Impersonation Nation

Were the ghosts of Marilyn Monroe, John Belushi, Patsy Cline, Bing Crosby and Elvis Presley to converge on Earth, they could hardly have picked a more unlikely location for their postmortem summit meeting than the far East Valley, a snowbird wonderland of RV parks, propane stations, swap meets and all-you-can-eat buffets.

But since last November, that geriatric vortex is exactly where phony versions of these late greats--along with reasonable facsimiles of a handful of still-living icons like Frank Sinatra, Willie Nelson, Jerry Lee Lewis and Dan Aykroyd--have been strutting their stuff eight times a week in a revue called "Legendary Superstars."

At first glance, the bare-bones showroom--a 300-seat banquet hall in a bleak-looking strip mall just a few feet west of the Apache Junction/Mesa border--would hardly seem worthy of stars of such magnitude.

But once the house lights dim, the stage lights come on, the curtain rises and the opening act begins, something magical happens. A Jerry Lee Lewis impostor in a leopard-skin jacket begins banging away at a smoking piano, and, well, goodness gracious, great balls of Sterno!

There's a live band. Flashy--if frugal--production values. A couple of gorgeous back-up dancers. And through the miracle of impersonation (there's no lip-synching, folks; all performers use "their very own natural voices"), there's the opportunity to see Frank Sinatra do it his way. Watch Patsy Cline go walkin' after midnight. And dive for cover as Jake and Elwood Blues tear the stage apart during a raucous duet with Elvis.

Two hours later, when they exit the theater carrying souvenir photos, autographs and audio cassettes of the Elvis impersonators' greatest hits, most of the audience members would probably agree with one of the show's advertising blurbs--"Legendary Superstars" really is "just like those shows in Las Vegas" and other tourist meccas.

The operative phrase here? "Just like."
That's because if you pay close attention, this salute to the ersatz celebrity is actually far more than just a pleasant, relatively inexpensive way to kill a couple hours.

Fascinating and complex in ways that its cast and producers never intended, the impersonation extravaganza raises endless questions about America's obsession with fame, the real and the unreal and, in the absence of the genuine celebrity, the public's eagerness to endorse the next-best thing. Meanwhile, it provides a peek into a bizarre arena of show business predicated on "been there, done that," a deja vu dead end where "My Way" is a career swan song for anyone but a Sinatra impersonator.

And somewhere during the show, even the most fawning fan can't help wondering: "If Elvis Presley had never been born, what would all those guys with blue-black hair and sneering smiles be doing with themselves?"

These days, you might find them ogling the legions of fake Madonnas, Dolly Partons and Michael Jacksons who are rapidly overpopulating the show-biz world.

Unreal? Exactly.
Impersonators and impressionists are hardly newcomers to the entertainment arena--drag queens have been imitating Judy Garland and Diana Ross for years and, during the Sixties, rarely a week went by that Rich Little or Frank Gorshin didn't show up on one TV variety show or another.

Yet by now the human duplicator phenomenon has somehow become so ingrained in American life that when both John Goodman and Jim Belushi imitated Belushi's dead brother during a halftime Blues Brothers number at the Super Bowl, few viewers raised an eyebrow over the truly surreal spectacle. No wonder that it's hard to remember that once upon a time, there was actually no need in the English language for the plural form of the word "Elvis."

The undisputed epicenter of this planet of the apers is Las Vegas' Imperial Palace hotel, home since 1983 to "Legends in Concert," the granddaddy of all impersonation shows. Originally considered by many insiders to be a financially risky (if not downright ghoulish) conceit, the maverick production was essentially a musical wax museum, reasonable facsimiles of a bunch of dead superstars reunited in rock 'n' roll heaven. Joplin and Jolson together on the same stage? Only in Vegas.

But not for long. Still packing 'em in at the Imperial 14 years later, this glitzy imitation of afterlife has spawned a global cottage industry. In addition to the original Vegas production, satellite productions currently run in Atlantic City, Miami and Hawaii, while touring units have played everywhere from cruise liners to Russia. Factor in the scads of rival productions (Vegas alone plays host to at least a half-dozen similar shows) and it's easy to see that the entertainment industry is in the throes of the most lucrative identity crisis since Sally Field played Sybil.

The exact scope of the quirky impersonation industry is hard to quantify. There are no Elvis unions, no look-alike locals. Further adding to the difficulty of a precise impersonator census is the chameleonic nature of the beast: Because of shifting trends and tastes, yesterday's Cher is today's Madonna is tomorrow's who-knows-who. The closest thing to hard statistics comes from Vegas. "La Cage," a celebrity drag show at the Riviera, has been selling out for 12 years. "Legends in Concert," which currently employs more than five dozen impersonators, makes the startling claim that every day, 10,000 people will see one of its shows.

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Dewey Webb