People are constantly emailing and asking how Kim & I got started in this business. While there have been numerous articles in newspapers, and interviews in magazines and on television -- some of which are located on this site, in order to clear up this curiosity it's my pleasure to provide the information for you.
I was born in 1957. At this time, the King had already started his career and my mother and father were both fans and admirers of his--especially my mother, who adored him. She told me many times that when she was pregnant with me, each time he would come on the radio she would put her belly against the radio when he would sing and I would start moving. I guess I haven't stopped since!
Growing up in the 60's was a wonderful time. I came from a very humble family, which consisted of my mother, Betty Polston, my father, Bobby Polston, and my two younger brothers, Jim and Pat. My mother was a housewife and my father worked construction work throughout my youth. The type of construction work he was involved in did not pay a great deal of money. I guess you could call us somewhat poor, but we didn't realize it because there was enough love to fill in the voids.
My mother would always keep an eye on the newspapers and when one of the King's new movies would come out at the Clarksville or Lakewood drive-ins in the small town we lived in, she would always take notice and get very excited. My father is a true family man. He would always work as much overtime as he could get to earn the extra money needed to take his family to see the wonders of the King on the big screen.
We now fast forward to my mid-teens. This was in the early 70's and the drive-ins would have dusk to dawn movie marathons. Some of my friends and I would always cut lawns during the summer, or sell soft drink bottles for the deposits, so we could get together and go see the dusk to dawn features. When "Elvis, That's The Way It Is" and later "Elvis on Tour" came out, I was gone--just absolutely bitten by the costume bug!
To me, the King was always larger than life. I always thought if I got the chance to meet him, he would be as big as he was on the silver screen. As a child, I always loved the superheroes of the day. To me, this was Elvis. I no longer bought superman comic books. They were fictional, and Elvis was not.
I met the love of my life in the summer of 1975. That's the first time I met my future wife, Kim. I knew that the first time I saw her I was in love, and all things in the future were possible. After a few years of dating, Kim and I were engaged to get married. In August of 1977, a date appeared that would change the course of my life and hers forever. She was at band camp learning the newest marches, as she was in the marching band for Clarksville High School. Kim is a couple of years younger than I, so I followed in my father’s footsteps and became a construction worker.
On the date the King left us, I was in a car going home from work and Kim was not with me. We both heard the news at the same time but in different places. I was so stunned that I pulled over in a parking lot of a shopping mall and found myself weeping over a man that I had never met before. For some reason I knew the sheer magnitude of this man would reach across all generations and boundaries and touch massive amounts of people. After all, this is a man who was on a first name basis with the world!
Kim and I were married in 1978 and we both were working at low paying jobs. We immediately started our family by having our wonderful son Michael. During this period of time, I would scrape what extra money I could up to join fan clubs in different parts of the country. Back then, there were hundreds. Kim posed a question to me one day, asking 'If you could have anything that the King owned, besides Graceland, what would it be?" Kim always knew that I was a car buff, and that I made comments about some of his cars that I had seen in pictures in numerous tribute magazines which came out after his death. She fully expected me to say one of his cars. Imagine how stunned she was when I told her I would dearly love to have one of his jumpsuits!
We had a great deal of discussion, with Kim asking "Why one of his costumes?" My answer to her was that "I cannot imagine anything other than the birth of our son and my marriage to you that would make me any happier." They were pieces of art to me. This is where the story of how we got started actually starts.
Kim had asked me one day how much I thought one of his costumes had cost. I had no clue. So, I set forth on a journey to find out what something like this would be priced at, and if anyone had obtained one of his costumes. After contacting several of the fan clubs I had belonged to, I was led to a few people who owned garments that they had obtained by some means that had belonged to the King. I inquired as to what the price that an item of this nature would run, and whether they had interest in selling them. The different collectors informed me that they would be interested in selling them for $100,000 each.
At the time I was writing these letters, and doing this research, Kim and I were so broke we didn't even have enough money to pay attention! Our son, Michael, was always sick with allergies or Strep throat--which he battled with throughout his life until about the age of 12 when they finally removed his tonsils. We battled week in and week out to try and make ends meet, so I knew whole-heartedly that there was no way I would ever own one of these magnificent pieces of art.
In late 1979, I attended a small fan club meeting that was held in Louisville, KY. Louisville is bordering the city that I live in, so it was a great opportunity to mingle with other Elvis fans. Kim and I struck up a conversation with a lady named Edna Graham. Ms. Graham's young son was also an Elvis fan, and she had made him a few jumpsuits and studded them up the best she could. I approached Ms. Graham and asked her if she could make our son, Michael, a jumpsuit. She graciously accepted. She cut out a powder blue colored costume and I took pictures from the tribute magazines I had purchased and went to a local craft store and purchased small bags of studs, meticulously placing them on the costume so that our son Michael would have a costume for Christmas. You see, Michael was, and is to this day, a true fan, along with his parents. He took up his father's desires to own one of the King's costumes. It gave Kim and I great joy on Christmas of 1979 to see him play his little guitar and dance around in his little jumpsuit.
Kim suggested that I work a deal with Ms. Graham to make a few as conversation pieces. So, Ms. Graham cut out four costumes for me for very little money. I put the studs on them. Once again, using the tribute magazines as a guide, and going to the local craft store (Baer Fabrics) to get the studs. The pickings were slim, but I was able to scrape up enough to produce the four I was trying to do. At that time, I did not know what the King's measurements were, so we cut them to fit me--even though I had no intentions of wearing them. These were to be in my collection as conversation pieces. The four suits I made were the Powder Blue, the White Pinwheel, The Red Pinwheel, and the Owl. They were rough copies, but we did the best we could--meticulously putting on each stud by hand--by placing the studs through the fabric and bending each prong over with a screwdriver or a butter knife.
In February of 1980, I was told by a friend of mine, whose name was Don Seay, to follow my dreams of going to Memphis. At the time, Don was a memorabilia dealer, and was planning to go to Memphis, but was unable to make it. He told me that all the fan clubs and some memorabilia dealers would stay at a motel on Brooks Road in Memphis, which is around the corner from Elvis Presley Boulevard. This motel is the Days Inn on Brooks Road. The fan clubs and fans would stay there and open their doors so everyone could come into each other’s' rooms to buy, sell, and trade collectibles. This excited me to no end! I brought this to Kim's attention and she informed me that we didn't have the money to buy groceries, much less take a vacation to Memphis. I told her that we had a number of months, and I was going to raise the money somehow so that I could be with other fans and show off the costumes.
From February of 1980 until the first part of August, 1980, I started collecting soft drink bottles when you could get .05 each deposit back on them. I also was working part time for a farmer, and he had several truck, car, and tractor batteries laying in mud in his pig pen. He told me I could have them if I dug them up out of the mud and pig manure. I knew at the time I could get $5 each back then for the batteries so they could recycle the lead from them. I spent 8 hours digging thru pig manure to retrieve the batteries. I found 20 batteries. So, by selling scrap I raised approximately $120. I was thrilled, however disappointed when I found out there were no rooms available at the Days Inn. A friend of mine, who belonged to another fan club told me he originally was going to go, but his boss would not let him have those days off. He had already put a deposit down on the room, so I reimbursed him with the excitement of knowing that I was finally going to Memphis. Even though Graceland had not opened to the public at this time, at least I knew I could walk up and touch the fence and see the house at a distance. Most importantly, we could be with other fans to share our love of his career and life. In August of 1980, Kim and I loaded up our beat up, on its last legs, 1968 Olds Cutlass. The car looked so terrible that I was afraid people would make fun of us, so I took part of the money and purchased several cans of primer and primered the whole car so it wouldn't show the rust and dingy paint as bad. The three of us were on our way to three fun-filled days of pure joy in Memphis. As we traveled on our journey, we got on the outskirts of Nashville and bad luck hit. The water pump went out on the car, so we had to wait until a parts place within walking distance opened, so that I could buy a rebuilt water pump. This cost about $40 out of our vacation money. I also had to replace the hoses, as they were dry rotted. We arrived in Memphis and paid for our room in advance with the fear that we would lose our money and have to wash dishes to pay for our room. What a thrill those days were! They had a podium set up by the swimming pool, and different people who were involved with the fan clubs or the King would give a little talk and walk around signing autographs for fans. By the second day, we were close to being broke. I didn't even have enough money to buy a souvenir. Kim and I figured by the time we ate supper that second day and then bought gas the next day, we would have about .57 to buy Michael's breakfast on the trip back home.
In the afternoon of the second day, I had spent a lot of time walking around in front of the gate, letting my money worries leave my mind. We then came back to the motel and the fan clubs had opened their doors--welcoming all the fans to come in and see their buy-sell-trades. I laid the four jumpsuits across the bed in our room for the fans to look at. They came in and ooohed and aaahed over them, and what Kim and I had done. Then, at that very time, our luck changed. A Tribute Artist walked into the room. At that time there were most likely 20 to 30 tribute artists in the U.S.--if that many. He informed us that the workmanship was wonderful. He said that he had been doing shows successfully for over a year. He told us that he had been paying thousands of dollars for his costumes and they were trash compared to what we made. Kim and I thought this was a strange thing. Being from a small town in Indiana, we had never seen anyone pretend to be someone else. We had a hard enough time trying to keep up with ourselves. This gentleman was very gracious.
He inquired as to the amount I was asking for the costumes. I had no answer and was dumbfounded that he would even ask. I thought he was actually teasing. He informed us that he was not teasing and went and got his costumes and showed us what he had been wearing. We were a bit disappointed that someone would be trying to imitate the King wearing this type of wardrobe. He then asked if he could try on the garments that we had made, as he was close to my size. Kim and I looked at each other with a puzzled look, as if a cow had just kicked us in the face. He then told us he was dead serious--if the suits fit he would love to purchase them from us. So, I let him try them on. He was blown away with what we had done and the quality of the garments! He had told us that he would give us $500 each for the costumes. Once again, Kim and I thought this guy was pulling our leg. At this point he pulled out a roll of money big enough to choke a horse. He started peeling off $100 bills--informing us that he was serious. This was $2000 total. It was all the money in the world to Kim and me. Seeing how we were only going to have .57 to feed our son on the way home, it was a true blessing. I did inform him I had no intention of selling the costumes, however he was persistent and once he peeled off $2000, Kim was standing very close to me holding our son, Michael, in her arms and beating me in the ribs with her other elbow saying "take it, take it!" The tribute artist told me I married a wise woman. We were actually able to buy a few souvenirs, and eat a steak for supper that night.
Once I got home, I started receiving calls from tribute artists that started passing our name around. This started us in business making recreations of the King's now famous costumes. It was all word of mouth advertising at first. In the early 80's, we were doing a couple of costumes a year, however I was always afraid that I was violating some kind of law by making these items and selling them. So, I set forth on a journey to find Bill Belew. Thru a lot of persistence, I found out about Bill from someone that I talked to at NBC Studios. He was still the head costumer there and we became friends over the phone and thru correspondence.
In 1983, a customer paid my airfare to come to California to do a personal fitting. While I was there, I had the opportunity to have a short chat with Bill. He was a true gentleman and a mentor. He informed me how impressed he was at the fact that I came to him for permission to create these garments. He said that most people would not be honorable enough to do this. They would just steal his patterns and turn out these things just to make a buck. So, Bill wrote me a letter giving me permission to create the costumes and called a few people who retained some of the patterns, and I was able to obtain the the original costume patterns. There were some parts of the puzzle that were missing, but Kim and I couldn't have been happier.
In 1985, I once again was hired by a customer to come out and do a fitting, where the customer paid my airfare and accommodations. During this period between '83 and '85 I had become acquainted with Mr. Romano, who was the tailor who cut and sewed the King's garments. He invited me to come to his home for a visit on this particular trip. While taking me on a tour thru his house, he showed me a very large embroidered tiger that was framed and hanging over his bed. I noticed this immediately, and told him that it looked like the tiger that was on one of the jumpsuits. Mr. Romano informed me that it was the prototype, except a larger version. I noticed the name "Doucette" embroidered across the bottom. I asked Mr. Romano what "Doucette" meant. He informed me that it stood for "Gene Doucette", and that Mr. Doucette was one of the designers who created a lot of the garments for the King.
This was all becoming very confusing to me, so I inquired as to why his name was never on anything, and Bill Belew's was. Mr. Romano told me that Bill was the head designer in overseeing the costuming--especially the earlier versions for the king, but due to the fact that Bill had become so successful designing, he was in high demand in the TV industry. There was no possible way Bill could keep up the pace producing the garments for the King, as well as all of the other things he had going on.
He then gave me Gene Doucette's phone number and I called while I was in the area to speak with him. He was out of town, as the costumer for Bob Hope. He was traveling the world. I was informed that he would call me when he got back in town. Sure enough, one night the phone rang and it was Gene Doucette. I started picking his brain about the different costumes and he filled in the blank parts of the puzzle. So, both of these talented men became friends and I am honored to call them that to this day.
We ended up with a large bulk of patterns that were given to us by Mr. Romano and other entities who had retained them, after the place that Gene was working for at the time had gone out of business. I was given a lot of information concerning the other people who were involved with the manufacturing of the garments. I owe all of these people a profound amount of thanks. People such as Bill and Gene, of course, the man who taught me a lot about making the belts: Mortimer Litwin of Winton Belt Co., Mr. Romano, the man who tailored the garments, and Nick Sherlock who owned the business that was there with Bill at the start of the studded costume era. There is a lot more to this story concerning these wonderful craftsmen and one day if I write a book, there will be much more within those pages. Over the years, Gene Doucette has become like a brother to me and Kim. He has taught us a lot. In 1999, Kim was diagnosed with breast cancer. Gene had passed his knowledge and talent of embroidery on to her. When Kim got ill, Gene informed us that he would take some of the pressure off of Kim by doing our embroidery work for us. So, we returned the patterns and he has been doing our embroidery work ever since then. How much more authentic could one get?
Throughout the whole story of my life, God has blessed me many times over. You're reading about the luckiest guy in the world. It's all because of parents who introduced me to something that was wonderful. A wife who believed in me, and leadership of some of the greatest craftsmen in the world. Thanks to God a lot of my dreams have come true. Finally, I know what you're asking yourself--did he ever get one of the King's costumes? The answer to this is, no. It is still a dream to one day own one of his costumes. It would be a very treasured item. But as of today, it's still not meant to be. I'll accept the blessings that God has given me with great appreciation and I will keep dreaming, as I always have.
I hope this answers the question, "How did you get started in this?" God bless you all for reading. Thanks to the guys buying our garments, as there would be no need for any of this if it were not for them.
Butch Polston