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Life Isn't A 'Heartbreak Hotel' For Elvis Mimic

August 26, 1986|EILEEN SONDAK

LAS VEGAS — The King of Rock 'n' Roll is dead. But the legend surrounding Elvis Presley is still very much alive--fueled partly by the flamboyant on-stage escapades of a charismatic Point Loma High School graduate named Jonathon Von Brana.

Von Brana brings Elvis into bold relief for the "Legends in Concert" show at Las Vegas' Imperial Palace Hotel, where the high-tech multimedia revue has been playing to sellout crowds for three years. "Legends" pays homage to a host of superstars, but "The King" gets the top spot on the bill--even over show business phenomena such as Marilyn Monroe, Buddy Holly, Janis Joplin and The Beatles.

Von Brana and some of the cast will be appearing in San Diego Sunday at a benefit.

"I've interviewed about 80 different Elvises," said John Stuart, the show's dynamic creator, "but Jonathon is the best." Stuart was seated in a wood-paneled backstage office awaiting the start of the second show the other night. The walls were crammed with memorabilia, awards and other symbols of success, and the former Orange County resident pointed them out with pride as he praised Von Brana's performance as Elvis Presley.

"He's blown them all off the stage. He's the one who takes it home," he said, referring to Von Brana's coveted spot in the finale.

Von Brana began his career impersonating the singer quite by accident.

"It all started about five years ago," Von Brana said. "I was training to become an Arthur Murray dance instructor, and my friend played a joke on me at a disco. He announced that there was an Elvis impersonator in the audience and then put the spotlight on me.

"I started to dance to an Elvis song, 'Jailhouse Rock.' I put my collar up, and the crowd liked it so much (the management) asked me to come back. Then I kept expanding the show, until finally I began singing (instead of just lip synching) along with the records. That was even before John had the idea to do his 'Legends in Concert' show."

Although Von Brana insists he's not an Elvis imitator--i.e., in Von Brana's view, someone who dedicates his life to imitating an idol, as opposed to an impersonator who portrays him periodically--he does admit to patterning his life according to Elvis' example.

"I try to live by what he lived by, and I feel I have a lot of the same traits," Von Brana said. "He had a lot of humility. When women screamed at him, he didn't act like he took it seriously. Elvis was very good to his fans. He even gave away expensive cars to his fans. He was that kind of person."

Although at 6-foot-6, Von Brana is taller than his idol, he does bear an uncanny resemblance to him--down to the pouty smile and dreamy bedroom eyes that drove women wild.

"Everyone asks me if I do anything to change my appearance," he said, "but the truth is I wore my hair this way (in an Elvis-style pompadour) long before I ever saw Elvis. I wear the same clothes"-- and Elvis-style jewelry--"but I'm not hung up on it.

"I haven't had to change my hair color or do anything special--except grow the sideburns. It took me three years to grow these," he admitted, fingering the facial hair. "I have Indian in me, and it's hard to get them to grow. When I first started, I used to glue them on."

Von Brana's achievements may not rival those of the original, but he elicits the same response Presley did from many of his fans.

"I've had people come up to me and take off expensive rings and say, 'Here, take it. I want you to have it.' You know they're just working people, yet they insist, 'I want you to have this.' "

Von Brana also has a staunch fan club in San Diego, and, he said, some of his own fans "never liked Elvis or even heard of Elvis before they saw my act. If people think I look exactly like him or act exactly like him, that's a compliment. But I don't imitate him."

Is impersonating Elvis the end of the road or just the beginning for this 28-year-old performer?

"I'm working on a contract now, and if it works out, I could make three-quarters of a million dollars playing Elvis over the next three years. But I still want to be a performer on my own. The next step is I'd like to be famous as Jonathon."

Nevertheless, Von Brana was quick to add that he won't be bitter if that never happens. "I'd be very happy doing Elvis Presley."

Von Brana will appear at 2 p.m. Sunday at San Diego Jack Murphy Stadium. He and other performers from the "Legends" show will share the spotlight with the San Diego Police Officers' Assn. Softball Tournament. Proceeds from the event, which includes a match between police officers from San Diego and Los Angeles, are earmarked for the San Diego Police Officers' Memorial Fund and the Children's Workshops.

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