Vegas’ love affair with Elvis is burning out
Las Vegas Review-Journal
LAS VEGAS — It’s a story reminiscent of the good old days of rock ‘n’ roll.
Tyler James, who’d been working at an Arkansas Wal-Mart, came to Las Vegas and landed his big break in show business. Len Turner, entertainment director for the Fremont Street Experience, noticed his talent and made him the offer of a lifetime.
Today, James is the official Elvis for the downtown tourist strip.
Too bad for most in the Elvis tribute artist/impersonator world, this just isn’t typical.
GigMasters.com, a site that helps people book party and event vendors, features 198 Las Vegas-area Elvis impersonators. About 800 bookings have been made for them collectively in the past year.
That number is down significantly — about 21 percent — from 2011, but 2013 is tracking similar to 2012. Just a few years back, demand for Elvi was higher, like the sweet song of a choir; GigMaster’s requests for Elvis impersonators in the Las Vegas Valley doubled between 2008 and 2011.
“The people who get booked get booked very often,” GigMasters marketing manager Nicole Steeger told the Las Vegas Review-Journal.
Impersonators get paid anywhere from $100 to $1,000 per event, depending on experience. But newer acts seem to be having trouble finding work, she said.
Some think the decline has to do with aging baby boomers and a growing population of millennials who just aren’t interested in the King.
“The whole Elvisy Vegas red carpet thing is, in my opinion, going out the door,” said Carrie Gaudioso, wedding coordinator for the Mon Bel Ami chapel. “That whole era is getting older. Almost all of our older renewals want an Elvis wedding. Our younger brides do not want cheesy, flashy, Elvis Vegas. They want something nice in their budget.”
Each week, Gaudioso receives solicitations from at least one impersonator or tribute artist seeking work.
“There’s just too much of the same,” Gaudioso said. “There are so many Elvi they’re always coming looking for work. It’s hard to get yours in. We’ve always used the same Elvis.”
On GigMasters, 50 percent of the requests are for wedding-related gigs, 15 percent are for corporate events and 15 percent are for adult birthday parties, with the other 20 percent classified as other.
Jimmi Ellis, who also does a Tom Jones tribute, has been impersonating Elvis for more than 30 years. He agreed that the need for Elvis tributes has dipped.
His reasoning? It’s been 37 years since Elvis died and his fan base is getting older.
“It’s inevitable. It’s unfortunate, especially for those guys who have big dreams of coming to Vegas,” Ellis said.
A steady Elvis gig is like a dream come true.
At 25, James is living the good Elvis life.
The Fort Smith, Ark., native got his first jumpsuit at 15 and has been performing as the King ever since. He started his Las Vegas gig performing two nights a week on the First Street Stage at Fremont Street Experience in February, and will soon add one more day to his rotation. The other nights he works as a stagehand downtown.
James realizes he landed his Elvis gig by being in the right place at the right time.
“There are just so many (Elvi), a lot of people get overlooked,” James said. “It was an uphill battle to get a show.”
While in St. Louis, James worked with a band called The Busters. For two years he’d rent out local Veterans of Foreign Wars halls and sell tickets, usually about 150, for $20 a pop. He eventually tired of the grind and almost gave up his dream.
“It just wasn’t working,” James said.
For three years in a row starting in 2010, James came to Las Vegas to participate in downtown’s Ultimate Elvis Contest. He never won, but that’s where Turner noticed him.
“It’s been amazing. It’s been a dream come true,” James said. “It’s been far more than I ever thought possible.”
The local industry is composed of buskers roaming the streets wearing Elvis costumes; tribute artists with legit shows such as Trent Carlini, Big Elvis and the Million Dollar Quartet; and those who work gigs in between a day job.
“Trying to get where I am today has been challenging and I’m very, very grateful for not quitting,” James said.
Google Trends shows United States-based Web searches for “Elvis impersonator” peaked in August 2007, and the low was in April 2012. Nevada had the peak amount of searches, followed by Tennessee.
“Google tools show us where the market is,” Ellis said. “The decline is very apparent.”
Men, Ellis asserted, will always want to wear rhinestone-studded white jumpsuits.
“My personal opinion is the number of tribute artists will always grow. There’s such a fascination with this man and his legacy and his life,” Ellis said.
Younger fans and tribute artists will help, but Ellis said he doesn’t think the Las Vegas industry will bounce back.
“The business is not what it used to be,” he said. “There’s just not the demand.”