Belfast Telegraph

Sunday 20 April 2014

The king of his castle

Martin Rice, the 'Belfast Elvis', has given his home over to the King — and now his individual style is celebrated in the Ikea book, UK At Home. Jane Hardy enters the building and finds the decor All Shook Up — uh-huh huh

The great pretender - Martin Rice outside the home that he has transformed into a shrine to Elvis Presley in south Belfast

There are Elvis fans and Elvis fans— and then there's Martin Rice, the man you could call the king of the Northern Irish fanbase. Visiting his house near the bottom of the Ormeau Road, in south Belfast, it is clear that Elvis has entered the building. Moreover, you feel he just might be sitting on the red leather sofa consuming one of his favourite fried peanut butter and banana sandwiches.

The first clue to Martin Rice's passion-cum-obsession is the enormous Elvis statue parked impressively out front above his bay window, which produces a real Christ in Rio effect. There's a sign reading Elvis Presley BLVD and the blue paint on the front facade is broken up by decorative staves and bars of music in black and red.

This house and its owner — a separated grandfather-of-four — have, naturally, attracted attention from the media as well as sightseers. Martin won a Novelty Elvis award on UTV's Gerry Kelly show three years ago and says: "I'm in one of the tourist guides and you get people taking photos during the day and at night when you can see the flashbulbs in the street."

And now Ikea, which is celebrating its 21st year in the United Kingdom by sponsoring a book featuring 227 photos of people taken in their homes, have shown an interest, even though the 56-year-old's style isn't exactly cool and Scandinavian.

The original shoot covered a massive 140,000 householders, from which the best pictures were selected. Martin Rice's house, with the owner in full regalia outside, is on page 141.

Entitled UK At Home: a celebration of where we live and love, this coffee table book shows the national habitat in all its glory. Shot by the people behind Day in the Life and America 24/7, it delves beneath the surface. Our individuality, not to say quirkiness when it comes to interior decor, is writ large on every page.

And Martin's home at 37 Hatfield Street rates pretty highly in the eccentricity stakes. As you investigate the house, it becomes clear this is something of a shrine to Elvis Aaron Presley. But Martin demurs. "It's not really a shrine in my view, it's just that I like Elvis."

And how. At a rough count, there are about 50 different versions of Elvis Presley adorning the modest sitting room. They're everywhere — on the walls, on the shelves, above the TV: "I love Elvis. People believe he's alive, but I don't. He's physically dead, but spiritually he's still there."

And he's still present in a continuing souvenir industry. One of the most valuable items of Presley memorabilia on Martin's wall is a mounted hair of the guy, wound round a golden disc and set beneath a nice black and white photo taken in the early years. "It's the King's authentic hair which one of my friends, Louise Kelligan, gave to me. I did my Elvis act at her wedding in Turkey."

There are small Elvises, including a Blue Suede Shoes keyring from New York and figures to dangle in your car, medium-sized Elvises, including the beaten metal award he received for Artist of the Century, and massive Elvises, such as the one on a maroon-bordered rug hanging in pride of place on the wall. There's even a mechanical toy dog which belts out Blue Suede shoes.

Martin's wig, which he dons later on with impressive attention to detail, making sure the sideburns are just right, is kept on a bust of Ian Paisley. He gestures towards it, singing It's Now Or Never, and segues into Dr Paisley's familiar battle cry of "No surrender ... "

The OTT Elvis suits and outfits, made by a woman called Celine, hang in the living room, but Martin already has his white shoes on, "dyed with paint, but they cracked so I just touch them up with whitener".

Martin clearly has a sense of humour, shown in his naming of the house Gravylands, "because I eat too much". He sometimes needs it to defend his enthusiasm. When he first moved in and put up his statue, some of the neighbours weren't ecstatic. He says: "I had an argument with one, but said to him, 'This statue and the man it represents have made more people happy than sad'."

He acquired the statue of Elvis in full hip-thrusting mode via a cousin who spotted it in Dungannon. "There's a shop there that sells model donkeys, cows and horses and it had a couple of Elvises for about £490. I couldn't afford that but I did a deal and bought the one with the slightly damaged nose for £190."

This price was still rather above Martin's means — he's unemployed — so he put a couple of quid on a horse at the bookmaker's opposite, and it came in. "A friend lent me the rest ... "

Martin is an impersonator and has made something of a career out of getting dolled up in his glitzy Elvis outfit — middle era, somewhere between Blue Suede Shoes and "fat Elvis" as he puts it.

"It was sad the way he died at 42, but he'd made a real impact. It happened because he'd dieted and dieted early on, plus taken prescription drugs in the Army, and been on uppers and downers. I wish I had some but I just get painkillers for my back!"

Suspicious minds might think the act, costume and memorabilia are all about self-publicity rather than Elvis Presley, but Martin is a true believer in the white guy with the black voice and has done charity work with his act.

"I raise money for Glenveagh Special School in Belfast as well as Cancer Research, and every penny goes to the charity not to me. I just get a drink or something." As he says, it's better to give than to receive, baby. He used to perform with Freddie Stelges, who did baby Elvis as part of the novelty act.

Giggling, Martin recalls: "I would push him onstage in a pram, then he jumped out and started singing. His legs went out sideways like a samurai."

We reach the front door, and I get the full Elvis farewell with a nicely sung burst of It's All Right, Mama plus some good moves. He tends to end conversations with the sexy three-note riff — Uh-huh huh — that was Elvis's melodic trademark. Which says it all.

UK At Home, Duncan Baird, £19.99

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