“As a singer, I sound like Elvis Presley, no matter how hard I try not to,” says Oceanside impersonator James Kruk, who disbanded his former group Fake Booby Judy and became, for a time, one of Poland’s top Elvis impersonators.
“The Elvis show happened from a karaoke contest in Krakow [around 2004],” says Kruk, who was teaching English in Poland at the time. “I went up on stage and the crowd went crazy, like I was really Elvis. They made me sing every Elvis CD they had, and the crowd loved it. I was shocked! I won the karaoke contest that night.… The prize was some Russian champagne.”
Though popular, Kruk says Poles didn’t pay much for his Elvis act.
“The most I got was 200 Polish zloty for a 45-minute gig. That was around $70 U.S. Now, it’s worth something like $120.”
Before settling in San Diego with his Polish-born wife, Kruk spent two years touring the U.S. as Elvis in Steve Martin’s stage play Picasso at the Lapin Agile, about Albert Einstein meeting Pablo Picasso in a bar before they become famous.
“Elvis shows up as a time-traveling deus ex machina, to juxtapose the impact of fame and genius. I was paid $1500 a week, plus $600 weekly per diem for food and hotels.”
Comedian Steve Martin authored the play, but didn’t appear in it. “He was around for rehearsals and for some shows, though,” says Kruk. “He had the cast over for dinner when the tour stopped in L.A., which was cool. Some cast were swooning and telling him his greatest movies. I told him mine was The Muppet Movie. He was not amused.”
In 2009, Kruk placed fourth at Pechanga’s Ultimate Elvis Tribute contest. “But then I rallied and won first place at the [Del Mar] Fair, beating the second and third place contestants from Pechanga. One of the three male judges at Pechanga obviously didn’t like me, as he consistently scored me ten points lower than the other two.”
The Pechanga competition is part of a national yearly contest run by the Presley estate with a $25,000 top prize, while the Fair’s one-off contest paid Kruk $1,000 for his win.
“My act at the Fair was a little different. At Ultimate, you have to be more true to what Elvis would have performed wearing a specific stage outfit. For example, if you wear an Aloha From Hawaii Eagle jumpsuit, you can’t perform songs he didn’t do during that era. At the Fair, you have a little more freedom, so I could wear the fringe jumpsuit from the ‘70s and still sing songs from the ‘50s and ‘60s.”
Both Elvis contests attracted impersonators from all over the country, as well as L.A. Elvis George Thomas (third place in Del Mar) and locals like Kruk and Paul Monroe (whom Kruk outscored at Pechanga). “San Diego is tough. Paul and I don’t gig as often as we’d like. People still sometimes hire terrible Elvises without looking into whether they have rank and standing among Elvis impersonators”
Now that Kruk has achieved championship cred, he’s hoping gigs – and the attendant paycheck - will increase. “I can now say I’m the best in southern California, as I defeated all the best from the area, so I’m officially on the national Elvis map.”
Kruk’s speaking voice has a little East Coast working around the edges. He says he is originally from New York. He bears resemblance to a trim, 40-ish Presley. Prior to meeting City Limits through an ad on craigslist, Kruk did his Elvis routine solo. Instead of live music, he used backing tracks.
Becoming an Elvis tribute artist helped Kruk turn a financial corner. “We were just barely squeaking by, my wife and I.” After the acting gig and prior to the Elvis-tribute gig, Kruk taught foreign languages at Oceanside’s Mira Costa College. His wife encouraged him to enter a contest at Dick’s Last Resort two years ago. “I went and I had a terrible costume, but I ended up winning.” He says he lands enough paying Elvis gigs now to survive. “It’s shocking. When I put on the costume, people automatically have this respect.”
City Limits is a pop and country band that supports Kruk, and bandleader Les Allen says that Kruk’s Elvis “holds the crowd’s attention till the very end. And then it’s over and he leaves.” Allen says that City Limits finishes the set minus Kruk. “It’s kind of strange going back to doing our thing after he’s finished. You know, Elvis is a hard act to follow.”
In summer 2011, he scored fourth place in the Ultimate Elvis competition finals at Pechanga. In May 2013, he took second place honors at the Las Vegas Ultimate Elvis contest, where judges included Elvis' one-time girlfriend Linda Thompson and her brother, Elvis bodyguard Sam Thompson.
“At the end of the contest,” Kruk says, “I was taking a photo with Linda Thompson, and she whispered in my ear 'You were my favorite.' Linda also said that I have Elvis' sense of humor and that I wasn't trying to be Elvis, but that I was doing a terrific job of paying homage to Elvis.” The Vegas payoff was $300 dollars in prize money.