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Schoolteacher on Campus Turns Into Elvis on Stage

February 23, 1989|GERRY BRAILO SPENCER | Times Staff Writer

During the week, Raymond Michael Hebel puts 138 antsy pre-adolescents through the restrained paces of choral music at Chaparral Middle School in Moorpark.

But when school's out, Hebel, 35, dons long sideburns and stage makeup, steps into his expensive costumes and trots out into the spotlight as Raymond Michael, putting on his hit show, "Elvis--His Legend's Still Alive," which has played to screaming audiences from Las Vegas to Australia.

"I can't believe I am making a living at this," Hebel said with a slight smile. "Personally, I don't think anyone can fill Elvis Presley's shoes, but the response I get is amazing."

So is the story of how he first got it.

In 1972, he was a student at what is now California Lutheran University who was thinking about becoming a music teacher or a football coach. At that time, he was asked to take part in a campus show put on by hypnotist George Sharp.

Sharp told Hebel that he was no longer himself, but the king of rock 'n' roll. With that instruction, Hebel began to belt out "Blue Suede Shoes."

According to people who attended the show at the Thousand Oaks campus, the crowd went wild, creaming, jumping up and chanting, "El-vis! El-vis!"

"The hypnotist got together with the students before the show to make sure everything would go smoothly," said Frederick Bowen, a Cal Lutheran speech and communications professor, "and Ray probably told him at that time he was a singer. But they were hypnotized, no doubt about it."

Because of Hebel's attachment to Cal Lutheran, he is presenting his show there at 8 p.m. Friday to raise about $100,000 to restore a turn-of-the-century ranch house on the campus.

The structure, a Ventura County Historical Landmark, houses the school's music department.

Dream of Light Opera

At the time of his performance under hypnosis, Hebel was not a Presley fan. His only exposure to Presley was through his older sister who, he said, would drag him to the singer's movies, and a college roommate who was always singing "Blue Suede Shoes." He dreamed not of churning out chart-busters, but of becoming a light opera star such as Gordon MacRae. However, that changed after his fateful performance.

"My voice teacher was Gert Muser, a former soloist for the Vienna State Opera. He had set up a deal for me to go to Germany to study, but after my performance as Elvis, he came to me and said, 'I don't want you to go overseas. You can make a lot more money doing Elvis.' "

Hebel believed that he could learn to like Presley. In the beginning, he received a lot of help from friends, including Bowen, and another professor, Don Haskell.

Haskell rounded up videos of Elvis in concert and set Hebel to work studying everything about him, from his smooth ballads to his gyrating hips.

There have been a lot of changes in Hebel's show since he first started almost 17 years ago. After Presley died in 1977, Hebel did not do it for several months because he thought that it was in bad taste, but when so many impersonators "began coming out of the woodwork, they did some distasteful things. I had a lot of requests for my show, so I went back to it.

'Tribute to Him'

"When I first began, I would do chunks from one of Elvis' albums, really as if I were Elvis. But now I do a tribute to him. I don't like saying I'm an imitator because that has a negative connotation. Instead, I refer to myself as 'an Elvis illusionist.'

"I market myself particularly to amusement parks, but I'm not an Elvis fanatic. My feeling is that people pay to see me and I want to give them their money's worth. I wouldn't do anything like those male strippers that imitate Elvis. I wouldn't send my kid to see a show like that. I talk about his life style--sort of like a history lesson. That must be the teacher in me," he said with a laugh.

Hebel said he began to change his show after he did a stint in Las Vegas.

"A lot of the major stars came and watched me. They advised me to bring out my own personality in the show." Hebel said he now "goes in and out of Elvis" during the performance.

Last summer, Hebel played at Knott's Berry Farm--selling out 173 of 174 performances--a record that will probably stand for years, according to Gary Salisbury, the park's entertainment manager.

'Fills Definite Need'

"There's no doubt he's one of the top Elvis impersonators," Salisbury said. "But we hired him to reach that portion of the population that relates to Elvis. He fills a definite need out here and he does a good job at it. He doesn't pretend to be Elvis. I've seen many Elvis acts and some of those people really believe they are Elvis."

Hebel, a 25-year resident of Moorpark, is booked into Knott's this summer, beginning June 17 and running five days a week, three shows a day, through Sept. 4.

Despite his popularity, Hebel said, it is his teaching and life style offstage that keeps his feet on the ground.

"The question is, 'Why teach?' The answer is because I want a respectable life. I once did a stint at the Silverbird in Las Vegas, and the next day I was teaching a special education class. Talk about bringing your feet down to the ground."

Teacher's Salary

But, he said, a public school teacher's salary doesn't pay all the bills.

"The teachers I work with all have two to three jobs. It's a shame because they could be spending the time they are working at other jobs creating ideas for teaching. I don't know any that live high off the hog," said Hebel, who is married and has a 16-month-old son.

As for a singing career as himself, Hebel said he has tried it, even doing opera, but there is little money and less gratification.

"As Elvis, I play major showrooms, do major venues. I work to full houses. But that would not happen if I were me. If I want to, I can perform an opera gratuitously and walk away and say, 'Yes, I can do it.' But I would be playing to an empty house."

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