'KING' OF THE STREET TO LEAD PARADE
There's a lot that's unique and strange about our beloved Portland, the City of Roses.
Natives and newbies alike pride themselves on its particular brand of weird: a city known for alternative thinking, a punk edge. And lots of its businesses, bars and nightclubs reflect that thinking.
But many who've been around Portland's blocks for decades believe that in the face of gentrification, some of that weird is languishing, as favorite spots close down to be demolished or remodeled into more clean-cut restaurants, hotels or boutique stores to accommodate a growing population — that's "New Portland."
Meanwhile, a few old favorite spots are still holding strong, though. That's "Old Portland."
Somewhere in the cross-hairs of those two visions of the city is John "Elvis" Schroder, who calls himself a bridge between the two worlds. He's been chosen as this year's grand marshal of the Rose Festival Starlight Parade. That means he's the face of the parade; he'll ride along in a car toward the front, as its ceremonial figurehead.
But why Schroder?
Well, if there were a scale of strange for Rose Festival events, the June 3 parade, which takes place from 8:30 to 11 p.m., would be at the high end of the spectrum. It specifically celebrates Portland's wacky, weird and wonderful, while others, like the Grand Floral parade, are a little more traditional.
So it's fitting that the embodiment of Portland's weird identity would follow on the heels of former grand marshals — like Petey the PDX Carpet, in 2015. Petey was patterned on the design of the carpet at Portland International Airport, which had developed a cult fan base. The carpet was removed, but not before its design spawned tattoos, a line of products and a Facebook page.
Schroder is the city's very own Elvis impersonator, making appearances regularly on the street, at Portland's Saturday Market, and various clubs and bars, for the past 33 years.
"We did mull it over for quite a while, honestly, and just kind of reflected ... and decided, you know, (Schroder) is a uniquely Portland iconic image," says Rich Jarvis, spokesman for the Rose Festival.
Schroder, 54, is usually called Elvis by people who encounter him on the street. Back in the late 1980s and '90s, he would sing Elvis Presley songs around the Old Town Chinatown area while playing a cardboard guitar and wearing a jumpsuit. Often, he performed outside Stephanie Pierce's 24-Hour Church of Elvis, a coin-operated novelty museum/gallery in a storefront window, another nostalgic thread in Portland's "weird" fabric.
As a child, Schroder often was on stage, performing at talent shows. He's a native Portlander who has never held a regular 9-to-5 job mainly due to extremely poor eyesight, which requires large bifocals that have cuplike magnifiers around his eyes.
He discovered a love of Elvis Presley later, around 1985 or '86, when he picked up an Elvis record and sang "Hound Dog" at an old spot called the Stadium.
"I sang it there, and thought I'd try it out at the Saturday Market, and I guess it just stuck," Elvis says, during a meeting at Ash Street Saloon — a favorite neighborhood bar that is slated for closure by 2018. Schroder is definitely a performer: He enjoys playing his guitar and singing Elvis songs, as well as many other tunes from yesteryear.
"What I'm doing is I'm introducing the oldies to people who don't really know that song or who haven't heard those. ... The oldies music tells some sort of story."
Schroder spends a lot of time at the Ash Street Saloon, which opened in 1994, and he's sad it will be closing to make way for, potentially, a new restaurant.
Old Portland, meet New Portland.
"I think with Elvis ... there's so much talk about the New Portland and Old Portland. I think he's an awesome conduit to that," says Tres Shannon, co-owner of Voodoo Doughnut and longtime friend of Schroder's. Folks might find Schroder performing near the famous doughnut shop and tourist hot spot.
Shannon is a huge supporter of Schroder. His record label, Voodoo Doughnut Recordings, recently released an album by Schroder titled "57 Elvis Fans Can't Be Wrong: The Best of John 'Elvis' Schroder."
The two go far back in Portland's downtown scene, having met in the early '90s, back when the X-Ray Cafe was open, a small music venue run by Shannon that closed in 1994. Elvis led meditation sessions at the cafe.
At first glance, Schroder has something of a zany, mad-scientist look. He's big and burly with a full beard and his thick glasses — but his personality is so warming, kind and childlike, that it's no wonder he's made and kept so many friends in the city over the decades. (He loves Disney and recently went to Disneyland, because it's where you can "leave your adulthood behind.")
Elvis then jokes that he loves animals, "especially donkeys; that's why I hang with these guys," he says, looking at Shannon and Jen Lane, his secretary. But more seriously, he says, "I think friendship, period, is important."
Shannon chimes in after periodically checking messages on his old flip cellphone. He thinks Elvis as the grand marshal is just what Portland needs — what he needed, too, as he's become slightly cynical about the many changes in Portland.
"I think it was always meant to be. It will help people feel like the real Portland is still here," Shannon says. "Now I'll have to go to the parade."