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Thursday, Jan. 7, 2010 02:42 pm

Becoming Elvis


Elvis Himselvis

The person, or perhaps more correctly, the personality of Elvis Presley permeates our entertainment culture from all directions. His influence spans generations and runs the gamut from the ridiculous to the sublime with more than a few stops in between. The man from Mississippi spawned a cultural revolution while alive. He still continues to attract attention through the force of his robust and dynamic magnetic persona as we approach the 75th anniversary of his birth. (A 75-year-old Elvis? Yikes!)

This strange and powerful draw on the collective human psyche is never more obvious than in the business of pretending to be Elvis, whether it be in high dollar performance-mode or penny-ante simple conversation. For whatever the psychological reason people are attracted to Elvis, they are also quite fascinated by people who channel the power of “the Pelvis” through sincere (and sometimes not) tributes.

We are now talking about that peculiar area of entertainment where performers take on the look and feel of other famous performers in order to do what the original performer did it for in the first place: to make money, make music and make a mark. And if we continue in the realm of Elvis Presley and stay in central Illinois, we must be talking about Rick Dunham, without a doubt the best known, most successful and finest purveyor of Elvis in the area. Dunham, a popular and consistent actor/singer in local theater for nearly 30 years, first decided to try a hand at being Elvis in 1985. Since then, Elvis Himselvis (the moniker bestowed upon Dunham by Mike Getz at Jimmy’s Sub Shoppe nearly 20 years ago) worked his way across the U.S., Canada and over to Europe playing weddings, bar mitzvahs, birthdays, bedrooms, bars, nightclubs, minor league baseball parks, pool parties, state and county fairs, street corners, strip joints, nursing homes, restaurants and countless other odd and interesting locations along the peculiar path of Elvisness. He performed in all kinds of musical combinations including karaoke, a cappella and off-the-cuff in bands with almost every musician in Springfield at one time or another.

Elvis Himselvis - Burning Love

In years past, I’ve discussed the three stages of Elvis homage and this is a good opportunity to revisit those ponderings. My credentials, if required, include a 20-plus year history of playing bass behind Rick Dunham as Elvis Himselvis. From that vantage point, I observed firsthand the workings of a tribute artist, as these mimics are known in the business. Through my observation location, I developed the three levels of Imitation, Impersonation and Interpretation as varying degrees of presenting the personality of the King to the public. In order to the reach the pinnacle and become an Interpreter, the aspiring Elvisizer must work through the other levels and reach deep inside to find the inner strength necessary to be more than just a person in a polyester plastic-sequined jumpsuit or a so-so singer with a splendid shimmy. Dunham, in my opinion, long ago crossed the barrier from imitator into impersonation and then produced the combination of knowledge, respect, ability and pastiche to become an illustrious interpreter of Elvis.

This rare and esteemed level of Elvis-becoming allows Dunham to transcend the posturing and the pedestrian commonly associated with the comical Elvis. He ascends into an area of transformation where a transubstantiation of sorts occurs, leaving us wondering how a guy in sunglasses and a jumpsuit with a good voice renders listeners into a state of near-Nirvana by pretending to be somebody else. It’s really, really weird when you stop to think about it. So my advice would be to not think about it too much and just enjoy the fine show sure to be presented by Rick and crew as they celebrate the 75th anniversary of the birth of Elvis Aron Presley.

Rick Dunham performs as Elvis Himselvis with the Easy Street Band and guests on Fri., Jan. 8, 7:30 p.m. in the LRS Theater at the Hoogland Center for the Arts.