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Long Live the King, and His Impersonators

Music: Who's the most Elvis of them all? A big Midwest competition brings out devout Presley fans and the look-alikes.


SPRINGFIELD, Ill. — At one point during his peanut-butter-and-bacon-sandwich years, Elvis, while onstage, lunged into a dip so precipitous that he nearly didn't make it back up.

Halfway down and wobbling his way through "Suspicious Minds," the King managed to turn the whole thing into a joke.

"I'm caught in a trap," he sang, "and I can't get up. I hope these pants don't tear up, baby."

Spontaneous or not, it was funny back then. And decades later, it still slays audiences like the crowd at last weekend's sold-out Midwest Elvis Presley Impersonator Competition at the Springfield Hilton.

"Oh, yeah, people like that one," Johnny Harra Jr. says sagely. A 14-year veteran of the Elvis circuit, Harra nods as women in the front rows shower roses on the fellow contestant serving up the vintage bit.

Harra is in street clothes, but his pompadour, long sideburns and permanent lip curl would stamp him as an Elvis impersonator anywhere, even if you saw him walking in the mall. He seems to admire a side of Elvis Presley that has eluded public attention all these years--his work ethic. Says Harra, "When Elvis walked out on stage, he gave the audience 110%. That's what that was."

Elvis' moves seem to possess a weapons-grade charisma that can be passed on full-strength to imitators. The women don't just throw roses. They dance. They undo their blouses. They buy scarves in the hopes that one of the 20 Elvis replicas performing one after the other will sweat on them and throw them back. Some of them even hang around the exit doors in, well, groups.

No wonder some 50-year-old man who fills out "The Eagle" suit in the historically correct dimensions might spend hundreds of dollars on clothing and travel across the country for a weekend here. If the $3,500 in prize money wasn't enough of an incentive, the Sideburn Chasers might be.

And that raises the profound question of why--nearly a quarter of a century after Elvis Presley died--people still show up by the hundreds to see knockoffs of His Greatness sing rather than lip-sync the Elvis oeuvre? More than 1,500 people attended this particular event over the two nights, and they spent as much as $22.50 each for good seats in the hotel's ballroom. There's enough of an industry to support dozens of other contests around the country and a coterie of managers--would-be Col. Tom Parkers who claim there are no fewer than 35,000 Elvis impersonators available for booking.

John Lennon and the boys from Liverpool were a phenomenon, but although a certain number of Beatles imitators are out there, you don't have hundreds of guys in Sgt. Pepper jackets mimicking them onstage. Frank Sinatra was a heartthrob but, a copycat or two aside, he has hardly inspired a cottage industry. Ever seen a Barbra Streisand look-alike outside a drag show? Judy Garland? Diana Ross?

"A drag show? What are you talking about?" asks an offended Bradley Scott, a young-looking Old Elvis, sporting his fair share of makeup and a very bright blue flamboyant suit. "We're not out here dressing up like women."

From Scott's point of view, being an impersonator, or "tribute artist," is about time travel. Elvis was there at the dawn of rock 'n' roll--Lennon himself once said, "Before Elvis, there was nothing"--so his evocation takes more people back to their youth than anyone else could, he thinks.

Elvis had a "pingpong thing" going between him and his audience, Scott says, and, every once in a while, on a good night, Scott feels like he's playing the same game.

"It's a way for people to reminisce," he says.

Maybe so. But that doesn't explain how Nance Fox got into Elvis.

Watching the show from a seat just outside the ballroom, where she can listen while plucking cigarettes from a leather holder, she shakes her head no. She appreciated Elvis as a young woman, she says, but wasn't "a slobbering fan, by any means."

"Nah, that's not it," she says. "It happened later, when my son wanted an Elvis impersonator at his wedding reception. I said, 'I don't want some fat guy waddling in here in a jumpsuit.'"

But her son got his request, and Fox got an earful of channeled Elvis.

"Almost without exception, his songs were emotional," about grief, love and his mama, she says. "And Elvis sang them emotionally.... If your husband isn't romantic, if your job isn't fulfilling, Elvis understands."

And don't forget his "before-the-time sexual movements," she adds. "He was the first one who made it OK to show you were sexually moved by someone. People will still pay to see that."

Fox should know. A former Realtor, she got into the King so much that she now markets 97 Elvis artists to contests and shows all over the world.

And she's right--an Elvis convention is dripping with sex. You've got your Young Elvises swiveling with agility, and your Old Elvises making a pretty good showing with the deep-knee lunges. For those of another gender orientation, there's always a "scarf girl" onstage keeping the performers draped with a steady supply of neckwear.

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