It was just a quick postshow breakfast for Eric Martin and some fellow Vegas entertainers. A chance to wolf down some grub and talk shop with about half the cast of the Imperial Palace's Legends in Concert extravaganza before calling it a night.
None of the performers were household names. A couple, in fact, had only been in town a few weeks. Why, then, was everybody else in the buffet room staring at Martin's party? Did the singer have scrambled egg on his face? Did one of his cohorts across the table just commit a silent-but-deadly gastric indiscretion?
Then it hit him. The costumes! Of course. In their enthusiasm over the feast, the half-dozen Legends had nearly forgotten they all were still dressed as the show-biz celebs they impersonate for a living.
"It was kinda funny," recalls Martin, the Dan Aykroyd half of Legends' Blues Brothers team, in a recent phone interview. "And then when we became self-conscious about it, even we started thinking about how strange it would be if the real people were ever in a situation like that, eating breakfast together and talking."
Life with Legends, it seems, can occasionally be like an episode of TV's Quantum Leap gone awry: a half-dozen mild-mannered regular Joes transported into the bodies of famous people, both living and dead, only visible as their real selves to each other.
"I don't think people ever mistake us for the genuine articles--especially when we're all sitting together in some place like a restaurant," says Jay White, a kind of Neil Diamonoid. "But they still, for whatever reason, feel uncomfortable about approaching us. We spot them looking in our direction, whispering to one another. It's funny. But I suppose when there's a bunch of us together, it can make for something of a spectacle."
"PEOPLE COME TO SEE Legends in Concert because they feel like, `I never got to see Elvis or Roy Orbison in person. This is the next best thing,'" muses Brad Fry, the show's marketing director. "Or they think, `I saw him but my kids didn't.'"
Still others come to see the seven-year-old Vegas mainstay, Fry says, for the sheer fantasy of seeing all these stars together in the same show-- something that could never happen in real life. "I think John Stuart, the producer, obviously hit on something very clever when he came up with this concept. It's really a fascinating show."
Stuart's concept, at its root, was far from original. Vegas has always been overpopulated with Elvis and Marilyn impersonators; Beatlemania revues have kept the Fab Four on the Strip; and look-alike singers have been frightening Cher and Tina Turner fans for years. Stuart, however, cleverly merged Vegas' best impersonator acts into one show and diversified the roster. Sure, Legends had its Elvis. But the glitzy ninety-minute showcase was also possibly the only place you could go to see spittin' images of Nat "King" Cole, Bobby Darin, and Kenny Rogers--to say nothing of Dan Aykroyd.
Today, Legends in Concert is widely recognized by impersonators everywhere as the apex of star-aping. "Most people that impersonate someone usually end up in Las Vegas trying to get in with Johnny and Legends in Concert," says Martin, a former Phoenix pet-food manufacturer who goofed around with his Blues Bro shtick at bar competitions until Stuart discovered him and waved some serious money under his Wayfarers. (Legends, incidentally, employs more than its share of ex-Arizonans. Kenny Bennett--who changes his last name to Rogers for Legends shows--lived in Tucson before moving to Vegas, and Fry spent time in Phoenix.)
"Legends is the highest you can go as an impersonator, probably in the whole world," agrees White. "I don't think there's another step you can ascend above Legends if you're an impersonator."
Because of that rep, impersonators have long swarmed to Legends like tabloid photogs to Rosanne Barr's mooned behind. And Stuart continuously auditions new acts, adding back-up Blues Brothers and spare Chers to his stable should, say, his number one Kenny Rogers decide he's ready to tour with a Dolly Parton impostor. Naturally, it didn't take long before Legends accumulated more Presleys, Diamonds, and Michael Jacksons than it knew what to do with.
That's when Brad Fry came in. His lofty job title reads "vice president of marketing and product development," but the former board member of the Scottsdale Center for the Arts is really a kind of Legends distributor.
Since being appointed to the job a few months ago, Fry has sent a duplicate Legends cast to open an extended run at the Boston Trade Center and dispatched third- and fourth-string teams to conventions, state fairs and hotel lounges from Canada to Hawaii.
"The way it works is a client selects the artists that they want based on a number of variables--the age demographics of their audience, the type of show and so on," Fry explains. "And then we'll send them a package of Legends best suited to their needs."
Lately, Fry has even been getting requests from abroad. A Denmark date has already been inked in for April, and in June, a trip to South Africa.
That one, Fry admits, may be a controversial booking. "We're still doing a little research to see what the situation is now down there. But they've asked for our Nat "King" Cole and our Tina Turner," Fry enthuses, "so they can't be all bad."
IT'S 2 P.M. Las Vegas time, and Kenny Bennett has just rolled out of bed to answer the phone. He speaks slowly, with a slight country drawl, apologizes for sounding "like a dunderhead," then asks if the interviewer can hang on a minute while he grabs his morning eye opener--a nice, tall glass of orange juice.
Coincidental or not, Bennett's beverage choice hints at the parallel universe of Legend and legend. The squeaky-clean Rogers himself is a fruit juice fan.
"Oh yeah, there's a lot of similarities between Kenny Rogers and myself," says the 47-year-old Tucson-born "country boy," who toiled away for twenty years as a carpet salesman for Sears and Montgomery Ward before picking up a guitar and growing a beard. "For example, he seems to be a pretty easygoing person, and I'm a lot like that."
Bennett has noticed similar parallels between the other performers and the stars they portray, and he thanks heaven his idol is the laid-back family man type. "Yeah, I'm glad the guy I portray isn't the outrageous type," he laughs. "I really enjoy filling the role of Kenny Rogers."
Most mimics admit to having adopted some of their character's personality traits but insist that they still see themselves when they look in the mirror. They've all heard the story of the Marilyn Monroe impersonator who became so wrapped up in her role she finally impersonated Monroe's suicide, right down to the last nude pose.
"Some people get so involved in the character that off-stage they start talking like the person or acting like them," notes White. "And I think that's kinda taking it one step too far. When you're on-stage, you want to be as much like that individual as possible. But off-stage, you want to be able to turn that off."
Not all Legends have been able to do that. "We've had people we had to let go of because of that very problem," says Fry. "People who were wonderful at imitating their character but then, for whatever reason, also began imitating the attitudinal problem of the star. It's really an interesting phenomenon." Indeed, an enterprising Vegas shrink could probably build a whole practice treating Elvises with eating disorders and Michael Jacksons with "germaphobia."
When Martin's first Jake Blues partner quit the act a little over a year-and-a-half ago, the imitation Aykroyd was worried about finding a new partner who did John Belushi just a little too much to a tee. "I wanted somebody who looked and sounded like Belushi, but not someone who was following in his footsteps as far as lifestyle goes," says the poor man's Dan. "'Cause doing this show is a grind. It's two shows a night, six nights a week. You have to be in the right mindset and I need someone who's in focus and can carry out the duties that the job calls for."
Ironically, if the real Belushi had come back to life and had come cartwheeling up to Martin's door an unrepentant party animal, he wouldn't have passed the audition. "Actually," Martin ventures, "he probably would have been eliminated immediately."
IT TAKES SOMETHING SPECIAL to keep singing someone else's songs, aping someone else's moves and wearing someone else's sideburns night after night with no prospect for self-expression in the future. It takes, quite simply, money. And the performers in Legends are apparently paid handsomely enough to squelch any latent desires to bound out on-stage some night sans make-up and belt out "I Gotta Be Me."
"The pay is certainly better than what I was receiving doing Top 40 in Michigan and better than I probably could receive anywhere else," admits White, a dedicated breadwinner who's been keeping his wife and three kids comfortable doing Neil Diamond for eight years now. "You know, I wondered about this when I first started out. I thought, `Gee, how long am I gonna enjoy doing Neil Diamond? Am I gonna get sick of it after a few years, doing the same songs over and over again?' But I haven't yet. I might like to hitch up with a songwriter someday and start performing original songs. But I think I'll probably always wanna be doing this to some degree just because I love Neil's music so much and I don't think that'll ever change."
Bennett professes a similar devotion to his man Mr. Rogers, although portraying the "We Are the World" participant seems to have ignited in this Kenny a need to take up causes that somewhat outstrip his notoriety. "I organized my own Farm Aid concert in Vancouver, Washington," Bennett boasts. "I just think it's important that America knows what's happening with the farmers."
And Martin plans to get more involved in his Blues Brothers Tribute.
"Carmen [Romano, his partner] and I have talked about doing something similar to a Blues Brothers act, only using other songs," says the briefcase-toting showman. "We would like to perform and record some songs that the Blues Brothers didn't do but probably would have."
Martin laments the breakup of the Brothers with the kind of reverential tones people usually save for the Beatles. "It was a downright shame when Belushi died; I think a great talent was taken," he eulogizes. "We lost not only just him, but also the great team that he had with Aykroyd. I don't think either of them ever expected the overwhelming following the Blues Brothers would have."
Naturally, Martin sees it as his job to keep up with the continuing demand for the late act. "I think the act was just far too short-lived."
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Of course. The truly great ones' candles will probably always burn out before the Legends ever do.
Legends in Concert will perform at Celebrity Theatre on Sunday, March 25. Show times are 3:30 and 7:30 p.m.
Legends in Concert is widely recognized by impersonators everywhere as the apex of star-aping.
They've all heard the story of the Marilyn Monroe impersonator who became so wrapped up in her role she finally impersonated Monroe's suicide.