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Meet the Presleys

In Lake George, Elvis impersonation is the divine right of kings

On a small deck with a few tables in front of Lake George’s HideAWay Village Pub, at one in the afternoon on a Saturday in June, Rodney Therrien is getting his groove on. wearing dark sunglasses, a red scarf and a black jumpsuit with gold studs, he croons “Love Me Tender” over a backing track played on a portable amplifier. A handful of by­standers watch from the parking lot a few yards away. The collective look on their faces suggests equal parts amusement and uneasiness, as if wondering, How close should we get? Is this too close?

As Therrien, a native of Hardwick, Vermont, transitions into “Are You Lonesome Tonight?,” he points to a woman in the crowd and motions for her to join him on “stage.” She dives behind a friend as if a live grenade has landed at her feet. The unfazed Therrien presses on without missing a beat. Another wom­an is overheard saying to her male companion, “If he gets me up there, I’m going to kill you,” as the pair slowly backs away. No business like show business.

Cleverly billed as “the king of Rock and Roll® meets the Queen of America’s Lakes,” the Lake George Elvis Festival, now in its third year, is an oddball new player on the summer festival scene in the Adirondacks, a three-day, multi-venue weekend of stage shows, pancake breakfasts, tribute competitions among fifty-plus impersonators, a sock hop, a classic car parade and a Sunday morning gospel service. But being the King—sorry, is it The King®?—is a tricky thing. It’s no state secret that Elvis impersonation can be an easy avenue for ridicule, and it carries its own semantic ambiguity. You gather that these folks would prefer not to be called impersonators—the word appears scarcely if at all in the printed festival materials floating around, and seems never to be ut­tered. Impersonation is synonymous with imitation, and these guys (and one fourteen-year-old girl, Heather Beckenstein, from Ballston Spa) do not so much imitate as honor, a minute difference to the layman, perhaps, but one that isn’t lost on Elvis Presley Enterprises (EPE), which owns the King’s name and likeness. Graceland prefers to keep performers at arm’s length, refusing to endorse ersatz Elvises in part because “the negative, derogatory, exaggerated, unflattering parody style of impersonating Elvis has gotten so much attention over the years,” according to EPE’s website.

Indeed, impersonators are often tacky pretenders—and could, in the most egregious cases, be considered perpetrators. So the members of this merry band are known as Tribute Artists (usually capitalized, just as Elvis and the King often appear in print with the registered-trademark symbol). Tribute artists fall within EPE’s safe zone of reverence and homage, so it’s a tribute of sorts that Lake George’s festival is officially licensed by EPE. But, “like everyone else who cares about Elvis, we have to suffer through the existence of the bad impersonators and parodies,” according to EPE. Problem is, the organization doesn’t offer much guidance on distinguishing between the two. One man’s trash is another man’s treasure.

For these reasons, it’s hard to know whether to laugh with the Elvises or at them, and that may be the $64,000 question in Lake George. But nearly everyone seems to be having a good time, and let’s face it, Lake George could use a few yuks to kick off this summer.

One of the principal venues, on Beach Road, is a blacktopped parking lot ringed with vending booths; at one end is a small stage with lights and sound equipment. On Saturday afternoon, when the first in a steady series of performers takes the stage—Lou­isianan Mi­chael Black, who moves enthusiastically from “Love Me Tender,” to “Fever,” to “C. C. Rider”—attendance is spare, with only a smattering of folding seats and outlying picnic tables occupied. This early crowd’s going to need some warming up.

Fortunately, there is a cornucopia of foodstuffs available for purchase and on-the-spot consumption: kettle corn, nachos, blooming onions, fried dough, potato cheese soup, Memphis-style barbecue, grilled marinated chicken sandwiches, shaved rib-eye steak subs, pulled-pork heroes, St. Louis 1/3-rack ribs, smoked sausage, french fries, cheese fries, burgers and hot dogs. For dessert there are sundaes, homemade fudge and root beer floats.

One booth, ably staffed by a couple of nice ladies from St. James’s Episcopal Church of Lake George, is devoted exclusively to the production of the King’s favorite sandwich: peanut butter and banana. “Elvis mashed his banana,” ex­plains Carolyn Fish, “but we found it better to slice them.” As well, she points out, he had the inside of his bread toasted, while these folks use a George Foreman grill to brown the outsides. Apparently even Elvis’s sandwiches are open for impersonation. Some people were hesitant about the combination, Fish says, until they tried it. One three-year-old took a bite and proclaimed, “Mom, this is my new favorite!”

The vending isn’t limited to comestibles. There’s a small village of goods-and-services purveyors selling face-painting, Russian nesting dolls, tie-dyes and “Redneck Wind Chimes”—several beer cans hanging in a row. One booth features a sign imploring passersby to ask for a “free $10 massage.” And that’s just the stuff that doesn’t have anything to do with the King. There are Elvis DVDs, playing cards, hats, boxer shorts, driver licenses (expiration date: 8-16-77), travel mugs, lighters, watches, shot glasses, glitter globes, animation flipbooks, handbags, cookbooks (Are You Hungry Tonight?), ashtrays and the apparent crowd favorite: gold-colored plastic glasses with huge built-in sideburns for fifteen dollars. “People see them on somebody and they just have to have a pair—especially after they’ve had a beer,” says the shopkeeper. These sell out later that afternoon.

The crowd is a mix of all ages, shapes and sizes, an assortment that reflects the range of the performers themselves. One observer stands out—he’s not dressed as Elvis, but he looks like it wouldn’t take much to get him ready for the stage. Jerome Marion, from the Chicago area, is a twenty-year veteran of the Elvis tribute scene, including 2004’s inaugural event at Lake George. This second edition, he says, is “a little bit bigger, a little larger” than the first. “It’s one of the most organized,” he continues, comparing it to a handful of other King confabs. “The town’s done a phenomenal job. We couldn’t wait to come back.”

As a much younger man, Marion took first place in the first five competitions he entered. He later toured Russia and went on to join the pinnacle of impersonation, the “Legends” show in Las Vegas, which interprets many of the top acts in music. Though he hung up his competitive cape a few years ago—“I can’t stand losing,” he half-jokes—he still performs as the King, and also works on the technical side of producing high-end Elvis tribute shows. Of competing, he says, “You enjoy it while you can, then you realize you can’t do this forever.” He was making, in his peak years, five hundred dollars an hour. (Established tribute artists can fetch several thousand dollars for a single appearance.)

On the subject of rapport among fellow performers, he says, “We have fun, we hang out. There is a lot of camaraderie; there isn’t a lot of competitiveness, although there are a lot of competitions.”

Off Beach Road, the stages are a little more intimate. There are an afternoon’s worth of concurrent one-hour performances by Elvises at numerous bars, restaurants and other businesses around the village, and there’s a handy guide with bios of the performers. The program lists four headliners, twenty-seven professional tribute artists, twenty-four nonprofessionals, plus four boys and one girl in the youth category. (The difference between amateurs and pros, says Ric Huntress, of Haverhill, Massachusetts, in a Bay State accent, is that members of the latter group, such as himself, “make a decent livin’ at it.”)

In the program, portraits of each Lake George performer show a diverse aesthetic: there are Elvises old, young, thin, fat, short and tall. There’s military Elvis, Roy Orbison Elvis, John Cusack Elvis, Andrew Dice Clay Elvis, Larry “Bud” Melman Elvis, Squiggy-from-Laverne-and-Shirley Elvis, and one guy with the im­probable name of Dwight Icenhower. There seems to be a high incidence of Aarons, sometimes spelled Aron, as both a first and last name (it was Elvis’s middle name). “Some guys get up there and they don’t look like Elvis, they don’t sound like Elvis, they don’t move like Elvis,” Marion expounds. “You think, If you have a real job, I hope you’re good at it.” So in other words it’s like big-league karaoke? “Exactly,” he says.

Over at the Adirondack Pub and Brewery, on a covered outdoor deck, Robert Haj­as, a nonprofessional from Barbados who bears a striking re­sem­blance to Monty Py­thon im­mortal Michael Pa­lin, plays to a handful of diners and some empty tables. He’s recruited the young hostess to cue his backing tracks on a CD player, which she does du­tifully between seating diners, and then it’s off to “Heartbreak Hotel.” He follows that with a rousing “Hound Dog,” his white jumpsuit open to the navel and his hips gyrating. Now he’s sweating more than a little. He finishes the tune with El­vis’s trademark polysyllabic song-ender, Thang­you­verymuch, then re­tires to a table to order lunch and catch the next act.

After a short break, professional Thom­as Gilbo—a younger Elvis by what looks like twenty years—gets up and gets to work on “I Want You, I Need You, I Love You.” He has with him a bag of red and white nylon scarves. As he sings he walks deliberately among the tables, then finds a mark—a woman sitting near the front—and admiringly wraps a scarf around her neck.

Gilbo takes another scarf and slowly sings his way to a young couple at the next table. But the route to the woman is blocked by other chairs and tables, so he settles for her more-accessible male companion. Without skipping a beat, he wraps a white scarf around the man’s neck and moves on, leaving behind a wake of embarrassment. The crowd goes nuts.

Across Canada Street, the scene at the newly built Lake George Forum is a bit more subdued. It’s a pretty nice day outdoors, but inside the cavernous ice rink/convention center, folding chairs are arrayed around the stage by the hundreds, and they’re only lightly filled. This is the junior talent portion of the festival, and one by one a small cadre of costumed kids are belting out selections from their hero’s catalog, doing what they can to conjure up some life.

Local nine-year-old William James Flaherty, wearing a white jumpsuit, collar up, with red-flared pant legs, puts everything he’s got into “Burning Love,” during which he hurls a gold scarf to a female fan. The Lake George Elementary School student tops off the song with the obligatory Thangyouverymuch. The kid’s got energy to burn, and the crowd eats it up.

Flaherty is followed by Canadian Mi­lan Beker, in a black sequined jumpsuit with red scarf, who belts out “Love Me Tender” and “Blue Suede Shoes,” each with a Thangyouverymuch exclamation point.

These mini-sets by the junior set raise curious questions. Like, should performing as Elvis have a minimum age, as voting does? Are grade-schoolers really old enough to understand the consequences of such choices? Besides that, can someone so young that his parents may not have been born by the time Elvis died, in 1977, really channel the King properly? Veteran Elvis Jerome Marion thinks so. When asked if interest in performing will recede with future generations, he says flatly, “Elvis will never die.”

Which is probably true, but life for Elvises everywhere may soon get a lot more interesting, if that’s possible. A New York Times editorial in March predicted trouble ahead for the impersonation industry, thanks to the recent purchase—for $100 million by media mogul Robert F. X. Sillerman—of Elvis’s name and likeness. Chances are good, the paper implied, that the profit-minded Sillerman will exercise tighter control over his new property, and the days of free and easy Elvising may be numbered.

But on this day, no one’s concerned about big-picture worries of the world. It’s time for the Clam. At Duf­fy’s Tavern, an Amherst Street bar with a covered upstairs deck that’s soon to be sticky with a summer’s spillage of beer, tribute artist Jesse Aron is casting about for re­quests. Someone in the crowd calls out, “‘Do the Clam,’” a tune from the 1965 movie Girl Hap­py, in which Elvis very plausibly chaperones a mobster’s daugh­ter on spring break in Fort Lau­derdale.

At first, Aron demurs. “I’ll do it if you get up and dance to it. It’s kind of a beach thing,” he bargains, but then he sharpens the deal. “I’ll do it but I’m not letting you pick any more.

“If you have enough alcohol in your system, you can dance to it,” he finally proposes. Then he cues the music and dives into the Clam, and it goes over huge. (“Do the Clam, do the Clam/ Grab your barefoot baby by the hand. . . .”) No one dances, but they love it. Sitting bemusedly nearby, nursing a Michelob Light and taking in the show, is Robert Hajas, the Barbados Elvis. Kings of a feather stick together.

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