A few weeks ago, when I realized the first issue of Seven Days in 2014 would be on January 8 — Elvis Presley’s birthday — I determined to find and interview an Elvis impersonator. I envisioned a cheeky Q&A with someone who spends much of his time imitating the King of Rock and Roll. I’d find out what it was like to mutate from Normal Dude into Beloved Sexy Icon, where he got his outfits, whether ladies threw panties or room keys at him, if anyone under the age of 30 knew who the hell he was — that sort of thing.
But Elvis proved elusive. A friend actually saw one — with a vintage car, even — on the street in Bristol, but failed to get his name. A Google search for “Elvis impersonator Vermont” took me … far out of town. (Note to Google: New York is not in Vermont.) A colleague and I turned up two leads, but both had retired their jumpsuits.
Finally, I heard about Higley Harmon. And the story took a turn I did not anticipate.
Now, it must be said that the 57-year-old South Burlington resident did not set out to be an “impersonator.” He was a Beatles fan growing up. He doesn’t look like Elvis. And, though he has a genuine sort-of-Southern accent, he doesn’t sound like Elvis. He doesn’t sing, curl his lips or swivel his hips. But Harmon can dance.
In a ballroom-dance class back in his native Maryland, he met his future wife, and it was for her that Higley Harmon became Elvis Presley. In a recent interview at the couple’s sunny South Burlington home — where there’s a sprung dance floor in the basement — I find out why. Our soundtrack is an all-Elvis Sirius channel crooning softly in the next room.
Harmon is married to Rosanne Greco. Locals know her as a former nun, retired Air Force colonel, a South Burlington city councilor and anti-F-35 activist. Greco’s name has been in the news a lot over the past couple of years (she was even recently nominated for Vermonter of the Year in the Burlington Free Press), but not once have the headlines noted she is a huge Elvis fan. Go figure.
When Greco met Harmon in dance class in 2003, she was living in Maryland and had just retired from her military career. Harmon was a few years shy of his own retirement from a food-distribution company. “We were the only ones who didn’t come with partners, so we were matched,” says Greco, 65. “If not, we wouldn’t have learned to dance, or gotten married.”
Harmon acquired his alter ego at the altar. Well, almost. The über-organized Greco had planned their wedding within an inch of its life, so Harmon decided to spring a surprise on his bride at the reception. Prepared to give a dance lesson to the guests — the entire event was dance-themed — Greco had changed into a foxy red dress. Harmon excused himself to the men’s room … and emerged as Elvis. In on the prank, the band began to play Presley’s Vegas-era stage-entrance tune (“Also Sprach Zarathustra,” aka the theme from 2001: A Space Odyssey).
“I looked across the room and thought Higley had hired an Elvis impersonator,” Greco recalls. “And then I realized it was Higley. It was adorable.”
“It was bigger than the wedding,” says Harmon. “As I was walking up with two American flags, people started huddling around me.”
“It’s the mystique of Elvis,” Greco explains.
So powerful is the suspension of disbelief when “Elvis” enters the room that “people were sticking money in my jumpsuit,” Harmon marvels.
Greco had intended to teach the male wedding guests the foxtrot, but she had few takers. Meanwhile, she says, “Higley had 30 women lined up to dance with Elvis.”
On their honeymoon, Greco and Harmon went to, yep, Graceland.
The couple eventually made their way to Vermont, where Greco had vowed to spend her retirement years. And Harmon did not leave his pompadour behind. Now working as a school-bus driver, he says he’ll sometimes don the white jumpsuit, black wig and aviators for Halloween. “The kids think I’m Michael Jackson or Evel Knievel,” he says with a grin.
Harmon and Greco also occasionally perform as dancers for nonprofit fundraising events — “He’ll dress as Elvis, I as a teeny-bopper,” she says. Greco recalls one costume party where the couple swapped roles — gender roles, that is: She went as Elvis, and Harmon went as Marilyn Monroe. When they enacted Marilyn’s classic windy-skirt scene, partygoers were treated to the sight of Harmon’s smiley-face undies.
Harmon has even attended an F-35 rally in costume, carrying a sign that announced: “Elvis says no to the F-35.”
One of Harmon’s favorite “gigs” is hanging out in Elvis-wear at the South Burlington farmers market in the summer. “It’s amazing how people [driving by] honk their horns and blow me kisses,” he says. “It’s not like I look that good in it.”
Asked why Elvis has such enduring magnetism, Harmon suggests it’s because his music is so powerful. Uh-huh. Greco’s explanation touches on the “forbidden fruit” theme. When she was a kid, she explains, “We weren’t allowed to watch him or listen to him — his gyrations were scandalous.”
Not until she was an adult did Greco finally experience Presley’s music and movies. But for her the appeal wasn’t the rebellion of rock and roll. “He had an extraordinary voice, and his concerts were mesmerizing. He put on a show, not just a concert,” she says. “He was a man to be respected; he had a powerful personality. He was riveting.”
On the school bus one December, Harmon combined his iconography: Santa suit, Elvis hair and sunglasses. Driving home in his own car after work, he says, “I got looks from everyone.” Motorists sitting at red lights did double takes, grinned at him and waved. “Everyone knows Elvis except kids,” Harmon muses. “You can put an Elvis costume on a broom handle, and it’ll get a lot of attention.”
Come to think of it, Elvis is kind of a Santa Claus for adults. “A lot of people,” notes Greco semi-seriously, “want to believe Elvis is still alive.”
Happy 79th, King.
The original print version of this article was headlined "In Honor of Elvis: South Burlington 'King' Leads a Parallel Life"