Robert Lopez, Eddie Powers
He liked his peanut butter and banana sandwiches grilled in butter. He wouldn't sunbathe without an electric fan blowing directly on his body. He saw the faces of Stalin and Jesus in cloud formations. These are some of the things I know about Elvis Presley, a man of arguable talent but a cultural icon nonetheless. His life and music have been analyzed in more than 200 books written by people who knew him well, pretend they knew him well, barely knew him, and never even met him. All of these would-be biographers seem to agree on one thing, however: Elvis, the man, was a lost soul. Elvis, the King, was looking for something that he never found.
But what do we know about Elvis, the impersonator? What about the men who try to fill the King’s jumpsuits? Are they searching for meaning in a world without Elvis? Or are they just lounge lizards in need of an act? Do they have families, pets, lawns to mow? Will they be around in the 21st Century? Are their sideburns real or glue-on?
The E.P. Impersonators International Association, a group based in Aurora, Illinois, has identified 210 Elvis Presley imitators. There could be as many as 2500 worldwide according to the group’s secretary. (“That doesn’t mean they’re all good," she warned.) At the association’s first convention last spring, no one was there to represent San Diego. This saddened me. A town without an Elvis impersonator is no place to live. So I set out to find any and every living effigy of the King. My search took me down many disconnected phone lines, but in the end, I turned up a Mexican Elvis, a New Wave Elvis, an Elvis who arrives in a limousine with bodyguards, an Elvis team (two brothers), an ex-Marine Elvis, an ex-cop Elvis, a midget Elvis, and the 1980 Minnesota State Vocal Champion. Just when I thought I had found them all, someone told us to go over to the county courthouse and look for a bailiff with a pompadour.
Some of the Elvis impersonators I got to know, others I talked to briefly. Some I hope never to meet. There is little camaraderie among Elvis imitators; very few knew each other, and most preferred it that way. But when I asked why they walk out in public in beaded jumpsuits, the answers were almost identical. They loved Elvis. He was the greatest performer of all time. They’re just paying homage to the King’s memory. Yet lots of people loved John Belushi, and you don’t see them wearing bumblebee costumes. My Elvis encounter told me that there's something else going on here something you can’t put your finger on. Something, perhaps, you wouldn’t want to put your finger on.
Elvis Aaron Presley had a twin, Jessie who was stillborn. While Elvis’s numerous biographies disagree over which brother came first, this much is clear: only one baby survived. But what if things had been different? What if there were two men to carry the heavy burden of being Elvis? I look to Bob and Albert Fisher of El Cajon for what could have been.
Bob, the older brother by six years, wears his hair like Elvis. Albert, the younger one, sings like Elvis. Together, they are an Elvis team. "I've got the look, but my brother has the voice," explains Bob, the elder, the promoter, the brains behind the Elvis brothers. Bob has no desire to go up onstage, he says. This is the plan for Albert, the real talent, the one who’s going to out-Elvis the other impersonators because of his particular emphasis: Albert specializes in early Elvis. This distinction may pay off someday. It proves disastrous, however, on Albert’s first tryout. The evening was enough to make any Elvis impersonator head for a bottle of Seconal.
Bob and Albert, aged 32 and 26. come from a Mexican/ltalian/Jewish family with origins in Texas. Bob has sported a ducktail since he was a teenager; Albert is losing his hair and often wears a baseball cap. The brothers, who grew up in El Cajon, share an apartment, a body builder’s physique (both lift weights), and an impressive memory of singers, bands, record labels, flip sides, and other music minutiae of the 1950s and ’60s. But nobody, and they mean nobody, ever came close to Elvis in terms of talent. This is why Albert, who works in an auto detail shop, wants to imitate the King. And why Bob would quit the T-shirt business in a hot second if it put him and Albert on the Elvis circuit.
But before they hit the big time, the Fishers are facing a dues installment.
Von Dishong in court
The first payment is on a warm Wednesday evening last July. Bob and Albert are sitting in Mr. D’s, a nearly empty cocktail lounge attached to a completely empty steak and seafood restaurant in El Cajon. The debacle to come is still an hour away. Several other Fisher siblings and their spouses are already here to watch Albert, the baby of the family, during his debut. They sit at fake woodgrain tables drinking beer, teasing each other. In the meantime, Bob draws a distinction between the young vibrant Elvis and the fat guy in the white stretch jumpsuit. Bob speaks for both brothers ("He’s better at talking," states Albert) when he says that the King was in his prime while recording with Sun Records, his first label.
Elvis’s life can be divided into four phases: Early Elvis (before he was drafted); Elvis the Bad Actor (he did a string of B movies after the Army); The Elvis Comeback (he became a Las Vegas phenomenon); and Puffy Elvis (too much food and pharmaceuticals). Unfortunately, the Elvis that most people picture is not the skinny, fresh-faced one from the ’50s. "You ask people if they know 'I Forgot to Remember to Forget Her,’ and they don’t," says Bob. He is stunned, momentarily, when told that I’ve never heard the expression "Elvis the Pelvis" He is so astounded that he has to share this information immediately with his brother. "Albert! Come over here! Listen in."
Still incredulous, Bob explains how Elvis used to gyrate his hips onstage, which was considered obscene at the time. Because of this, Ed Sullivan only showed Elvis from the waist up. (The King was banned from performing at the Ouachita Valley Fairgrounds in Louisiana because he wiggled his leg too much, according to a book written by an ex-girlfriend of Elvis's and the mother of his alleged illegitimate child.) Much later in his career, Elvis adopted some of the seductive poses of Tom Jones. Although he found the Welsh singer’s tight pants and protruding genitals to be “vulgar," Elvis was impressed by the effect it had on the audience.
Albert needs to practice the shaking and the shimmying, his brother admits, but the Elvis voice has always been there. Still, every night, they've been going over the music for two or three hours. All they need to round out the act is a 1950s Elvis outfit: black or grey silk suit, shirt open at the neck, no tie, and the trademark baggy pants, pegged at the bottom.
For Albert’s appearance at Mr. D's, however, he is dressed in jeans and a white T-shirt that hangs below his corduroy jacket. On his feet are weathered tennis shoes, and on his head a baseball cap worn backwards. This is. after all, only a tryout. The manager of Mr. D’s is thinking of booking a '50s act, and Bob saw an opening for Albert. He made arrangements with the house band for Albert to sing three early Elvis songs: "Blue Moon Over Kentucky," "That’s All Right," and "I Forgot to Remember to Forget Her" Bob's efforts included buying the sheet music, delivering it to the band, and gently reminding the musicians (three times) that they had to learn the songs by tonight. "No problem," he was told last week. "We’ve got them down pat."
A few more people have arrived at Mr. D’s. and Bob’s anxiety swells. All along he's wanted his brother to do well; now he’s worried in the opposite direction. "I don’t want him to fall down, that’s all. He’s my brother. I care about him.’’ Three or four songs into the second set, the bandleader invites Albert up onstage He introduces him as an Elvis impersonator, adding, "There's only 199 of them in the world. Someday, there'll be 200." In the background, the band emits a confusing cacophony. Bob starts jerking around in his chair. "I can’t believe this! They're trying to practice the stuff now!" Meanwhile, the bandleader tries to persuade Albert to sing "Blue Suede Shoes" or "Hound Dog" — the only two Elvis songs the band knows. Albert resists, and Bob leans over and yells, in a stage whisper, “He’s supposed to be doing the Sun session stuff! Not RCA!”
It soon becomes apparent that Albert has two choices: sing the two songs the bandleader suggested or sit down. Unfortunately, he doesn’t know the lyrics to either song. The guitar player tries to feed him the words, and Albert attempts to muddle through “Blue Suede Shoes." But he can’t hear the rest of the band and sings ahead of the music. A few Elvis inflections break through the noise, but overall, everyone is relieved when "Hound Dog" is over. Albert, wearing a pained smile, slumps into a chair next to his brother. “That was messed up." he says.
“We died," says Bob. “We died.”
The other Fisher siblings offer their condolences and chagrin at the band’s incompetence. They all get up and leave. Out in the parking lot. Bob and Albert try to be upbeat. After all, Elvis bombed at the Grand Ole Opry and made a bad first impression at Sun Records too. Recalling his first professional recording session, Elvis once said: “The day was a complete wreck. I couldn’t do anything right. Probably because I kept trying to do what I thought they wanted and not what I wanted "
Elvis’s taste in movies ran toward two extremes: fantasy films with feel good endings or limp, maudlin tear-jerkers. He and his wife Priscilla (author of Elvis and Me) would watch Miracle on 34th Street and It's a Wonderful Life again and again. They would cry themselves to sleep over Bette Davis’s cruel fate as a mislabeled harlot in Mr. Skeffington. Elvis even talked about doing a remake of The Way of All Flesh, a riches-to-rags story about a banker who loses everything through no fault of his own. Elvis wanted to star his father, a perpetually out-of-work check-forger, in the film.
The rise of Robert Lopez is also Hollywood material, though the movie may need subtitles. A man of humble origins (Chula Vista), Lopez made it into the big leagues of Elvis impersonation with a little ingenuity and a lucky break.
“I do Elvis from the Hispanic perspective," he says, explaining his success. Using the Spanish pronunciation of Elvis — "El Vez" — and quite a bit of artistic license, Lopez has rewritten the titles and lyrics to numerous Elvis songs. Among his repertoire are “In El Barrio" ("In the Ghetto”), "Esta Bien, Mamacito” (“That’s All Right, Mama"), and "Viva la Raza" ("Viva Las Vegas").
Lopez, now a 30-year-old Los Angeles resident, is a full-time impersonator with bookings around the country. He plays Las Vegas, of course, and also does conventions, benefits, state fairs, and beauty pageants. His local appearances are rare, unless you count visits to his parents’ house. “I spent my formative years in San Diego," he states flatly. As fame sometimes goes, Lopez's was instant. After graduating from Chula Vista High School, he moved to Los Angeles, started working in the import business (mostly South American folk art), and played bass and keyboards for various local bands. In 1988, on a lark, he went to Graceland for the anniversary of Elvis’s death. Lopez entered the Elvis impersonator contest, a highlight of the week-long festivities. He was one of 100 performers, but the Hispanic angle caught the interest of the national press. Then the television networks picked up the story, and by the time Lopez got home, he was the subject of international attention.
The L.A. area is replete with Elvis impersonators; one agent counted ten of them in Orange County alone. Lopez does not pay much attention to the competition, but he does remember hearing about an unusual Elvis act in San Diego. “Someone told me there was a short guy playing at a bar there. He was a midget, an old guy midget.” I grill him for more information, but that's all Lopez can remember. He considers himself to be in a different category than the other impersonators. His costumes, for example, are made in Mexico; they aren’t replicas of those worn by the King. Lopez uses a design that is part mariachi, part bullfighter, part Elvis. One of his favorites is a purple crushed-velvet suit with Our Lady of Guadalupe embroidered on back. "Elvis was so much more than a jumpsuit,” he says.
Elvis Presley always wanted to be a cop. He collected sheriff and police department badges and once attended the funeral of a slain Denver officer while wearing a police captain’s uniform. (This recollection is from a book written by his stepbrother.) One of the King's greatest thrills was being sworn in as a federal narcotics agent as part of President Nixon’s “War on Drugs." But despite all his honorary titles and his extensive weapon collection (revolvers, automatics, an M-16 rifle, a .357 magnum, and a Thompson submachine gun), Elvis was just a police impersonator. The only people he shot were those appearing on his television screen. The King went through a lot of TV sets this way, according to a book written by his bodyguards.
Elvis would have liked Von Dishong, the Superior Court bailiff who moonlights as the King. Sitting in an empty courtroom on his lunch hour, Dishong (pronounced dijon, like the mustard) is packing a .357 revolver today. Despite the green wool uniform, he has that unmistakable Elvis look. Mostly it’s the pompadour, which is molded, sprayed, and shiny. The Escondido resident dyes his hair black and then pencils in his eyebrows to match. The coloring clashes with his fair skin and blue eyes; one glance tells you that a rule of nature has been violated. But no law has been broken, so the county marshall’s office allows Dishong’s altera persona. So does Superior Court Judge (and former city councilman) Dick Murphy, who requested Dishong for his cramped courtroom in the Hotel San Diego. “His other attributes make up for his... hairstyle," says Judge Murphy.
Dishong’s coworkers don't make an issue of his appearance (“We don't kid him about it." says one, smirking), but the jailhouse defendants can be a little insensitive. “I've had them come out and sing Elvis songs right in the middle of the courtroom," recalls Dishong, who has grown his sideburns to near-Elvis length. Everywhere he goes, people stare. (In the later years of his life. Elvis wore a ski mask out in public to avoid detection. His face developed a skin rash because of it, according to a biography written by his former nurse.) Dishong doesn't mind the curious or the inquisitive. “The people that get to me are the ones that giggle behind your back in restaurants or when you're walking down the street." he says.
So why, I ask. does he take this abuse? Ah, yes. He loves Elvis. “I was raised on Elvis," says the Hoover High School graduate. "I started learning the moves when I was five years old.” Dishong was a San Diego police officer when he first started impersonating the King at private parties; this is going back five, six years. He wore a wig and played with a band, but the bobby pins started hurting and the act stalled. So early this year Dishong got serious. He now has a manager, a trio of female backup singers, and a calendar that is booked (on weekends) for several months to come.
“There’s worse things you could do than be an Elvis impersonator all your life," he says. One of them, apparently, is being a county marshall. Dishong's dream is to give up his day job and devote himself to a singing career. Not necessarily as Elvis, though. Even now he prides himself on not being a clone of the King. He performs songs that Elvis might have sung (like Roy Orbison’s “Only the Lonely") as well as songs that Elvis actually recorded. And he doesn’t ham up the inflections. "I just use my natural voice, which happens to sound like Elvis,” he explains. "I could sing ‘The Star Spangled Banner.’ and it comes out like Elvis."
Dishong does mimic the King’s sexy movements, and the female fans respond in kind. This bothered his wife at first. "She was a bit leery because of the screaming women," he recalls. 'I was scared, too, the first time 10 or 15 of them came running up to the stage Now that he is a more seasoned Elvis impersonator, Dishong has grown accustomed to the overly excited females that go along with the job. He doesn't seem to mind being treated like a showroom stud, a sex toy. an object of erotic fantasy. He puts up with the adulation because it’s all part of being Elvis.
When Elvis Presley died in 1977 at the age of 42, the cause of death was listed as cardiac arrhythmia. But word soon leaked out that Elvis died from a massive drug overdose. The latest theory involves suicide. Not surprisingly, the Elvis impersonators I interviewed tend to overlook the King's flaws. They point out that all his "medications" were prescribed by doctors. Elvis had a weight problem, they say, so he took diet pills. The amphetamines kept him awake at night, so he needed sleeping tablets. How about the narcotics and painkillers?
I ask. Well, Elvis was sick. “I would have some Demerol in me too if I had cancer of the colon," says the Elvis impersonator at Knotts’ Berry Farm. But he is an out-of-town Elvis that I strayed to one afternoon, looking for solace. I was still reeling from "The Resurrection of Elvis," the impersonator show I attended on the last anniversary of the King’s death.
The date was August 16, and I showed up at the Casbah on Kettner Boulevard expecting a tribute to the King. Instead I got Harley Davidson. The real Elvis was lying cold and clammy in his grave, still groggy from the sedatives, tranquilizers, painkillers, and antidepressants listed in his toxicology report — codeine, morphine, Quaalude. Valium, Placidyl, Amytal. Nembutal, Carbital, Demerol, Elavil, Aventyl, and Sinutab, all taken during the last 24 hours of his life — and it was a big joke to these people.
The Casbah is a small beer bar with red walls. Tucked between the numerous car-rental operations, it caters to a certain species of nostalgia chic. The men drive Corvairs and Ford Fairlanes, the women wear black 1960s-era cocktail dresses with black janitor’s shoes. On the 13th anniversary of Elvis’s death, the place is crowded with pompadours of varying heights. But not necessarily in honor of Elvis. These pompadours ride the buses and stand in line at the DMV. Tonight their owners are gesturing with bottles of Rolling Rock, yuck-yuck-yucking at the velvet painting of Elvis, the string of skull lights, and the other "decorations” in honor of the King. If Elvis could see this, and if he wasn't too doped up, he would rise out of his grave and smack these silly kids all the way to Memphis.
Outside the Casbah, Harley Davidson (his real name: Al Shapanos) tells of his limited background as an Elvis impersonator Two years ago. at a Halloween ball, he appeared as Elvis back from the dead — complete with casket and hearse. Sometime during the course of the night, red dye from the coffin’s velvet interior leached into his rented Elvis outfit. The costume shop fried to charge him $200 and wouldn’t even let him keep the jumpsuit. Davidson ignored the shop’s threats (including a phone call from its lawyer), and a cheesy Elvis impersonator was outfitted. Says Davidson: "I do Elvis as he’d be today — broke and appearing at shopping centers." He adds up his paid Elvis gigs, and the total is five. More often, he performs with Deadbolt, his rockabilly band. They will put on a normal show tonight, he says, and then "do the Elvis thing" before the second band comes on.
Halfway through the set, the ducktails get antsy. A few chants for Elvis can be heard above the din of Deadbolt’s music. I can’t understand a word of the lyrics; every song sounds like the theme to Secret Agent Man. But the band plunges through and then vacates the stage to restrained applause. Davidson disappears, and a few minutes later, a Mitsubishi pickup truck pulls up on the sidewalk in front of the bar. Friends of the band heave a grey casket out of the back and carry it inside. .
Now the crowd is happy. Onstage, the top half of the coffin lifts up and Davidson pops out, stretches, and warms up with a few karate chops. (Elvis studied karate for years and persuaded his wife Priscilla to take up the sport. She eventually left him for her karate instructor, according to Priscilla. Elvis, and Me. a book written by the boyfriend she had after the karate instructor.) From the neck down, Davidson is clothed like the average K mart shopper. But the gold chains, the amber aviator sunglasses, the fake sideburns, and the ruffled wig (hair sticking up every which way) make him look like Elvis waking up from a long nap. Davidson banters with the audience and lip syncs to several Elvis recordings. Wisely, he keeps the show short, leaves the crowd hungry for more.
When the news of Elvis’s death reached Hollywood, one agent was quoted as saying, "Good career move." Elvis’s estate has made more money from the use of his name, songs, and movies than Elvis himself ever did. Now that he’s gone, his fans can't get enough of him. Ironically, Elvis died from insatiability. In the end. money and fame brought him boredom and loneliness. Even Miss Tennessee (he dated two of them) couldn't fill the Elvis void. The King died on a bathroom floor, after having spent the night with the sister of a third Miss Tennessee title. Nothing funny about that.
Elvis’s generosity was legendary and at times bordered on the obscene. He gave lavishly to charities and bought cars and houses for his staff, his friends, and friends of his friends. He tossed an $8000 gem-studded cape to a fan in Hawaii. He gave diamond rings to people he just met. His stepmother, author of Elvis, We Love You Tender, recalls the day he noticed a black woman in Memphis admiring his Cadillac. Elvis sent her to the dealer to pick one out for herself.
I first heard the remarkable tale of Bob Lentz and the woman dying of cancer from Edna Blecha. a friend of the cancer patient. To abbreviate a long, sad story, Lentz heard that an Elvis fan was coming to San Diego for cancer treatments. In full Elvis costume, he picked her up at the airport in a limousine, gave her a dozen roses, and then whisked her away to the Holiday Inn on Aero Drive, where he had arranged to put on a show just for her. The following week, he did three benefit performances to help defray the cost of the cancer patient’s trip. Lentz’s manager helped arrange it all. "I couldn’t believe it," says Blecha, a Serra Mesa resident. "We hardly even knew these people."
In a videotape supplied by Blecha. I hear Lentz talking in the back of the limo about his various brushes with the stars. The accent is New Jersey, maybe Philly. " ... then I spent two days in Quincy Jones’s house, along with Barbra Streisand and Gregory Peck. Oprah was there, Spielberg....” The tape switches abruptly to a dimly lit cocktail lounge at the Holiday Inn. Lentz is up onstage, doing a more sedate variation of Elvis than I’m accustomed to. No hip swaying, no seductive flirting, very few karate chops. Lentz substitutes romanticism for animal appeal. He gets down on his knees and sings to individual ladies. He hands out long-stemmed roses. It’s the country-boy charm that Elvis once had but lost somewhere along the line.
"He is one of the nicest people I’ve ever met," says Blecha. "There are so many people who don't know that this wonderful person exists.” Whose fault is that? I ask, somewhat exasperated. After a brief conversation with Lentz’s manager — during which time she extolled the talents of her client and offered press releases, photos, and an interview — I noticed that this woman wasn’t returning my phone calls. Lentz himself was incommunicado. "Are you calling about the Elvis impersonator?” asked the piqued wife of the only Robert Lentz in the phone book. I apologized and hung up. Next I tried local agents; one told us about the middle-aged Elvis impersonator who arrives with limo and bodyguards But no one else I talked to ever heard of this Elvis. Or Bob Lentz, for that matter.
Then I got A.J. Sagman of Celebrity Suppliers on the line. “A.J." (as I loved calling him) has 11 Elvis impersonators in his Rolodex, all shapes and sizes, living all over the country. ("I recently got a call from a shopping mall in Arizona." said A.J. “They needed an older Elvis for a grand opening. I had to dig out a fat one") A.J. had hoped to add Lentz to his list. "I got a call from his manager, and she was supposed to send a video," he recalled. "But it didn't come. So I called her back, and she never returned the call. I only give people two strikes. If they don't return my phone call, they may not show up (for a performance]." A.J. was thinking that Lentz could handle the local bargain business. A typical charge, according to Sagman, is $1000 per engagement, which includes a live band. But for $500 a night, a cheaper Elvis will sing along to taped accompaniment. Although he's never seen Lentz perform, A.J. has a sixth sense for these things. The guy on the Invader Cruise, he said, is probably mediocre. If he were good, would he be singing in the middle of San Diego Bay? Anyway, talent is not one of A.J.’s major considerations. "I don't care if they’re bad. as long as they're reliable," he told us.
Before I closed the book on Bob Lentz. I placed a final call to devoted fan Edna Blecha. She had recently heard from Lentz and had a phone number for him. He and his manager had parted ways, she said. (It is widely believed that Elvis’s manager, the greedy Colonel Parker, contributed to the King’s demise by subjecting him to a grueling concert schedule. Elvis often threatened to fire the Colonel but stuck with him to the end. A theory put forth by Elvis’s second cousin, author of The Boy Who Would Be King, is that Colonel Parker was blackmailing his client with a pornographic video, & la Rob Lowe.)
So I’m on the phone to Graceland one afternoon, getting the brush-off from some twangy spokesman (“It’s something we steer clear of," he says, as though I’m writing an article about vermin), and my line beeps with another call. It’s the impersonator himself! Lentz confirms that he’s severed relations with his manager, who had a habit of not returning phone calls. The 32-year-old former Marine Corps officer is just back from Athens, Greece, where he played the Diogenes Palace for six weeks His next foreign engagement will probably be in Japan. (Elvis fans in England, Europe, and Japan had to travel to the United States to see the King perform. Despite the huge fees offered. Colonel Parker refused to schedule overseas concerts.) Lentz began his impersonator career in 1988, at a fundraiser for Adam Walsh, the Florida boy who was kidnapped and murdered. In between various nightclub shows and television appearances (Married with Children, Growing Pains, The Arsemo Hall Show), Lentz has done benefits for an Escondido child with a brain tumor and a Santee girl mauled by a pit bull. Next on his charity list is a local AIDS group he saw profiled on the evening news. Why all the freebies, I ask? “There are some things you just can’t explain,” Lentz says. Giving is a form of receiving, he adds. "When you have people who make you feel important," he explains, "you can’t ask for much more than that.’
"When Elvis heard that one of his physicians was developing an artificial heart, he ordered one for himself." (From Elvis: Portrait of a Friend, written by the best man at Elvis’s wedding.)
Were sailing in a wide circle around San Diego Bay. waiting for Eddie Powers to perform aboard the Entertainer. My friend Lisa is recalling one of the high points in her life: the time she saw Elvis in concert. It was June 28, 1976, the occasion of her 18th birthday. (Elvis performed the song "Hurt" twice that night, according to a day-by-day account of his life written by the producer of the Elvis Fan Festival. By this point in time, Elvis was slurring his words and forgetting lyrics. He would often stop in the middle of a song and start talking about karate, his jewelry, or the food at the hotel. When he finished rambling, the crowd would cheer wildly.) "I liked his voice," says Lisa, reflecting on her attraction to the King. "It was so raw. It was like sex. Although I didn’t know this at the time." She remembers seeing a man sitting on the side of the stage, behind a small table stacked with folded scarves. It was this man’s job to touch a scarf to Elvis’s sweaty face and then throw it to the audience.
Of all the Elvis impersonators in San Diego, Eddie Powers appears the most regularly. Three nights a week, throughout the summer, he's shared the pitching and rolling floor with Ed Sullivan and the Supremes. It’s a dinner cruise/impersonator show, and an expensive one at that. For $39.95 a head, I expect Diana Ross, lobster, and an open bar. But on September 8, we don’t even get the fake Supremes. (They had to cancel tonight.) We're left with Ed, Eddie, prime rib, and one free gin and tonic from the bartender who tries to stem my outrage over having to pay for drinks too.
Eddie Powers is the sweetest Elvis impersonator I've met. He's 28 years old, tall, and in possession of the prettiest, most sincere smile I've ever seen on a man. People walking by comment o0 how white his teeth are. (Elvis had frequent dental work done, some say in order to get more painkiller prescriptions. But according to a book written by Elvis's hairdresser, the King believed that money could buy perfect teeth. After meeting the Beatles, he expressed surprise at the bad condition of their mouths.) Walking around the upper deck after the salad portion of our $39.95 meal, I see Powers talking to an older woman, here for her birthday compliments of her kids. "What's your name, sweetheart?" he asks. Other well-wishers approach, sheepishly, introduce themselves. Middle-aged couples, out on group dates, pair off by gender. Wives make comments to each other about Powers' derriere. tittering together over their naughtiness. Husbands sing lyrics from "Hound Dog." laughing heartily at then own humor. Powers smiles at them all.
Sitting at our table, Eddie tries to articulate his raison d'Elvis. He is wearing white boots, white polyester Sansabelt slacks, a royal purple satin shirt, several gold rope chains, the dark-tinted Elvis sunglasses, rings on almost every finger. He is not in costume yet. A woman comes over, boyfriend in tow, with a question: did Powers become an impersonator because he looked and sounded like Elvis, or the other way around? This is a good starting point for the Eddie Powers story.
Born and raised in Minnesota, Powers became enamored of Elvis at an early age. Like most of the impersonators I interviewed, he has a room in his house devoted to the display of Elvis memorabilia. "I had my Elvis room by the time I was eight," recalls Powers. Every night little Eddie would sing along with his live Elvis records, pretending he was the King in concert. The whole performance took three hours. "I didn’t go to bed without doing my Elvis show," he says. "But I was just having fun. I didn’t realize that I could grow up and become an Elvis impersonator."
The infatuation didn’t subside with puberty. "Being a devoted (Elvis) fan was not real popular in (high) school," he recalls. "Other music was going on, like the Beatles, Kiss, the Rolling Stones." Powers couldn't interest himself in these groups. "I never saw any other performer that excited me like Elvis. He just had a way of drawing people to him." (Lisa nods her head knowingly.) "His love for his fans came across. Even in the late 70s, when he was performing in the jumpsuit. Those jumpsuits were hot and uncomfortable. They must have weighed 30, 40 pounds. Yet he didn't care. He was that devoted to his fans.” Powers was in the Navy when he saw his first Elvis impersonator. Elvis as a career choice had never occurred to him. As soon as he finished his enlistment, the former Minnesota State Vocal Champion put a show and some costumes together. His seamstress charges $1000 and up for replicas of Elvis’s famous outfits. Powers owns ten of them, including the Blue Eagle, the White Phoenix, the Las Vegas White Fringe, and Red Burning Love. Like many Elvis impersonators. Powers finds work at grand openings, theme parties, military bases, and bar mitzvahs. He has also appeared on several TV sitcoms. This past summer, he was interviewed on The Joan Rivers Show along with two other Elvis impersonators. “I gave her one of my scarves,” recalls Powers. “She loved it.”
When it comes to the other Elvis imitators, Eddie has only nice things to say. He liked Bob Lentz s act at the Earthquake Cafe and compliments Von Dishong. Powers and his wife (who acts as his manager) are personally acquainted with “Kinicke." who performs at the Del Mar Fair. But Kinicke is not really an Elvis impersonator; he does an Elvis tribute show. (I try to listen as Powers explains the difference, but there's a voice screaming in my subconscious. It’s saying, "No more Elvises!" ) Powers sorts the impersonators according to who, as far as he can determine, really loved the King. Loved the King. In fact. Powers applies this standard to everyone he meets. Am I an Elvis fan? he asks.
On to the show Powers gives the audience everything he's got, Elvis-wse. A particular part of him reminds me of Tom Jones. Grey-haired ladies approach him cautiously, pop off a flashcube, and scurry back to their tables. Others squeal with each pelvic thrust. Two women sitting towards the stern scream continuously, no matter what he does. One feisty lady throws her napkin at him. The show ends with "My Way,” a song that Elvis often sang in concert during the last year of his life, holding up a cheat sheet because he couldn't remember the lyrics.
Powers figures he has 20 good years left as an Elvis impersonator. "After that, I’ll probably have a traveling museum, take it around the world. I've got quite a bit of memorabilia,” he says. Elvis scarves? Sunglasses? A lock of his hair? "No, just [dinner] plates, wall hangings, pictures, things like that,” says Powers. His mission in life is to keep Elvis’s memory alive. He tells the story of a young boy. no more than six years old, who watched him getting into his car tonight. "He never took his eyes off me,” says Powers He is convinced that the kid, on some level, recognized Elvis. Do I understand the significance of that? I venture a guess: There's a new generation of Elvis fans on the way up? That’s right, says Powers, eyes aglow, that dazzling smile turned up bright And he's going to be there for them.