Finding Elvis: impersonators all hail The King

The guy in front of us is shaking his hips so hard that he almost loses his fringy belt of macramé. The gyrations remind me of a washing machine gone awry during the spin cycle.

Is this a good thing? I sneak a glance to my right, before filling the score sheet. My colleague seems unsurprised and unimpressed, so I look and listen harder.

Doesn’t matter where you are, Grammy-winning Gospel singer Sherman Andrus laments later. Most judges are smitten by appearance and antics, at the risk of ignoring the voice.

We are judging the Tuesday night round of the annual “Tribute to The King” contest at Milwaukee’s Potawatomi Bingo Casino. Northern Lights Theater is packed, the crowd appreciative, the contestants energetic.

We have met the young Elvis, the overweight Elvis, the heartthrob, hymn singer and tease. He wears skintight leathers, white jumpsuits, military uniforms, short-sleeved sport shirts, thick belts with gold jangles. In the audience are true-blue fans, giggling girlfriends on getaways, retired couples with time on their hands.

Women are kissed between lyrics, thrown silk scarves, nuzzled against chests of near-navel exposure. The dozen-plus Elvi range from a petite man who almost drowns in his glittery cape to a toupee-topped rendition from the singer’s final years. Most are convincing in appearance and respectable in performance.

The impersonation contest – always near Elvis Presley’s Jan. 8 birthdate – earns an almost cult-like following. During free-admission daytime rounds, many of the 500 seats are filled more than an hour ahead of showtime. Most in this crowd don’t just want a hand-stamp to gain entrance; Elvis lovers arrive early to stake out the prime seats of the house.

After four days of competition in 2010, one of these great pretenders – Matt Joyce of Arkansas – left with the $25,001 grand prize, billed as the largest in the world for this type of competition. Among the judges were three of The Imperials, a group known for backing up Elvis Presley on his albums and tours until 1971.

“I don’t think enough realize what a wonderful singer Elvis was,” says Sherman, a friend of Elvis’ who joined The Imperials as lead vocalist after their work with the music icon ended.

The Potawatomi event began as a look-alike contest nine years ago, then morphed into much more. Now Elvis fans schedule a week of vacation around the competition, says Rachel Buelow, the theater’s entertainment coordinator.

Performance videos are part of the contestant screening process. Judges are told to notice and rate the appearance, costume, vocals, choreography and “overall replication of The King.”

The prize purse is big, but prep allowances are modest. That means contestants supply their own background music, props (only guitars and scarves are allowed) and arrive ready to perform because of a lack of changing rooms. Behind the scenes, “it’s a bit of a soap opera because of music choices and costume changes,” Rachel says.

Before the day ends, the wannabes take the stage together to line up, whirl, shake, introduce themselves and answer a bit of Elvis trivia. Examples:

“What was the last song Elvis recorded?” (“He’ll Have to Go.”)

“What was your twin brother’s name?” (Jesse; he died at birth.)

You’ll likely hear “Suspicious Minds” and “Hound Dog” more than once. You’ll likely widen your eyes at the leg splits, size of sideburns and white shoes to sequins.

“I have an Elvis wig at home, but I won’t wear it,” admits Jim Marinkovich of Greenfield, whose wife Carmella makes me aware of an annual Elvis Fest at Milwaukee’s Serb Hall every spring (April 9, this year).

“Sorry – I can’t do four hours of Elvis,” Jim responds. “I prefer Sinatra.”

They play the nickel slots after the Potawatomi show ends.

“Tribute to The King” contestants this year include Elvis impersonators from Australia and the United Kingdom. Preliminary competitions begin at noon Jan. 11-13 and 3 p.m. Jan. 11-14. Admission is free, but seats fill quickly.

Tickets are $20-35 to daily finals, which begin at 7:30 p.m. Jan. 11-13 and also include a show by Elvis impersonators Ryan Pelton and Matt Joyce as Double Trouble. Tickets to the Jan. 14 grand championship, as usual, sold out soon after going on sale in late November.

For more about shows at Potawatomi Bingo Casino’s Northern Lights Theater, 1721 W. Canal St., Milwaukee: www.paysbig.com, 414-847-7922.

The classic rock band Cheap Trick, accompanied by an orchestra, performs 12 nights at the theater, Jan. 20 to Feb. 26. Concerts celebrate the band’s release of “Dream Police” in 1979, feature three of the four original band members and take on a Vegas-style glitz because of video and other special effects. Tickets are $65-85.

The Rockin’ “E” Jamboree at Oneida Casino, Green Bay, is an official preliminary round location for the Elvis tribute artist contest licensed by Elvis Presley Enterprises. For more: www.oneidabingoandcasino.net, 800-238-4263.

Finalists – who include Travis Allen of Las Vegas, winner of the 2010 Oneida contest – head to Memphis in mid August for the final leg of competition.

“Roads Traveled” is the result of anonymous travel, independent travel, press trips and travel journalism conferences. What we choose to cover is not contingent on subsidized or complimentary travel.