Move over Elvis: Celeb impersonators boom in Vegas. Meet the Sin City ''tribute acts'' performing for big audiences and betting on finding fame beyond the Strip

By Dalton Ross
May 23, 2005 at 04:00 AM EDT

Elton John is knocking ’em dead on the Las Vegas Strip. Prancing around the stage in a red vinyl suit, he leads an exuberant crowd through a raucous version of one of his most identifiable hits, ”The Bitch Is Back.” And then, Elton turns to the audience and flashes a knowing grin. Perhaps he’s feeling a bit naughty, or just a bit cocky — how else can you explain his next move:

He sits down on the piano and begins pounding the keys…with his ass. The people go wild. It’s a quintessential Elton John moment. Just one problem — this isn’t actually Elton John. The real Elton John is playing across the street at the Caesars Palace Colosseum. The 700 or so patrons here at the Imperial Palace are currently being treated to the musical stylings of Mitch Adams.

Adams is just one in a seemingly never-ending supply (at least in this town) of celebrity impersonators. And he is one of the lucky few to have the privilege of leading off Vegas’ longest-running tribute show, Legends in Concert. Back in 1983, when it began its run at the Imperial Palace, Legends was a one-of-a-kind experience. Nowadays, a quick tour around Vegas reveals Bruce in the USA at the Palms (a touring Springsteen act that’s also worked for Legends), a Rat Pack extravaganza at the Greek Isles (Frank, Sammy, Joey, and Dean — see if you can tell who is who!), and a ”Musical Tribute to Liberace” (appearing at — surprise! — the Liberace Museum). Indeed, tribute artists are as prevalent as slot machines, shotgun weddings, and cigarette smoke in Sin City. Recently, the Imperial Palace even extended the act onto the casino floor with the introduction of its own ”Dealertainers”: celebrity-impersonator blackjack dealers like Rod Stewart, Pat Benatar, and Stevie Wonder — the last of whom is a bit odd because you would assume most people would prefer their blackjack dealer to not be, you know, blind. (As part of their acts, the dealers must periodically perform on a 3′ x 5′ mini-stage. One faux Gloria Estefan recently had to endure chants of ”Sabbath!” while she unsuccessfully tried to inspire card sharks to ”do the conga.”)

Cheesy? You betcha. But impersonation has become a booming subset of the Las Vegas economy. On Stage Entertainment — which currently produces Legends in Vegas, as well as in Atlantic City, Myrtle Beach, S.C., Branson, Mo., and Hollywood, Fla. — appraises its company’s worth at nearly $20 million. (One estimate says that 1,500 people in Vegas dabble in celebrity impersonation.) And like aspiring starlets in Hollywood, the wannabe talent supply is limitless. Director of production Gina Capecci says the company receives about 30 audition tapes a week from aspiring look- and sound-alikes. ”I may get a tape from a Neil Diamond who looks nothing like him and can’t sing a note, but he’s dead serious about it,” says Capecci. ”Then you get blown away. I got one from a young lady that was a Shania Twain. She was just in her basement, but you could see through all that that she was a great talent.”

And with great talent can come great money. According to Matt Lewis, who portrays Elvis Presley in the Vegas show, ”I realized I was making more money doing Elvis on the weekends than if I became a schoolteacher.” (If ever there was an omen for the apocalypse, that last sentence just might be it.) ”In this town,” adds Lewis, ”it’s easy for 20 Elvises to make six-figure incomes.” Apparently it is good to be the King.