Five Elvis Impersonators Slip on Their Blue Suede Shoes and Get Personal
Jan 18 2013
Robert McArthur, 44
VICE: How did you first become interested in Elvis Presley?
Robert: It all started with me being a fan when I was a kid. When Elvis died in August of 1977, I had just started listening to him and getting to know who he was. The very first concert I saw was his last TV special.
When did you decide you wanted to become a professional Elvis impersonator?
About ten years ago, my mom asked me if I wanted to go see an Elvis impersonator in Buffalo, New York, which is where I’m from. Seeing it brought me back to my childhood and gave me a renewed interest in Elvis. I became friends with these Elvis impersonators and told them about my childhood dream of dressing as Elvis. They said, “You should give that a try. You never know.” Eventually they convinced me to do it, and it turned out to be a great success.
Did you have any musical experience at that time?
Yeah, I had been in bands but never anything big. I didn’t do much singing. I mostly played guitar and used it as a way to get more confident with my voice. Throughout the years I’ve been in oldies bands, country bands, folk bands, heavy metal… In fact, I have an oldies band I jam with on the side right now.
How often do you perform as Elvis?
About three to four times per week. On the weekdays I perform at nursing homes and senior centers, and I also do singing telegrams. Then on the weekends I do birthday parties, weddings, bar mitzvahs, and similar events. I’m also an ordained minister.
Do you get asked to marry a lot of couples?
I do a couple per year. I marry people as Elvis and also do vow renewals. I do a package where I will marry them as Elvis, perform at the reception, and DJ the wedding.
Do you have other jobs, or is this it?
This is my full-time gig. In addition to Elvis, I also do other celebrity impersonations: Neil Diamond, Engelbert Humperdinck, and the Blues Brothers, as well as that oldies band I mentioned. That one is a superhero band—every person is dressed as a different superhero, and we do oldies and 60s surf music.
Which superhero are you?
Batman. We have Superman on drums, Green Lantern on keyboard, Aquaman on bass, Wonder Woman on trumpet, and Hawkgirl plays the sax.
Are people within the Elvis-impersonator community friendly with one another or is it more competitive?
Yeah, most of the guys get along. I’m friends with the local guys, but there are also national people. I traveled around when I first started out and went to the Elvis contests where I met a lot of them. I would say that 90 percent were great to hang out with. In the local community, if I can’t do a job I’ll call someone else and ask them to do it, and they’ll do the same for me. There are a few guys who aren’t very nice or sociable, though. There is a little rivalry between Elvises.
What’s the best Elvis song?
That’s a tough one. He has over 700 songs. I can’t put a favorite one out there, but I really enjoy a lot of his movie songs. He made 31 movies during his career and did the soundtracks to all of them, but none were very big hits. There are a lot of hidden gems in those films. One of my favorite movies is Live a Little, Love a Little, which he did later in his career.
Tunes aside, what’s your favorite thing about Elvis?
He was larger than life. He was loved by so many people. He had a very lavish lifestyle but was still down-to-earth and very generous as well. People would admire his cars, and he would give them the keys and say, “Enjoy.”
Do you ever run across female fans who have an infatuation with Elvis, and does that extend to you?
All the time. We were doing a party for this husband who hired Elvis for his wife’s birthday, and she was going crazy. She was acting like I was the real Elvis. She was practically fainting at my knees and hugging me as I performed. My girlfriend gets a big kick out of women trying to get close to me when I’m performing. It’s funny.
What makes your Elvis impersonation special?
I connect with the audience. If I see they are not enjoying themselves, I make sure that they do. My performances involve a lot of audience interaction and I give away scarves or teddy bears, like Elvis did. I don’t have an attitude, and I very much become Elvis when I put the boots and shades on. I try to put on an authentic show Elvis would be proud of.
Gene DiNapoli, 47
VICE: What sparked your interest in the King?
Gene: I’ve been a fan since I was five or six years old. I used to sit in my room and do my own little imitation. My uncle owned a restaurant, and one night he asked me to get up and sing. I got up there and tore the house down. For a while I thought it was because I was great, but it was really just because I was related to my uncle. I made a few dollars and we had a good time, and from there it’s stemmed to hospitals and charities and that sort of stuff.
Was there a particular moment when you became aware that impersonating Elvis was your professional calling?
I’ve been singing since I was 14 and began to take it seriously when I was 16. I started doing shows and making money when I was 17 by playing parties instead of just nursing homes.
Is it your only source of income?
This has been my full-time occupation for many years. I perform anywhere between eight and 12 times a month.
There are a lot of other Elvises running around out there. Do you guys all know one another and get along, or are there a few no-good hound dogs?
I try to get along with everybody, but unfortunately there’s a lot of jealousy in this business. I’m not as tall or thin as Elvis was, so I’m not a perfect match, physically speaking. Because of that, a lot of people get jealous when I get work they think should have gone to them. Everybody thinks they’re the best at what they do, but ultimately it’s up to the fans and the people who hire you to make that decision. I’m not a cheap act. There are guys who are cheaper than me, but I still get work. So, obviously, the show I put on is worth the money they pay me, or else they’d go with a different Elvis.
So it all comes down to stage presence?
Well, I’m not an impersonator. I never tried to be an impersonator. I never thought I was a dead ringer or a dead sound-alike. What I’ve done for the past 30-odd years is present a tribute to Elvis, and as far as I know I was the first person to use that terminology, in the mid-80s. I believe the term “tribute artist” applies to me directly. My show is constantly changing, while other guys do their shows exactly like Elvis did it, and sometimes when you’re not Elvis that can get boring. For example, there was a part in his show where Elvis would do a little dance with his band. So when you’re in a restaurant, if you try to dance with the band and there’s no band, it just looks stupid.
What’s the best Elvis song?
“Burning Love,” because he was already 37 when he recorded it. In the realm of Top 40 he was considered a has-been, and then he comes out with this rock ’n’ roll song and goes to number 2 on the charts. That’s pretty good for a guy from the 50s.
Besides his music, what’s your favorite thing about Elvis?
He was just an original. He was the first musician to film a concert on satellite, the first performer to sell out Madison Square Garden four shows in a row, the first person to do an unplugged show, the first entertainer to have his own plane, the first guy to have a mansion from a rock ’n’ roll song… I love it. Everything he did was cutting-edge. He was also the first rock ’n’ roll star to get inducted into the Army and not go into Special Services. They told him he could go and perform for the troops, and he said, “No, I want to be a regular soldier just like the boys in my unit.” So everything he did, in my opinion, while it might not have been the greatest in the whole world, it was the first.
How many Elvis costumes do you own?
I have 25.
I’ve heard that you have a pretty impressive Elvis shrine at your house.
Yes, I do. I’m an Elvis fan first. A lot of guys get in this business for money, girls, or because they want to be onstage. I’m a fan first, so my collection is my crowning glory. I have stuff ranging from the 50s up until the present day. Fifty percent of the stuff in my room were gifts—I get gifts from fans, other Elvises, and everybody in my family always tries to buy me something I don’t have. My wife bought me an authentic tie tack and cufflink set that actually belonged to Elvis for my birthday a few years ago; I have a belt buckle that Elvis gave a stewardess in North Carolina, and I’m offering a $1,000 reward for anybody who can get me a picture of him wearing it, because all I have to go on is the word of this stewardess; I have a bracelet that Elvis gave to the background singer Myrna Smith, who then gave it to me; and then I have every recording and hundreds of hours of videotape and statues and posters and books.
Where do you keep all that stuff?
It’s in my Elvis room in the basement of my house.
Randy Mancini, 48
VICE: When were you first awestruck by Elvis?
Randy: I got into Elvis as a kid. My mom used to play his music.
How old were you?
I was around eight.
When did you decide to become an Elvis impersonator?
Like 12 years ago.
How often do you perform?
Usually just on weekends, Friday and Saturday nights.
Do you have another job, or is impersonating your only occupation?
Yeah, I have another occupation. My day job is selling cars. [laughs]
Have you ever had a falling out with another Elvis impersonator?
We all get along pretty well. Once every couple months we get together and do these competitions, like the Lake George Elvis Festival. Most recently I went to the Dewey Beach Elvis Festival. There are a few; one of them is in Atlantic City. They have them every couple months and usually there are like 20 guys, but Lake George is the biggest. At that one there are about 60 of us, and it’s a two-day ordeal.
Who judges these contests?
They have panels who run them.
Are the judges also Elvis impersonators?
The guy who runs it used to be one years ago, but he doesn’t do that anymore. He just runs the show now.
Are there any prizes involved, or is it just for the glory of the title of Best Elvis?
There are different prizes for different levels. They have professional and nonprofessional divisions. I enter the pro contests, but I just started getting into that circuit like a year and a half ago. You’ve gotta stick around for a little while before you start winning big.
What are the prizes like?
It goes up to like $1,500 or $2,000 for first place, and then it goes down to around $500 or $300… stuff like that.
What’s your favorite Elvis song?
I’d say “Viva Las Vegas.”
Do you have a favorite album?
Probably Aloha from Hawaii.
Aside from his music, what’s your favorite thing about him?
He was an honest, caring guy. He was very giving. He wasn’t greedy, and he used to bless people around him with the blessing that was put upon him.
At what type of places and events do you usually perform?
Usually birthdays, weddings, and anniversaries. Birthdays are the big ones. Sometimes there are Christmas parties and stuff like that too.
How many Elvis getups do you own?
I’ve got about six.
Where do you get the suits from?
B&K Enterprises. They use the designs from Elvis’s original suits.
Do they make other types of clothing, or just Elvis-wear?
Yeah, they make stuff for a couple other impersonators, but they mainly focus on Elvis. There are a couple other places that make them, and those sell for about half-price. Some of the other guys use those, but they just aren’t the same.
Gotta go with the original.
Yeah. They’re pricey, but worth it every time.
How much are they?
Usually anywhere from $1,000 to $4,000.
That’s a hunka hunka cash.
Ruben Castillo, 39
VICE: Was there a defining moment or event that got you into Elvis?
Ruben: I first learned about Elvis when I was about five years old. My grandmother had a red velvet Elvis painting, and my aunt would play Elvis eight-tracks at her house. I just liked the music. When I was 12 I started doing talent shows, but I would say I got into it professionally when I was 27 years old.
As a kid did you perform with other dudes, or would that have been weird?
It was different. The most unique story is one time a kid, who I guess saw me onstage, all of a sudden just punched me while I was walking down the hall at school. Then, a few days later, he hit me in the head with a yearbook and gave me a bloody mouth. I always attributed that incident to the fact that a lot of people were paying attention to me because of the Elvis thing.
What’s the inside scoop on the Elvis-impersonator community?
Everyone is unique and brings his own style to it. For the most part we do get along, but if there are rivalries I try to stay out of it. Back in the 1990s there were a lot of Elvis impersonators here in Jersey, but it seems like a lot of them got out of it. It’s beginning to grow again, though. Right now there are about ten of us, three or four of whom do it professionally.
As the years go on, do you think the community will ever die out? Or is the King’s flame eternal?
There is a new generation of Elvis impersonators now. The karaoke tracks have gotten a lot better, so it’s easier for people to get into it. Education is needed about Elvis, though. Everyone has his or her own assumption about Elvis being drugged-out or bloated. I was listening to the radio one time, and they had a song about ordering all of this food that was supposed to make fun of Elvis. To an Elvis impersonator or fan, that is a little disrespectful. Unfortunately, a lot of people who aren’t in this Elvis community just think he was a big, bloated prescription-drug guy who ate all sorts of food.
Do you have a day job?
I am a program coordinator for New Jersey. People who receive welfare come to my facility to do volunteer work and learn how to get a job. We have been very successful at placing people in jobs.
Are you known for any other types of impersonations or performances, or are you strictly an Elvis man?
Yeah, I’ve been a performer all of my life. I’ve been doing impressions since I was five years old, and now I do everything from Spongebob Squarepants to Obama. I specialize in dialects and accents. I have also had a variety of different leads in musicals and do the voice-overs for some of the toys that you buy in stores.
Like the ones where you press a button and they talk?
Yeah, I do Santa Claus for a couple of them.
How long do you think your time as an Elvis impersonator will last?
Good question. I used to say until I was 42, because that’s when he passed. But I think that was just something in my head. I will never stop because it will just transform into something else. Elvis grew—he wasn’t always the jumpsuit guy. I try to think: What’s next with Elvis? What is the next thing I can do to bring him to light? I believe the answer is education. I am trying to do an educational series centered on Elvis that will teach the younger audiences about him and the history of that time. I think it’s very important that everyone learns about American history and world history through the music of that era.
If you had to pick a favorite Elvis song, what would it be?
Can I give you two?
One would have to be “The Impossible Dream,” because it has a connection to my musical-theater groups. It is kind of a difficult song to sing for some people, but for me it’s pretty easy. “Trouble” is another one I like to sing. It’s a melody he did in 1958, and it’s a pretty rocking and wild song. Those would have to be my top two.
Mike Marchitto, 48
VICE: How did you first become fascinated with all things Elvis?
Mike: It started when I was a little kid. I used to dance in front of the mirror and my mother would play 45s. I guess that was to calm me down. I used to make-believe I was Elvis by giving out scarves and kissing the mirror, pretending there were girls there. [makes kissing sound] What a strange kid I was. Who knew I would be putting on a jumpsuit, wig, and sideburns one day?
How did you make the transition from performing at home to shaking your hips onstage?
That happened in 1999, after I fell 17 feet off a scaffold and onto the concrete. To make a long story short, a radio station put on an Elvis competition down in Forked River, New Jersey. Some friends of mine wanted to cheer me up after my accident, so we went down there to watch. I had never seen any Elvis impersonators at that time. I was listening to these guys and—no disrespect to anybody—I wasn’t impressed. I went up to one of the radio-station guys, and I said to him in an Elvis voice, “It’s amazing how many people there are who want to imitate me.” They were like, “Holy smokes! Do you sing like him too?” I said, “Yeah.” I walked away, and a few minutes later they called me back up. I wound up singing “Are You Lonesome Tonight?” and halfway through the song the crowd was hushed. When I finished, the response was overwhelming. They didn’t care that I was on crutches and in a walking cast, they just asked me to come back and look like Elvis. So I went out and bought felt sideburns, a black leather jacket, and black pants. I performed three songs and wound up winning the competition. I’ve been doing it ever since.
Does your impersonation work pay the bills, or do you have another profession?
I do construction during the day. I’m a union man. Right now we’re trying to help as much as possible around here.
What’s your favorite Elvis song or album?
My favorite Elvis song, believe it or not, is “In the Ghetto.” I don’t really have a favorite album. I have 45s from back in the 60s. I probably have a lot of money in my Elvis crate. There are times when I need money and I think about selling stuff, but I’d rather get on my knees. [laughs] No, there ain’t no way I’m selling that stuff. No way.
What other Elvis paraphernalia do you have?
The jumpsuits, lots of books, cassettes, CDs, pictures… But honestly—I don’t know what the other people’s houses look like—but you can’t tell that an Elvis guy lives here at all. I don’t need to display it. If you come to my condo, you will not see one bit of Elvis other than a picture I have of myself in costume at his house.
That sounds like a great photo.
Oh man, so many people see that photo and say, “Dude, that’s Elvis,” and I’m like, “What? That’s me!” I can tell you a quick story about that picture if you have a minute.
Lay it on me.
A couple of years ago, a family hired me to play a party for them. They were gigantic Elvis fans, and to make a long story short, a little while later the wife developed cancer. Her last wish was to see Elvis—me—before she died. When I arrived they were saying she had about 20 to 30 hours left. Even though I was playing the part of Elvis, everything I said to her was from the heart. I was saying, “You gotta get better, honey. I don’t wanna see you lying here.” Her favorite color was pink, so I gave her a pink rose and a pink teddy bear. After about an hour I left. Then, about an hour and a half later, I got a phone call from her mother. She said, “My daughter’s eating.” I was like, “What do you mean, she’s eating?” And she said, “Well, because Elvis told her to get better, she’s trying to eat cookies and milk.” So this lady, who was supposed to be dead within 30 or so hours, lived for four or five more weeks.
Then, the day after Mother’s Day, I called to see how she was doing. They told me she was on her way out, and would I mind coming down to do her two favorite songs? Of course I went. When they wheeled her in, she was incoherent. I sang her two songs, the last one was “As Long as I Have You,” and all of a sudden her eyes opened up and then she mumbled something to me. I said, “I told you I didn’t want to see you here,” and she said something like, “I’m trying…” Once I finished, I packed up my stuff and left. Then she died.
A while later, they called me up and said, “Michael, where are you?” I said, “What do you mean, where am I?” They wanted me to come to the funeral and decided to hold it up an extra day so I could make it. At the funeral, the picture of me dressed up as Elvis was IN THE CASKET, on top of her body.
Yeah, that was really eerie.
Photos by Brayden Olson, Interviews by Jonathan Smith and Brayden Olson
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