Right after I purchase the “perfect Christmas gift” for my kids I wonder if all the money I spent was worth it? Am I teaching my kids that Christmas is about giving? Because the presents make it seem like the season of “getting.” I’m starting to think teaching kids the “giving spirit” should be part of our every day—or every week!
I’ve seen the giving spirit! I’ve seen it on the internet, when people come together to save a child from a burning building, or on What Would You Do? when John Quiñones makes me cry because some lady sticks up for the kid being bullied, but there are only a few moments in my life where I can honestly say I’ve witnessed it. True. Unadulterated. Giving. That is … until I met Elvis a few weeks ago.
This Elvis sings “Wonder of You” and “Don’t Be Cruel” and has adoring fans who come see him perform week after week, but this Elvis is 25 years old, has Down syndrome and his stage of choice is the Flying W in Medford. Every week Mickey Pagnotta of Medford lives out his Elvis dreams thanks to his father, Mike, along with his friends Bob Marsdale and Dan Shontz, who serve as his backup singers and refer to themselves fondly as “Man-o-Pause.”
I stumbled upon this beautiful display one Thursday night when I went to check out the open mic at the Flying W. Bob, one of the backup singers, is a fellow comic so I asked, “Do you come to the Flying W often to do stand up?” He nonchalantly replied, “No, I’m here to sing backup for Elvis.” I attempted to clarify, “You what?” He said, “Oh, I come here every Thursday and sing backup for my buddy, Mike’s kid, Mickey. He loves to sing Elvis and each of us here has an Elvis nickname that he refers to us by. I’m Scotty Moore, from Elvis’ Band.”
He explained this all began nine years ago, at another local bar called The Indian Chief Tavern and had since migrated to the Flying W. The DJ (Dave), bartender (Christine) and a few locals at the Indian Chief had graciously welcomed Mickey each week to sing his heart out and each was given a stage name in Mickey’s “Elvis” world. DJ Dave is “Sam Phillips,” Elvis’ record producer at Sun Records; Dan, the other backup singer, is the “Colonel,” Elvis’ manager; and Mickey’s parents, Mike and Judy, are lovingly referred to as “Vernon and Gladys,” Elvis’ parents’ names.
I was perplexed. All these people were in on this Elvis charade? And they did this every week?! I had so many questions! How does Mickey decide the names? What songs does he sing? Can I get a name? How exclusive is this Elvis group? Just as I was about to unload my myriad questions someone yelled “It’s time!” and the group sprung into action.
Without a word, Mickey made his way to the DJ booth and prepared to sing. The backup singers Mike, Bob and Dan quietly made their way to the dance floor, and while settling into my seat, quietly pondering possible Elvis groupie names for myself, I looked up and realized I couldn’t find them!
I erroneously assumed that the backup singers would be at the front of the room with Mickey, but instead I spotted Mickey’s dad, Mike, standing unassumingly along the wall; my friend, Bob, behind a potted plant and Dan hiding near the steps. The music started and Mickey began to belt and channel Elvis like you’ve never seen! He transformed from a quiet quirky kid, to the vibrant living embodiment of Elvis. Honestly, I wasn’t sure who I was more enamored by—Mickey as “Elvis,” the adoring audience or the vision of these three middle-aged men, these average Joes, who show up every Thursday night only to fade into the background and give Mickey the moment he dreams of each week.
I wondered if they all knew how beautiful it was? To me, it was proof the human spirit thrives in little corners of the world … like Medford, New Jersey. To them, it was just … Thursday.
It blew me away.
I’ve told this story many times since that night in September and I’m not sure why it’s stayed with me. Maybe it’s the dedication of these men and women over nine years that struck me? Perhaps it’s that everyone in the bar is in on it, and plays along with their new Elvis stage names? Or that this dad and his friends have found a way for Mickey to be independent, protected and living his dream in a little bar called the Flying W. I think that’s what we all want for our kids … and they’ve found it.
While every person in that room plays a part in Mickey’s world, it doesn’t take long to realize he also brings something pretty special to the table. He gets everyone up on the dance floor, he loves to start a conversation and he loves to talk to the ladies. (His girlfriend’s stage name is “Priscilla” and if he talks to other girls, he calls them “Ann-Margaret.”) It makes me wonder if Mickey wasn’t so in love with Elvis if this small band of followers would have stayed together for so long? He’s clearly brought out the “giving spirit” in them, and not just the kind you see at Christmas, the every week kind. The kind of giving we all would like to be participate in … if we knew a “Mickey.”
My advice this Christmas: Find your “Mickey!” Tell your kids about Mickey and his friends at the Flying W. If you love Elvis or are looking to be a part of something truly special, come by the Flying W on Thursday nights and say “Hi!” I’m sure Mickey won’t mind. He’ll give you an Elvis groupie name and maybe even let you sing backup.
Merry Christmas and Happy Holidays South Jersey!
Published (and copyrighted) in South Jersey Magazine, Volume 14, Issue 9 (December, 2017).