Elvis is alive at a museum in Wright, Missouri. When I drive by a sign reading “He lives!” in rural America, I often have difficulty telling whether it refers to Jesus or Elvis, but in Wright a huge billboard assures motorists on Interstate 70 that the phrase refers to the one more influential in American popular culture, to the King of Rock rather than the Prince of Peace.

The Elvis Is Alive Museum and 50’s Cafe bears much the same relationship to Graceland as a tent revival does to the Vatican. One is established, ornate, well-endowed, and orthodox; the other is new, slightly shabby, underfunded, and somewhat heretical. But just as evangelical fundamentalism burns with an enthusiasm that may have vanished from more sedate branches of Christianity, so Wright, Missouri, makes contributions to the Elvis cult not to be found in Memphis, Tennessee.

The most fundamental difference between the orthodox and heterodox followers of Elvis appears in their treatments of his alleged death. While Graceland has the “tomb” of Elvis, the museum claims the world’s largest collection of clippings and photos of Elvis since his “disappearance” (a term considered by many more accurate than “death”). A running poll taken of all visitors to the museum has consistently remained two to one in favor of his still being alive.

Owner Bill Beeny has heard many reasons for Elvis’s disappearance. In recent years, the theory that he was removed to a “safe house” by the FBI or DEA after receiving death threats for his undercover work apprehending drug dealers has overtaken in popularity the one claiming that he was working with the CIA against a communist conspiracy. Hypotheses concerning his abduction by LIFOs or the Mafia are also common.

My favorite theory is that he had a huge contract with Weight Watchers to blimp out for “before” pictures, then disappear, lose the weight for “after” pictures, and reappear on TV endorsing their product and that he can’t return from hiding because he hasn’t been able to shed the lard. No doubt a slender and revitalized Elvis shall come again with the new millennium.

The Elvis Is Alive Museum (Interstate 70 and Main Street, Wright, Missouri) is open 9 A.M. to 5 P.M. daily. Admission is $4 for adults, $2 for children aged six to 12 and adults over 60. Special attractions include a gift shop and a wedding chapel.