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Keeper Of The Flame

Quicker than you could choke down a fried peanut butter and banana sandwich, Bill Beeny's roadside "Elvis Is Alive" museum serves up plenty for folks with suspicious minds over whether Elvis really ever left the building.

Barely bigger than a living room, the place about 40 miles west of St. Louis is a conspiracy theorist's dream, from its government documents to the pathology reports, DNA testing results and photos, including one that purports to show Elvis shadowing Muhammad Ali in 1984.

All of it, Beeny insists, proves that Elvis sightings over the years aren't merely urban legends.

"There's a certain percentage of people who think I'm totally crazy. That doesn't bother me," says Beeny, 75 with jet-black, slicked-back hair and long sideburns that would make Elvis proud, as would the jumpsuit Beeny jumps into when photo opportunities arise.

Now 11 years old, Beeny's museum along Interstate 70 casts Elvis as "the King" of deception, a guy who masterfully faked his death a quarter century ago to escape miseries of fame, fortune or sweaty rhinestone duds, not to mention Mafia death threats.

"He had a lot of reasons for wanting to leave the life he had," Beeny says.

So have Beeny's theories left any die-hard Elvis fans all shook up or simply convinced that Beeny ain't nothing but a hound dog? Beeny's approach: Let open minds prevail.

"We don't try to make any converts," says Beeny, convinced that Elvis, who would be 67, lives peacefully and unrecognizable, a silver-haired legend far slimmer than the bloated entertainer in the years before 1977.

At the museum, which charges no admission, Beeny says, "We just say, 'Here's the evidence we have, look at it and whatever you want to believe is fine. Draw your own conclusions."'

Featured over the years by all major U.S. television networks and foreign journalists, Beeny's museum bills itself as the world's most-photographed.

Outside, a large sign serves as a carnival barker, pressing travelers to stop and "SEE FUNERAL ROOM. TOMB ROOM. SEE PROOF FOR YOURSELF THAT ELVIS IS ALIVE."

"SEE WHY HE HAD TO FAKE HIS OWN DEATH," it reads, not far from a decrepit white 1974 Cadillac limousine - supposedly once Elvis' - with a life-size cardboard cutout of the King behind the wheel. You can't miss the 16-foot plywood Elvis.

Inside, walls are plastered with photos and clippings of the King or the site. There's a replica of Elvis' Graceland grave, just a pelvic swivel from a creepy open casket with a wax figure of an Elvis stand-in that Beeny believes was buried instead of the real Elvis.

Museum clocks use Elvis' hips for pendulums. A TV plays videos of Elvis performances or a 1990s documentary examining "evidence" it says clouds whether Elvis ever died. In one snippet, a voice expert declares as authentically Elvis a recorded phone conversation in which the King discusses things that happened "after" his death.

Beeny insists Elvis has surfaced in recent years - not at a Kalamazoo, Mich., Burger King or as a Miami undercover cop, as legend would have it - but as an arthritis sufferer who in 1997 sought treatment from Dr. Donald W. Hinton, a Kansas City, Mo., psychiatrist.

Supposedly with Elvis' help, Hinton co-wrote "The Truth About Elvis Aron Presley, In His Own Words." Published last year, the book chronicles the years since the King's "death,", saying it took Elvis three years to get clean and sober.

Hinton says the reclusive King - now his pal - collects old coins and American Indian artifacts, and isn't too shabby with fishing gear.

"Really being his friend has been more important than what I do as a doctor," Hinton told The Associated Press earlier this year, refusing to make Elvis available for an interview.

Elvis knows of Beeny's museum, and "he's been in agreement with what we're doing here," Beeny says Hinton has told him.

Would that endorsement change if the King knew the museum was peddling postcards of him for just 75 cents? Or that velvet paintings of the entertainer - over the years, laughingly passed off as the stuff of garage sales - fetch a mere $19.95? What about a roll of Elvis toilet paper priced to go at $2.95?

While amused by the museum in her maiden tour recently, 42-year-old Elvis fan Kelly Hitch wasn't buying any of the souvenirs - or the conspiracy talk.

Elvis, thankyouverymuch, is dead, she says.

"The pictures here were fun, and it's interesting," she whispered, not wanting to offend Beeny. "But I don't believe Elvis is alive. I'd love to be proven wrong, but with places like this everybody's got to have something to hold on to."

Still, Beeny's powers of persuasion worked on Bill and Rita Santen, a retired couple and Elvis lovers who left the museum not quite sure what to think.

"The more I hear, see and read," Rita Santen said, "I kinda think it could be possible Elvis pulled one over on us. I'm keeping an open mind, and I want to believe that he's alive, yeah."

Beeny beamed.

By Jim Suhr