness that says “Tell me it’s okay, though”). He also makes some blue-collar-comedy style jokes that were too local even for me to get. Things like, “That’s the Culver County dance there. In Buford County that dance looks like this!”
It’s mostly funny, in one way or another. It’s also sort of uncomfortable. Elvis is too old to do all his trademark bits. After his opening performance of “Blue Suede Shoes,” Elvis is doubled over with his hands on his knees, panting. He can hardly do the fast-footed stuff anymore and says so himself. Strangers in the audience exchange glances from table to another. “Good lord,” they don’t say to each other, “what the hell are we in for?”
What’s weird is that, even with the prominent stage and all the Budweiser banners proclaiming “Elvis Lives!”, the audience isn’t that focused on the King. Sometimes the conversations in the crowd are so loud that I can’t even hear his jokes, and I’m only three seats down a table from him. And he’s got a mic.
But Elvis soldiers on. He keeps singing, keeps making jokes, and wins back the audience. He serenades between the tables, pulling white scarves from his jumpsuit and wrapping them around the necks of housewives, girlfriends, drunken shopping marms and ‘tween-age girls. By the time he’s announcing the birthdays in the crowd, he’s got the crowd back. When he takes his leave of the stage, people keep clapping for an encore.
He can’t come back out, though. He’s already sung his way through all the partial tracks on his DAT. So folks drift out onto the floor and dance like a bunch of white people at a wedding reception.
When we leave, Elvis is in a t-shirt and jeans, sprawled out in a booth in the ’50s part of the place, each arm following the plastic curve of the booth back. Folks are standing across the table from him, smiling and laughing and talking with him. They’ve driven all the way out to his place near Lake Lanier, eaten his food, heard him sing and had a good time. Elvis is living the dream.