Article Date: 10/1/2001

REFLECTIONS:THE HUMAN SIDE OF OPTOMETRY
The King and I
This O.D. remembers a patient whose custom eyewear was unlike any other.

BY MARGARET DOWALIBY, O.D.

Besides serving as professor at the Southern California College of Optometry for 27 years, I practiced optometry in Beverly Hills, Calif., with my sister Dr. Pauline Dowaliby. During the mid-to-late 1960s and early 1970s, I lived at the Fountainview West in West Hollywood -- a luxurious, newly built high-rise apartment building that was home to many celebrities and people important to the entertainment industry. And that's how I was fortunate enough to help out the King of Rock 'n' Roll with his custom glasses.

My neighbor across the hall was George Parkhill, vice president at RCA, whose only assignment was "working with Elvis." That basically meant supervising Elvis's concert tours and, when Elvis was in town, monitoring all activities that allowed him to remain RCA's top money maker.

Unique eyewear

Elvis wore eyewear to correct for a small astigmatism in both eyes. Although I didn't examine his eyes, I knew from his prescription why he liked to wear his glasses. I believe that the cylinder resulted in a sharp 20/20 visual acuity as compared to a poor 20/25.

At the time, Elvis had more than 30 pairs of custom eyewear made by an optician on Sunset Strip, just a few blocks above the Fountainview West. The optical shop specialized in these "works of art" crafted mostly for celebrities. Elton John, for example, was another frequent customer. Unlike Elton, however, Elvis's custom frames were all of the same pattern. Each was an aviator-shaped metal design, some fashioned of white 14-carat gold but most in yellow 14-carat gold. He'd sketch the pattern himself and refine it until it was exactly what he wanted.

PHOTO BY PAT SIMIONE

The frames were gorgeous, truly unique for their time. They combined a Florentined (that is, brushed) finish that contrasted elegantly with areas of shiny metal. His initials, "EP," were Florentined and worked boldly into the nose bridge. On both temples stood the initials "TCB" for Taking Care of Business, his personal motto. They, too, were worked boldly, Florentined, and set into the shiny 14-carat gold.

The lenses were tinted in different colors. Some perfectly matched specific stage outfits; others used a paler tone for better visibility. They were fashioned of CR-39 plastic and could be accurately and beautifully tinted in any color.

Lenses for the legend

Unfortunately, in the 1960s and even into the 1970s, CR-39 lenses scratched easily. And although Elvis had a number of individual cases and one large custom-lined velvet case to hold all of the eyewear, his traveling made it impossible to keep the lens surfaces from marring. As a result, the lenses needed frequent replacement. But rather than send the eyewear back to the optician on Sunset Strip, George would ask me to replace the lenses.

Readjusting the eyewear on the patient's face is always best, as inevitably the alignment changes when lenses are replaced. But because I worked full-time, I wasn't home on any of the days that Elvis was in George's apartment. Although Elvis made several appointments at my office, they were always canceled because of schedule conflicts.

As a result, I would adjust Elvis's eyewear on a friend of George's, whose facial size and structure were similar to Elvis's. This worked well, as Elvis always told George to tell me that his "glasses" were a good fit.

Of course, I was disappointed never to have met Elvis in person. But I was delighted to help him see clearly as he created a legendary career.


Optometric Management, Issue: October 2001