September 3, 2009


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Elvises (Elvii?) in Manch Vegas
New England Elvis Festival shakes its hips in the Queen City
By Michael Witthaus

This is Manch Vegas, not the city in Nevada, and the first annual New England Elvis® Festival is happening at the Manchester Radisson, not Bally’s on the Strip.

This weekend, however, you’ll be forgiven for looking up, half expecting the Flying Elvises to parachute down. For three days, the Queen City will resemble the final scene of Honeymoon in Vegas. Though it’s unlikely anyone will drop from the sky, rhinestones, sideburns, hip shakes and well-honed Tupelo drawls will be coming from every other direction

The King — make that Kings — is in the building.

It’s a whole lot of Elvis — 21 Presley impersonators vying for the title of top ETA (Elvis Tribute Artist). The pack includes a Manchester man who’s entering his fourth competition.

Two professional Presley-channeling champions will also be on hand. Pete Paquette opens the festival with a tribute to Elvis’ early years. Later, Shawn Klush, winner of the first-ever Elvis Presley Enterprises’ Ultimate Elvis Tribute Artist award, recreates every detail of the King’s Aloha From Hawaii 1973 television broadcast, except perhaps the weather.

Show Talent Director Terry Collins said that among the hundreds of ETAs he’s seen, Klush is the “one person who makes me sit still for 90 minutes with my mouth open in amazement.”

Ronnie Craig’s long career as an ETA included a five-year run headlining his own Branson, Missouri, Elvis review before hanging up his cape. Craig is the MC for the weekend, which begins with the first round of competition Friday, Sept. 4. Ten of the competing Elvises will sing to prerecorded music in the first set, while the rest perform backed by the Chicago-based Change of Habit Band, a group as adept at re-creating Presley’s music as the ETAs are at duplicating the King’s voice and moves, for set two.

For Saturday’s second round, everyone trades places — Friday’s band-backed Kings switch to karaoke, and vice-versa.

JD’s Tavern in the Radisson hosts an after-hours party Friday and Saturday nights from 11 p.m. until closing, where the Tribute Artists are free to perform their favorite obscure Elvis song, or anything else they feel like dialing up — Johnny Rivers, perhaps.

Cue Also Sprach Zarathustra — the main event of the New England Elvis® Festival happens Saturday night at 8 p.m.  At the time it was broadcast, Aloha From Hawaii garnered more viewers than the first moonwalk — 51 percent of the U.S. television audience, a staggering figure in today’s fragmented cable market. The songs Presley performed for the show spanned his career, from “Hound Dog” to “Suspicious Minds.”  Any fans disinclined to spend the whole weekend with the King may get just enough from the separately ticketed ($35 and up) event, which stars Shawn Klush and includes appearances from Pete Paquette and Ronnie Craig.

After a free all-ETA performance of Elvis’s gospel hits on Sunday morning, 10 finalists will compete for cash prizes totaling $3,500.

Manchester’s Mark Stanzler is a cook by trade who’s been getting his King on for the past eight years. He spent his youth listening to punk rock bands like Minor Threat and the Clash, but says that “after a while, you wind up coming back to the stuff you grew up with.”

On the phone from his home in Manchester, a taciturn Stanzler acts like his favorite Presley song might be “A Little Less Conversation (A Little More Action).” He seems reluctant to discuss the show, pleads the Fifth when asked his age, and demurs on his chances against the weekend’s Elvis crop.

Stanzle also chafes at the notion that he, a chef, might have a favorite Elvis dish.

 “People have this picture in their heads of all of us sitting around eating fried peanut butter and banana sandwiches,” he complains. “It’s not like that.”

How is it, then?

“It’s about the music,” he said. “Everybody has something different, believe me. You’ll see the same songs over and over, but you’ll never hear any of them sung exactly the same, I can guarantee you that.”

Stanzler will perform as a ’70 s-era Elvis for his part of the competition, and admits that “My Way” is his favorite song to perform. His top Elvis movie is, he says, “hands down, King Creole.”

Beyond that, he’d rather let the music do the talking, not white leather jumpsuits, oversized sunglasses and full-length, rhinestone-encrusted capes.

“If it weren’t for the music, no one would care about the clothes,” Stanzler said.

But have a good time, right?

“I take it seriously, but I don’t take myself too seriously. Let the festival speak for itself,” he said.

Viva Manch-Vegas
What: New England Elvis® Festival
Where: Radisson Center of NH, 700 Elm St. in downtown Manchester
When: Friday, Sept. 4, through Sunday, Sept. 6
Tickets:  $65-$115 for packages including the entire weekend (room not included); Elvis® Tribute Artist Competition Schedule ($15 for both sets each day / $40 for all three days); tickets start at $35 for Saturday evening’s show
Events: Here are some of the scheduled events. See for the complete schedule as well as more detailed pricing information.

• Friday, Sept. 4
5 p.m. — Set One, First Round: 10 ETAs, backed by recorded music
8 p.m. — Set Two, First Round: 10 ETAs, backed by the Change of Habit Tribute Band.
11 p.m. — After Hours Party, J.D.’s Tavern. Tribute artists “perform hits from Elvis and anything else they feel up to.” (free)

• Saturday, Sept. 5
10 a.m. — Set One, Second Round: 10 ETAs, backed by the Change of Habit Tribute Band.
1 p.m. — Set Two, Second Round: 10 ETAs, backed by recorded music
8 p.m. “Aloha from New England” starring Shawn Klush, featuring Pete Paquette, Master of Ceremonies Ronnie Craig, and the Change of Habit Tribute Band. ($35 and up if ticketed separately)
11 p.m. — After Hours Party, J.D.’s Tavern. Tribute artists “perform hits from Elvis and anything else they feel up to.” (free)

• Sunday, Sept. 6
10 a.m. — Gospel concert: Tribute Artists perform Elvis’ Gospel Hits (free)
(Both sets backed by the Change of Habit Tribute Band)
1 p.m. — Set One, Final Round: Five of the 10 finalists sing five songs each
3 p.m. — Set Two, Final Round: Five of the 10 finalists sing five songs each
5 p.m.— Awards Ceremony: top 10 finalists are awarded over $3,500 in prize money.(free)
6:30 p.m. — Wrap party, J.D.’s Tavern (free)

More than 20 performers will compete in this weekend’s festival. Here are the 2009 competing Elvis® Tribute Artists:
Jim Barone of Mullica, NJ
Carl Brandon of Quebec, Canada
Michael Bravener of New Brunswick, Canada
Garyelvis Britt of Plant City, FL
John Cigan of Ontario, Canada
Wayne Curtis of Tully, NY
Eric Haws (E-Rock) of Buckner, MO
Bruce Herron of Ontario, Canada
Paul Hunt of Schenectady, NY
Michael O’Connor of Philadelphia, PA
Lamar Petersof of Maspeth, NY
Drew Polsun of Scotia, NY
Joe Ramsey of Glens Falls, NY
Dave Robinson of Ontario, Canada
Bryant Scott of Quebec, Canada
Mark Stanzler of Manchester, NH
Mark Gagnon of Fayetteville, NC
Robert Washington of Auburn, ME
Dana Zagoreos of Peabody, MA
Jay Zanier of Ontario, Canada
Ernest Hefferon of Suffolk, VA