Top Elvis impersonator lives it through his adoring audiences
For a decade, Danny Vernon of Edgewood has made a living as an Elvis impersonator for an audience of 60-plus-somethings, who relive being at the hop.
Seattle Times staff reporter
There are maybe 75 Elvis impersonators in the country who can make a full-time living at it, although there are thousands of amateurs who think that putting on a jumpsuit means they can sing “Blue Suede Shoes.”
Friday was the 36th anniversary of Elvis’ death; he would have been 78.
But Elvis lives, at least in Danny Vernon’s “Illusion of Elvis” shows.
On this rainy Wednesday evening at the Southwest Washington Fair, he is on stage, performing before 50 fans who shield themselves with umbrellas and programs.
The show must go on. At casinos, such as the Swinomish Casino in Anacortes, Vernon often performs to sellout audiences.
Vernon’s core audience is people over the age of 60.
Last year they attended what he estimates were the 150 to 175 shows he did at casinos, fairs, car shows and private events. In the winter, Vernon follows that core audience when they become snowbirds in Arizona.
“A comfortable living,” says Vernon, who lives in Edgewood, Pierce County.
The fans are mostly women, and they often sway from side to side. Their friends take their photos as Vernon gives them a kiss, or puts a fabric lei or a scarf around their necks.
Says Mary Cramer, 71, of Oakville, who still has an Elvis 45 rpm single she got in fourth grade, “I got a little teary. He sang my song.”
That would have been Vernon’s uncannily accurate vocalization of Elvis singing “Can’t Help Falling in Love.”
After years of practice, taking vocal lessons, taping himself singing and playing back songs, Vernon got Elvis’ singing voice down pat. For the Elvis moves, Vernon has watched concert videos.
“The vibrato is the hardest thing, that kind of a wiggle in his voice at the end of a phrase. It’s a beautiful, subtle vibrato. It’s easy to overdo,” says Vernon.
Vernon, 44, figures he owns a dozen jumpsuits plus another two dozen Elvis outfits for every era of The King — a gold-lame jacket, a leather outfit.
Many of them were made by Janet Tegels, who owns Professional Costumers in Pigeon Forge, Tenn., and makes Elvis costumes based on the original patterns used by her late dad, Frank Schmidt. He worked making costumes for the real Elvis.
She’s the one who makes that estimate of 75 Elvis impersonators, and 2,000 worldwide, who make a full-time living at it. She makes a lot of their costumes, shipping them to Vietnam, China, Japan, Germany. Elvis is universal.
Her most popular is the polyester-gaberdine jumpsuit with the huge beaded eagle on the back that Elvis wore in the 1973 “Aloha from Hawaii” concert. It weighs 15 pounds and will set you back $2,000. The cape that goes with it, at another 8 pounds, is $800.
Vernon came to impersonate Elvis starting when he was about 10, growing up in Puyallup. Back then he was Danny Vernon Smith, son of Vernon Smith. For the stage, he uses his middle name.
His dad, a pipe insulator, had a huge collection of Elvis vinyl LPs.
“From about 10 to 14, that’s all I listened to,” remembers Vernon. “Elvis brought out the artistic side of me.”
In junior high, Vernon would sing Elvis songs in the boys locker room because he liked the echo in the room. The other boys didn’t appreciate Elvis and would tell him to shut up, he remembers, “And I’d switch to a Queen song.”
Vernon explains impersonating Elvis in kind of mystical terms.
“I’d be at home and I could envision myself right there on stage with Elvis. Just embodied him, I guess.”
After graduating from Puyallup High School in 1988, Vernon went to community college, worked as a singing waiter, starred in a local version of “Grease,” and performed at lounges.
He had thoughts of trying to make it as a country singer, but decided the Northwest wasn’t the place for that. He opted to become Elvis.
By then he was married to a Marcia Smith, whom he met in church. She was an office manager at a real-estate firm and supported the two as Vernon began his Elvis career.
Vernon’s dad learned how to sew, bought a serger and made the first costumes. He still sews the scarves — “thousands of them,” says the dad — that sell for $15 at the shows.
In 2000, Vernon did maybe three or four shows. Year by year, sometimes playing with recorded music, sometimes with a five-piece band for those with bigger budgets, the gigs kept increasing. It helped that Vernon won or placed well in local and national Elvis-singing contests.
About six years ago, Vernon was doing well enough that Marcia could quit her office job and become involved full time with the Elvis gigs.
She accompanies him on stage, sporting a red bouffant hairdo and wearing ‘50s retro dresses — on this evening, a black outfit with big pink dots. She is billed as Marcia “Ann-Margret.”
When Vernon goes into their trailer for a costume change, she sings old rock tunes, hits by Connie Francis and Etta James.
That core group of fans has almost treated Vernon as one of their kids.
Ron Murphy, 80, a retired logger from Onalaska in Lewis County, says he and his late wife, Rosa, decided about four years ago to give a 1956 pink Cadillac that they had restored to Vernon.
“We were getting too old to take care of it,” says Murphy. “My wife wanted to find somebody who would appreciate it.”
Then there are Linda and Les Pedersen, 69 and 70, respectively, of Olympia.
The couple have paid for the recording of five Vernon CDs. They first heard Vernon at a car show, and, remembers Linda Pederson, “My husband said, ‘God, that sounds just like Elvis. We were blown away.”
Asked about singing “Love Me Tender” for at least the 2,500th time in a show, Vernon again explains things in almost mystical terms.
Those 60-plus-year-old women, he says, they’re reaching out to their past. At 44, still in good physical shape, with all his hair, although dyed jet black, he can still do the young Elvis.
“I look through their eyes, and it keeps it fresh for me,” he says about his audience. “We’re trying to live that moment together.”
Times researcher Gene Balk contributed to this report.
Erik Lacitis: 206-464-2237 or firstname.lastname@example.org