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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.

To paraphrase a Jerry Lee Lewis impersonator, "there's a whole lotta fakin' goin' on!"

In a business where following in someone else's famous footsteps is the only path to success, originality would not seem to count for much.

But last year, in the midst of performing a Blues Brothers act in Myrtle Beach, South Carolina, veteran John Belushi impersonator Michael Paloma had an epiphany: Why not copy his boss--and start his own show?

"Every day, we had a lot of buses coming in, all these seniors on oxygen," recalls Paloma, who attended college at Arizona State University. "I'm thinking to myself, 'Jeez, this is great!' I know another place just like this--Mesa, Arizona! Every winter, they get a million of 'em!"

After spending years on the road assembling a checkered show-biz resume that covers virtually every field of entertainment except lap dancing, Paloma moved back to the Valley and began creating his show. Or, more precisely, re-creating it--"Legendary Superstars" is a virtual photocopy (albeit scaled down) of the show at the Las Vegas Imperial Palace, where Paloma once served a six-year stint.

Unlike traditional producers who are plagued by such niggling real-life concerns as scheduling conflicts, illnesses, even the death of a performer, impersonator impresarios like Paloma have at their finger tips every performer in the history of show biz--living or dead. In duplicate.

As he ticks off his dream cast, Paloma sounds like a man preparing a shopping list. "I wanted a Marilyn. I wanted a Frank. I wanted a Bing." Pause. "The Blues Brothers will work in any show--they're the most popular act going. I wanted an Elvis--he's the second most popular." Waiting in the wings are the Andrews Sisters, Sammy Davis Jr. and Dean Martin.

If this stellar roster hearkens back to an earlier era, that's because it mirrors the taste of the average "Legendary Superstars" ticket buyer. Explains Paloma, "I really hate to cut the kids out of this, but the truth is it's the seniors who are going to make the payroll. So I give 'em a mixture and hope for the best. Reba McEntire is coming in, so maybe that'll bring in a younger country crowd." The show is scheduled to run through April, when it moves to the Wisconsin Dells.

Working from a pool of impersonators based almost entirely out of Las Vegas, Paloma eventually hired a rotating stable of pseudostars who all live rent-free in a Mesa apartment complex provided by the show. Each performer supplies his or her own costumes, material and musical arrangements. According to Paloma, salaries range from $800 a week for an opening act to $2,500 for an Elvis.

While there's not a Donna Summer ringer in the lot, Paloma's superstars work hard for the money. In addition to performing eight shows a week, the cast members are also expected to spend several mornings a week handing out promotional brochures at shopping malls, RV parks, community colleges and flea markets--in character.

"That's when the reality kicks in," confides one seasoned "superstar" accustomed to the cushier conditions of Vegas. "You realize, 'Gosh, I never had to do this before.' It makes you realize you're working a ground-floor operation."

During intermission at a recent "Legendary Superstars" performance, the show's publicist attempts to impress a cluster of concertgoers by announcing that several cast members had "actually worked in Vegas!"

But rather than draw the intended response, her statement merely elicits puzzled looks. "Then what are they doing out here in Apache Junction?" asks one elderly listener.

In the words of the King of Rock 'n' Roll--or, in these woods, a pretender to the throne--"TCB, ma'am."

"To me, the main attraction is the money," answers Woody Neel Bosko, the house Jerry Lee Lewis. A writer, jazz musician and lounge performer since the early Sixties (Bosko can be seen as the lounge pianist in background shots of early episodes of The Love Boat), the 52-year-old performer says, "Believe me, there's nothing I love more than sitting in a nice cocktail lounge playing some real cool jazz with some real fine players. Creatively, there's nothing finer. But that ain't where the money is--yet. My wife and I are trying to pay off an apartment building we own so I'm doing Jerry Lee Lewis rather than sitting in some hotel in Vegas working for scale."

Bosko credits his wife, Justine Carrelli, with the idea to impersonate The Killer. An American Bandstand regular when the show was still being broadcast from Philadelphia, Carrelli was screening some old videotapes of the show for an upcoming documentary when she noticed her husband bore a fleeting likeness to the star.

Reportedly one of only two Killers-for-hire in the country, Bosko says his only cosmetic preparation for the role was coloring his hair. "Some 'legends'--and I'm glad to tell you that none of them are in our show--take this thing way too seriously," explains Bosko. "Some of them think that they are that person they're playing--they get tons and tons of plastic surgery. Some of them are just plain nuts, actually.

"When I'm onstage, I am Jerry Lee Lewis," continues Bosko. "But when I'm in the dressing room or out on the street or at the store, I'm Woody.

"In fact, if it weren't for my hot pink 1959 pickup, people wouldn't even question me."

Like Bosko, nightclub singer Duke Hazlett--the show's Bing Crosby and Frank Sinatra--drifted into the impersonation game by default. "The whole business has changed," says Hazlett. "Used to be I'd work 12 weeks in Chicago, go to Miami for another 12 weeks, then up New York. Well, those days are gone--there is no nightclub circuit anymore. So I came up with a 55-minute show called "Reflections of Sinatra." I also have a Sammy and a Dean and we do a "Reflections of the Rat Pack" show. It goes over beautifully, if I may be so bold."

For impersonation buffs, Hazlett's dual turns as Crosby and Sinatra would appear to be an impenetrable challenge. Bing Crosby simply does not look like Frank Sinatra (both singers appeared in High Society without particularly confusing the audience) and, truth be told, Duke Hazlett doesn't really bear much more than a passing resemblance to either. In fact, from certain angles, he could just as easily pass for Gene Kelly. Or Mel Brooks. Or Mel Brooks doing Frank Sinatra in High Anxiety.

That's where the art of illusion comes in, explains Hazlett. "What I do is psych myself up to be Bing or Frank onstage," explains Hazlett. "How would Bing hold a pipe or arch his eyebrow? How does Frank carry a drink onstage? The voice, the movement, the facial gestures--they're part of an overall package. Just saying 'Hey, you dirty rat!' without going through the Jimmy Cagney gestures doesn't mean much."

The only member of the Apache Junction cast who has actually met the legend he portrays ("Frank's always been very nice and gracious to me"), Hazlett is aware he may soon be in the eerie position of watching his own particular living legend turn into one for the ages.

"People have said to me that when Frank dies, I'm going right up into the six-figure bracket," says Hazlett, addressing the issue of Sinatra's highly publicized series of recent health problems. "Well, I don't listen to that and I refuse to believe it. If he passed away tonight, I certainly don't think it would be very tasteful to go and do the performance. I think I'd take a moratorium on what I do for a week or two."

If Gertrude Stein were to snare a ringside seat at "Legendary Superstars," she might be tempted to comment, "An Elvis is an Elvis is an Elvis."

But she'd be dead wrong.
"There are about five Elvises who can play the main showrooms in Vegas," producer Michael Paloma reports. "Then you've got a couple of B's, a whole lot of C's and then there are those you don't even want to talk about."

The verdict's still out on the replacement Presley that Paloma brought in for a week when the resident Elvis left the building for a brief gig in the Bahamas a few months ago.

Although Paloma had previously worked with the substitute, he hadn't seen him in a few years and was horrified to discover the replacement had ballooned to nearly 300 pounds. "Don't see the show tonight," begged Paloma at the time. "You'll crucify me. Jeez, the guy's legs--tree trunks!"

Adroitly using his avoirdupois to comic advantage, however, the porcine Presley won the audience over by cleverly parodying the bloated late-period Elvis. Wandering through the theater while singing, he snatched at bags of popcorn and other snacks, a running gag that brought the impersonation to an entirely different level.

Crowd-pleasing as the fill-in was, Presley purists like the regular "Legendary Superstars" Elvis insist that shift was not an upward move.

"For the real, true sense of what Elvis is about, that sort of parody is just not funny," says 37-year-old Presley look-alike Paul Casey, the only cast member who truly looks like the star he portrays. "At the end, Presley was a very depressed, sad person. His whole life had turned to shit. He hated the way he looked, his management wasn't letting him do what he wanted, he didn't care and he fell into drugs. I'm sorry, but that's what happened."

After nine years of crisscrossing the globe in a white, high-collared jumpsuit, tinted aviator glasses and muttonchop sideburns, Casey can definitely relate.

"I can see how the man got burned out on it," says Casey. "I myself can't do anything further than what I'm doing right now. I need to take it to another level."

In view of his respect for Presley (which didn't prevent him from accepting a role as an Elvis impersonator in the less-than-reverential Honeymoon in Vegas), just what that level might be is unclear.

"I don't know what I'll do," says Casey of life after Elvis. "Maybe I'll go into entertainment law. I'd also like to produce. I do know that I want to give something back to the people."

The "Legendary Superstars" sole female cast member may be the only woman in show business who, when asked for her autograph, scribbles three names--Marilyn Monroe, Patsy Cline and Marsha Finn. As it turns out, that triple-decker John Hancock is indicative of her enigmatic approach to celebrity pantomime.

"Since I always do the autograph session right after the finale dressed as Patsy, a lot of people don't realize until I sign that I was Marilyn, too," explains Marsha Finn, a former member of a Disney touring revue. "They say, 'When's Marilyn coming out?' and I say, 'She's out right now--sorta.' It just blows my mind that they don't realize they were watching the same person. But I guess that means that I'm doing my job."

Finn concedes that half of her job is made considerably easier because relatively few people have a clear picture of what Patsy Cline looked like.

"That's great, isn't it?" says Finn, who portrays the late singer dressed in generic Cline--a curly dark wig and a cowgirl outfit. "There isn't a lot of footage on Patsy. So instead I looked at the movie."

The movie?
"Sweet Dreams," she answers. "Jessica Lange's portrayal is right on the money."

While seemingly jarring, that explanation--impersonation once-removed--makes perfect sense on some very obtuse level: Why bother providing a slavishly faithful re-creation when most people wouldn't recognize it if they saw it?

Even more intriguing is Finn's turn as Marilyn Monroe--a redhead, she winds up looking like Jane Russell masquerading as Monroe in the final reel of Gentlemen Prefer Blondes.

Finn's Monroe--which is roughly the same routine used by every Marilyn in the business--is a multitiered charade worthy of an anthropological thesis.

Although the late bombshell sang in a number of her films, in life she was never regarded as a musical performer. Nor did she ever make many public appearances--and certainly none as a nightclub headliner.

So what are we to make of the ethereal ditz wandering through the audience, kissing bald men on the head between choruses of "My Heart Belongs to Daddy"? What exactly is being impersonated? If it's a scene from one of her movies, then we're probably seeing Finn as Monroe as Lorelei Lee. But if that's the case, then why is Marilyn tossing off coy allusions to her affairs with JFK and RFK? Upon discovering that one audience member hails from D.C., Finn coos, "Ooooo, Marilyn likes Washington!"

Will the real Marilyn please stand up?
"Which Marilyn am I?" Finn says with a sigh. "That's a hard one. People see Marilyn as so many different people--some see her as a dizzy blonde, others see her as Norma Jean. I try to bring out a little bit of everything, especially the comedy because she was such a funny lady."

And apparently so was Finn's other alter ego. As Patsy Cline, she receives one of the biggest laughs in the show when she tells a joke about breast implants--a subject unheard of at the time of the singer's death in 1963.

Asked about the anachronism, Finn laughs. "I put that in because it's cute, the kind of joke I think Patsy would have told, bless her heart."

Marilyn Monroe couldn't have said it better herself.

A nine-year veteran of the faux 'n' famous biz, "Legendary Superstars" cast member Kevin Baker recently began wearing two hats in the show. Or more precisely, one fedora and a $400 hairpiece--costuming that help transform him into Elwood Blues and a Jazz Singer-era Neil Diamond, respectively.

The decision to add Diamond to his repertoire wasn't so much a matter of doubling his employment opportunities as an attempt to segue into old age through a less hazardous characterization.

"I've been through three partners in the last three years," explains Baker, who recently missed several performances because of a back injury aggravated by the physically challenging demands of the Blues Brothers routine. "My second partner was 50 when he had his first serious accident onstage; he jumped down and broke an elbow. About three months later, he jumped up, caught his nose on a wire, lost his balance and fell off the stage." Concludes Baker, "There comes a time when you're 40 years old, wearing three-inch shoes, rolling around on the stage that you realize this isn't going to take you through 50."

Still, the Neil Diamond zircon doesn't pretend that his strange way of making a living is anything more than it is.

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Unlike those he impersonates, Baker knows he'll probably never land a platinum record, the home in Beverly Hills and millions of screaming fans.

On the other hand, he need never worry about the next hit record, losing the house or fending off stalkers, which is just fine with him.

"You've got to remember that I'm coming to this from lounge work in Vegas," he says. "That's a job where you're rewarded for being mediocre; they don't want you to be too good or people won't keep gambling. So to have people come, sit down and watch me in a show like this--even if I'm doing the Blues Brothers or I've got the Neil Diamond unit on my head--that's great.

"I'm just an entertainer," says Baker. "Bottom line? What I'm doing out here is a kick of a way to make child support.

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