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He performs as Elvis, but as streak ends, he feels like Favre

Cancer has caused Ted Prior to miss a show for the first time in 50 years. Cancer has caused Ted Prior to miss a show for the first time in 50 years. (Mel Evans/Associated Press)
By Wayne Parry
Associated Press / December 31, 2010

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GALLOWAY TOWNSHIP, N.J. — This New Year’s Eve, for the first time he can remember, Ted Prior won’t be gyrating on a stage somewhere, warning someone not to step on his blue suede shoes.

Cancer that has spread throughout his body and took root in his brain is forcing the Atlantic City native to miss a scheduled concert in Ocean City, N.J. It will be the first time in a 50-year career that spans close to 10,000 performances that south Jersey’s answer to the King has had to miss a show.

“That’s the one thing that bothers me,’’ he said, reclining on a couch in his living room, wearing a multicolored Elvis bathrobe, rings on almost every finger, bracelets and necklaces aplenty, and a smashing Elvis-like wig standing in for the once-flowing hair that chemotherapy and radiation have wiped out.

“One time I went onstage with a 101-degree fever,’’ Prior, 67, recalled in an interview. “There was only three of us in the band, and I sang and played the guitar, so I couldn’t not go on. The bartender kept giving me shots of ginger brandy between sets to bring me back to life. But I did it.’’

This New Year’s, however, he won’t be doing it. The medication he takes several times daily has made him weaker and weaker. He walks with a slight limp, and his left leg won’t do quite what the right one will. The leg is too swollen to fit one of his trademark Elvis boots, too.

“When I do a performance, I slide across the floor,’’ he said. “I do certain leg movements. I go into the audience and I make sure near every woman gets a scarf. . . . I just can’t do that right now.’’

So some friends of his will stand in for him at St. Peter’s Church in Ocean City tonight while Prior climbs the walls at his home in an Atlantic City suburb.

Prior first suspected something was wrong in October during a show at a firehouse in his hometown, where 350 people were rocking out to a “Blue Hawaii’’-era performance. As he hula-danced with the women, one of his legs started dragging. No one noticed, and the show went on. A few days later at an elementary school in Ocean City, “I picked up the guitar and I couldn’t hold the pick,’’ Prior said.

An MRI found three tumors in his brain. Other tests found cancer in his pancreas and liver, too. He started radiation and chemotherapy, but the shows went on: an elementary school Nov. 12, a nursing home the 14th, a Christmas parade in Stone Harbor the 27th, and a Christmas party outside the Somers Point municipal building on Dec. 3.

But the toll of the treatments, the illness itself, and the effects of his medication were mounting. A week ago, he decided he had to cancel the show and end the streak.

“I felt like Brett Favre,’’ he joked.

“People in this area, when they think of Elvis, they think of Ted Prior,’’ said Mark Soifer, the longtime publicist for Ocean City who has seen Prior perform there for decades. “They all love him. There’s going to be a real void this year when he’s not there.’’