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As We See It

[Neon Eden]

The trippy high school reunion of the celebrity impersonator convention

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Imitation of life: If you are a celebrity, odds are someone out there is pretending to be you.
Photo: Leila Navidi

I’m talking to Robert De Niro, or a guy with a striking resemblance to him, anyway. He’s the Casino-era De Niro, with red suit jacket, black shirt and black tie. This De Niro, who is actually Robert Nash, has mastered the actor’s crinkly smile laced with subtle menace.

Nash, though, is truly happy. After years of struggle in showbiz, he’s made it, with a four-night-a-week gig emceeing at Hooter’s, doing impressions of De Niro, Christopher Walken, Dean Martin and Louis Armstrong, among many others.

“I’ve finally come into my own,” he says. When I point out the paradox of coming “into my own” with personalities that aren’t his, he brightens: “Yes, exactly!”

I’m at the celebrity impersonator convention at the Golden Nugget, and I could have mocked the conventioneers for all the obvious reasons, but that would be mean and too easy. To begin with, many of them are quite talented.

Celebrity Impersonator Convention

And, it would miss the poignancy. Maybe I’m wrong, but I feel like most performers are onstage because they want to make the audience laugh or swoon or cry. Like all of us, they need to be loved; they’re just more open about it. And these impersonators want so badly to make us happy that they’re willing to admit the poverty of their own stage personalities and take on the mask of another. In a way, it’s heartbreaking, but also an awesome show of commitment.

Eric Richardson is here from Baltimore to be Dean Martin. He sings “Everybody Loves Somebody” in the Nugget showroom, and he has an excellent voice that catches the laid-back spirit of Dino. Like many of the better impersonators, Richardson is a real talent, having knocked around showbiz for years, even landing a role in a traveling production of Annie years ago. He left the business to raise his kids, selling insurance, cars, real estate. “I was good at it, but I hated it.”

Then he became Dino, and now he’s hoping to produce a Broadway show about Martin’s life.

A little later I hear James Young, a retired police detective who discovered his art singing karaoke, performing Sinatra doing “New York, New York.” Suddenly, I’m a kid, back at Yankee Stadium after the Bombers have beaten my dad’s Cleveland Indians.

Luc Sante defined nostalgia as a “state of inarticulate contempt for the present and fear of the future.” Perhaps, but I still love that sickly sad, sweet feeling. There are at least three Sinatras here.

In the hallway, I run into Drew Lepkowski, who does Pee-wee Herman. He was something of a star when Pee-wee was big, living in New York and doing parties. And then, “In ’91, he did what he did,” Lepkowski says, a little mournfully, referring to the infamous indecency charge against Paul Reubens. “It ruined my business. I had to go back and get my degree.”

I’m reminded of a classic story by David Lamb about Vaughn Meader, a once-famous Jack Kennedy impersonator who lost some part of himself upon Kennedy’s murder. Maybe I could write that story. In which case, I’d be a Lamb impersonator.

Impersonation, however, is perfectly fitting in Las Vegas, a city of imitation and deception and fantasy.

I see two Roy Orbisons shake hands.

Paul Forest discovered his eerie likeness to Leonard Nimoy’s Spock about a year ago. He’s tall and all sharp angles. Forest did a Star Trek convention, and people told him he was the best Spock anyone had seen in 40 years. “It was amazing. I was a god,” he says.

He’s spent the past year traveling and performing for tips, in Toronto and Victoria, British Columbia, in San Francisco, on Hollywood Boulevard and on our own Fremont Street Experience. Before all this, he was a “roulette strategist.” You can beat roulette if you play it right, he tells me. Not very Spockian, I point out.

The impersonators gather near the red carpet, swapping war stories with a collegiality that makes it seem like a trippy high school reunion. Kiss and Bret Michaels and the Fonz and President Obama and Hugh Hefner.

A crowd gathers and gawks. A foreign tourist asks me if that’s Johnny Depp. Yes, it is.

J. Patrick Coolican is a columnist for the Las Vegas Sun. Follow him on Twitter @jpcoolican or email him at patrick.coolican@lasvegassun.com. His Neon Eden radio show airs Tuesdays at 5:30 p.m. on 91.5 FM.
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