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Finding Reminders of Elvis in Budapest

Wandering down Király utca last Friday I noticed a poster for “Elvis The Musical”. As I strolled towards it, the buildings around me began to fade out and wobble. The voices of a gang of British girls on a hen weekend became fainter. I was transported back in time…

I’d love to tell you that I was catapulted back to when Elvis walked the earth in his magnificent sneery pomp and finery. Instead, I materialized in a scrubby patch of park on the Buda side of the Danube. This, my friends, is Elvis Presley Park. 

On one of my first visits to Budapest after I’d somehow come to live in this country, my Hungarian partner’s brother-in-law told me he had a surprise for me. When we arrived at Elvis Presley Park, next to the Margit bridge, I was amazed. Not at the park itself, I have to say, which is far from impressive, but at the simple fact that it existed at all.

Sadly, the park’s existence doesn’t celebrate the fact that Elvis had Hungarian blood. After you’ve lived in this country for a couple of months you get used to discovering that people you thought couldn’t possibly have Hungarian forebears were in fact a sixteenth Hungarian or something. That surprisingly long list includes the likes of Goldie Hawn, William Shatner, Freddie Prinze, Ali MacGraw, Paul Newman, Uncle Tom Cobley and all, but Elvis isn’t on it.

In fact, the King was a mixture of Scots-Irish, French and German with possibly a sprinkling of Cherokee, which may have given him those high cheekbones.

Peace in the Valley

Even if you don’t worship the King – and I do, unironically –, the story behind the park is a tribute to Elvis’ noble spirit.

It was January 6, 1957 and Elvis was making his third and final appearance on “The Ed Sullivan Show”. On previous broadcasts, censors at CBS TV had done their best to tame him by filming him from the waist up. They were terrified that the hip and leg gyrations that had led to Elvis being nicknamed “the Pelvis” would incite females of good character into all kinds of debauchery.

But this hadn’t stopped him from almost singlehandedly changing popular music overnight and kick starting a musical and cultural revolution.

The then 22 year old Elvis sang seven songs in three segments, including the gospel standard Peace in the Valley. Ed Sullivan announced that Elvis wanted to dedicate his performance to the Hungarian people who had risen up against their Soviet government in October 1956. The revolution had been quashed before Elvis’ appearance but, as Sullivan explained, Elvis felt “this is sort of in the mood that he’d like to create”.

On Elvis’ behalf, Sullivan asked the TV audience to donate to Hungarian relief efforts and around CHF 25 million were raised.

For obvious reasons, perhaps, it took a while for Hungary to be able to honor the King’s profoundly American gesture. But, in 2011, a small patch of grass beside the Danube became Elvis Presley Park. Even so, the Mayor of Budapest, István Tarlós, said: “The reasons for honoring Elvis are not sentimental but political.”

Elvis Presley Boulevard

Surprisingly enough, Elvis Presley Park was not the first Hungarian tribute to the King of its kind. At the time the international news media covered the opening of the park, much was made of the existence of an Elvis Presley Boulevard on the outskirts of the city. This was a dirt road, notable for being near the home of László Komár, a Hungarian rock and roll singer known as “the Hungarian Elvis”. Komár went to join the King in rock and roll heaven in 2012.

Despite the harsh criticism it’s facing, there remain good reasons to defend Facebook. If it didn’t exist I probably wouldn’t have discovered the Magyar Elvis Klub and its campaign to erect what it calls a “worthy Elvis statue” in the park.

In January 2017, the fan club started a fundraising campaign to raise HUF 16 mln, the amount it deemed necessary for a life-size bronze statue. In 2017, Elvis fans donated almost HUF 600,000 forints but there’s still a very, very long way to go.

But this year, according to the Magyar Elvis Klub, a number of Elvis-related shows will be coming to Hungary as well as Elvis The Musical. Various Hungarian music groups have come together to create a “Together for Elvis” movement and plan to hold a day-long charity concert to raise money for the statue.

No less an august Elvis-connected personage than the King’s former wife Priscilla has expressed support for the new statue campaign.

Freedom and Compassion

I’d love to see the statue erected, and not simply because it would be splendidly surreal. Even if you’re not a diehard Elvis fan, there’s no question that he stood for freedom and compassion. Today, we need as many of these people as we can get.

But, until a bronze Elvis does rise above old Buda, Elvis Presley Park is a great place to start exploring this side of the city.

You have the fantastic Lukács Baths a few minutes’ walk away – not as picturesque as Széchenyi but, in my opinion, more authentically Budapestian. If you take a walk down Frankel Léo utca and cross over Margit krt. you come to the Bambi Bar, a perfectly-preserved socialist era coffee house that has been gently hipsterized.

And that’s only the beginning….