The type of entertainer known as the “impressionist” or “impersonator” and the resulting impersonator wars so many Vegas scribes have alluded to over the years, present a good example of how things run in cycles.
In the 1960s and early ’70s, the genre was represented by individual performers doing a host of voices and characterizations. Rich Little, David Frye, John Byner, Frank Gorshin, Marilyn Michaels and Freddie Travalena specialized in many characterizations of others. They weren’t headliners with their own showrooms like today, but were chiefly “opening” acts on the bill of higher-priced musical acts.
In the mid to late ’70s, if the word “impersonator” was used, it probably was in the context of who was a better Elvis Presley: Johnny Harra, Pete Willcox, Dana McKay, Morris and Alan, or any of a plethora of others. It was the start of one performer specializing in just one characterization.
In the late ’70s, so-called female impersonators like Jim Bailey and Kenny Kerr, stepped out of the closet, so to speak, to popularity here.
Then, impersonators and impressionists, like the Elvis clones, began specializing in just one characterization and putting together little shows ”¦ relative unknowns, portraying one famous name each. Fittingly, it was an Elvis impersonator-turned producer, Donny Moore (now of “American Superstars”) who opened “Liverpool” at the Silverbird in ’81.
The big move to main showroom stages came in 1983. The Imperial Palace gave a once-in-a-lifetime shot to a group led by John Stuart, who transplanted a full cast of celebrity lookalike, soundalikes, who were already doing their own shows in California, and “Legends in Concert” was born.
In 1988, entertainment attorney Mark Tratos spear-headed the drive to pass the Right of Publicity law in Nevada that gave lookalike, soundalikes the right to perform impersonations onstage, though not for commercial gain offstage to promote or endorse products. That saved a lot of people massive “licensing” costs and enabled many with not-so-deep pockets to get into the business of staging look-alike shows.
From then until the mid-90s, celebrity tribute shows flourished like mold on old cheese, eventually even forming a Guild of Celebrity Impersonators and Tribute Artists.
It was during that period, if you talked about impersonator wars, that you were definitely referring to full production shows that contained casts of impersonators with live musicians, dancers, effects and production value around them.
But, about five years ago, the popularity and economics of staging the big lookalike shows waned. They are fast becoming more of a party, convention and one-nighter or short-run, special event feature.
Now, if one refers to the battle between impersonators and their shows in the big main showrooms of Vegas, it is assumed that you are referring to the likes of Bob Anderson (the first specialized “singing impressionist”), Danny Gans, Bill Acosta or Andre Gagnon, as well as Rich Little and other more “seasoned vets.”
It’s far less expensive for a producer to pay one performer and perhaps a few musicians (as in the case of Gans) or dancers (as in the case of Acosta) or simply use taped music with no other personnel onstage (as in the case of Gagnon).
Though perhaps a bit of an over-simplification, economics and the “corporate” entertainment buying mindset ”” the path of least resistance and highest bottom line ”” has brought us full circle. And once again, the war over who’s best at not being themselves has returned to being among singular performers of the ilk of Little, Gorshin, Byner and Travalena; the impersonator/impressionists, who started it all 40 years ago.