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Senior impersonators delight as Elvis, Dolly, Marilyn and Johnny in gowns and wigs

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hat makes a person want to transform into someone else? • Actors immerse themselves in different characters for only as long as a production lasts. • But impersonators do it for a living. • They do it for a lifetime. • "Actors playing a character get to make up part of the person they are portraying. That is not as true with impersonators who try to completely capture the person they are impersonating," Sheldon L. Wykell said. • Why do they do it? • Wykell, a licensed clinical social worker and psychotherapist in St. Petersburg, may be more equipped than most to speculate. He has a bead on the acting persona from two distinct angles: his mental health work and growing up with a mother who was a director of children's theater in Chicago. • "They are more comfortable being someone else, and they all have some exhibitionistic tendencies. They have a desire to be seen, noticed," he said. • "We all do things to adapt to our personality, and if you can make money and have fun doing it … why not?" • Why not indeed? • Here is what three area performers have to say about what it's like to assume another's identity — and why they love doing it.

A RELATIONSHIP THAT INVOLVES MANY ROLES

They were already seated at a table in the Pinellas Park diner when I walked in.

His longish hair was combed back and black as night. He looked so much like Johnny Cash, one could almost hear the train a-comin'.

A petite woman sat next to him, her auburn wig piled high and wide and long on her head. She wore bright red lipstick and platform spiked heels.

Keith Coleman and Ruby Tuesday — performers, quick-change artists, fashion designers and choreographers who have been married for 40 years — were here to talk about the hard work and the kicks involved in earning a living for 37 years by getting paid to act, look and sound like someone else.

Keith does Elvis, Johnny Cash, Tom Jones, Neil Diamond, Jerry Reed, Willie Nelson, Julio Iglesias and Little Richard.

Ruby does Dolly Parton, Tina Turner, Cher, Bette Midler, Barbra Streisand, Liza Minelli, Marilyn Monroe, Patsy Cline, Tammy Wynette, Connie Francis, Brenda Lee and June Carter Cash.

How do they channel all those celebrities?

"I emphasize the thing I hear in their voice that makes me think of them," Keith said. And it helps if you also look like the person.

"I can sing Neil Diamond as well as I can sing Johnny Cash, but I don't have his look.

"I have a little bit of a look for Johnny Cash. It doesn't take much to make me look like him," Keith said.

And Ruby said, "I put on Streisand hair and a white suit, then I get that nasal thing going. On stage, from a distance, I look like that person."

IN THE BEGINNING

They weren't always impersonators.

Ruby was a beautician; Keith, who has an art degree, worked for the Office of Equal Opportunity. As newlyweds, they formed a Top 40 band called Blackwater.

Then they did a '50s show at a Holiday Inn and the audience loved it, telling Keith he looked and sounded just like Elvis.

So, they did an Elvis show. Their impersonations exploded from there.

"Whatever people are buying is what we're selling," Ruby said.

Within reason.

For a while, their show included a 12-foot boa constrictor as a prop for Ruby's Tina Turner. They had bought it for $100 from a man who was trying to get rid of it. The audience loved the huge white snake — but their housekeeper didn't.

They gave the snake back to its original owner after the housekeeper nearly had a heart attack when she found it where they had put it for safekeeping: in a guitar case under the bed.

CLOTHES QUARTERS

Keith and Ruby's success is so dependent on their costumes that the clothes have their own condo.

When the couple's townhouse became so filled with glamorous gowns and Elvis suits that there was no room left for them and their four dogs (who, by the way, also seem to enjoy playing dressup), they turned it into a costume studio and bought another house to live in.

Ruby said she buys most of her sequined gowns from Thailand, where they are beaded by hand. A reproduction of one of the dresses Marilyn Monroe wore in Some Like It Hot cost $900. Most of the others cost about $500.

Keith buys his Elvis costumes from three companies in the United States that make them.

He takes his measurements and sends them in. The company makes a plain white suit and sends it back to him. Then he has it fitted and sends it back for the company to put the finishing touches on it.

The cost? $1,500 to $3,500 a suit.

"It's the perfect incentive to stay the right size. The suits have to fit. I have one that every time I breathe, I pop a button," Keith said.

Ruby also frets about her weight, saying several times that she's working hard to get off the 20 pounds she has put on.

"I don't worry about getting old; I worry about getting fat," she said. "We're getting better the older we get."

"We have the knowledge and the ability, we just need a little more energy," Keith said.

THE BAND PLAYS ON

Keith and Ruby do most of their shows in active adult communities, yacht clubs and Elks and Lions clubs, but no nightclubs. They also had a seven-year stint on a cruise ship that sailed from Monte Carlo to Rome to Venice.

But the gig they are proudest of was Keith's 15 minutes of fame on the short-lived Fox series Finder, which aired last year.

He landed a bit part playing Johnny Cash after getting a call from a talent agent in Las Vegas and sending in a demo tape. They wanted him. The couple were off to Hollywood.

"They treated him like a star," Ruby said. "He had his own trailer and his own stand-in."

Back in the Tampa Bay area, the couple plan to keep performing as long as they can get gigs. (They didn't want to give their ages, but let's just say they were around when Queen Elizabeth II ascended to the throne but not when Mick Jagger was born.)

Their fees range from $300 for a simple Elvis appearance by Keith or a Marilyn Monroe Happy Birthday, Mr. President by Ruby to $10,000 for a full show on the road with travel expenses.

On the rare occasion that they're not working, they kick back by taking the dogs to the park or watching a movie.

"In our small corner of the world, we follow our hearts, stay in the flow and contribute positive healing and joyous energy," Ruby said.

Patti Ewald can be reached at pewald@tampabay.com or (727) 893-8746.

HER HEART, AND ACT, BELONG TO PATSY CLINE

CJ Harding was an 8-year-old girl when she met Elvis.

It was in Savannah, Ga., in June 1956 — six months after he recorded Heartbreak Hotel and Blue Suede Shoes, six months before his first film, Love Me Tender, premiered and a mere three weeks after his sexy bumping and grinding to Hound Dog on the Milton Berle Show got him dubbed Elvis the Pelvis.

CJ and her friend Cecile, who were in shorts and no shoes, were standing outside the Sports Arena where he was to appear, which just happened to be in their neighborhood. (It was back in the day when parents thought it was safe to let kids roam the neighborhood.)

One of the policemen guarding the entrance to the arena befriended the starry-eyed girls and told them if they were good, he would try to take them back to Elvis' dressing room to meet (meet!) him and maybe get his autograph.

The policeman told them that Elvis would sneak in through the back while an empty limo would drive near the throng of screaming fans as a ruse. That's when the policeman rushed them into the back of the building and into Elvis' dressing room.

"He was just standing right there with a gold jacket on and black pants. His hair was different than anybody I had ever seen. It was long and wavy and combed back with a lot of hair product. He must have had trouble with acne, because he had some scarring and makeup on.

"He seemed restless and said, 'How are you little girls doin'?' " Then he asked them if they wanted a picture of him.

Of course they said yes. That signed 8-by-10 black-and-white was a prized possession — it went to show-and-tell before being tacked on her bedroom wall where she could kiss it over and over again — until it sort of fell apart and disappeared, she said.

Touched by the King, this little 8-year-old girl would never be the same.

CRAZY ABOUT PATSY

It's as if CJ Harding's embodiment of Patsy Cline was written in the stars, out of her control.

Fate.

She always had show biz in her blood and her goal has always been to be on the concert stage.

She's been singing songs and playing her guitar since she taught herself how when she was 14.

Harding worked in the film industry in Vancouver, British Columbia, often called the Hollywood of the north. She did acting, modeling, dancing and costume designing.

In commercial advertisements, she pitched Budweiser, orange juice and panty liners.

And, in her most "famous" role, she had a bit part in the 1989 movie Cousins, with Ted Danson.

She moved to St. Petersburg in 1992 to take care of her dad after her mom died. She jammed in Ybor City. When she played her songs, audiences liked her but whenever she played a Patsy song, they loved her.

So, she put together a tribute and took it on the road — on cruise ships, at fairs, in Las Vegas and the Largo Cultural Center — to sellout crowds.

She has been accompanied by a band in the past but for the last 16 years, she's been doing her Patsy performance with taped musical tracks.

That will change March 9 and 10 when she brings Sweet Dreams, a special tribute to Cline, who, if she hadn't died in a plane crash in 1963, would have been 80 last September, to the 800-seat Palladium in St. Petersburg with a band she pieced together from Craigslist.

A Craigslist hunt is risky but it panned out big time for Harding. She's delighted with her band.

All transplants from other parts of the country, they now reside in Pinellas County: B.J. Steinberg on lead guitar, David Hardy on piano, Jay O'Neal on bass, Stephen Buckholtz on drums and T.J. Weger on guitar

Harding, unlike other impersonators, does not do a myriad of entertainers. She performs only as Patsy Cline. She also gave a lecture this year on Cline's life as part of the biography series at the Osher Lifelong Learning Institute at Eckerd College.

"I do performing arts stages, not bars and lounges. My goal all along has been to be on a concert stage," Harding said.

She is a songwriter herself and is still hoping to sell one of her songs one day.

Patti Ewald can be reached at pewald@tampabay.com or (727) 893-8746.

IN RUBY TUESDAY'S CLOSET

150 pairs of size 7 1/2 high heels

Hundreds of sparkly dresses ("He who leaves a trail of glitter is never forgotten," she said.)

2 custom-made copies of Marilyn Monroe dresses

1 copy of an original Tina Turner dress

2 copies of Barbra Streisand white suits (in different sizes for weight fluctuation)

Many reproductions of Liza Minnelli, Bette Midler, June Carter and Patsy Cline outfits

5 poodle skirts for Brenda Lee and Connie Francis

10 boas

4 plastic tote bins full of wigs (to carry 30 to each show)

IN KEITH COLEMAN'S CLOSET

2 Elvis suits (plus 3 others that are worn-out)

1 Willie Nelson-Julio Iglesias suit (split down the middle, half blue jean, half tuxedo)

Special shoes with hidden 4-inch lifts to make him as tall as Johnny Cash (6 feet 2)

A blowup Santa suit

Jailhouse costume (held together with Velcro so it can be ripped off to reveal a gold lame suit underneath)

. If you go

A Patsy Cline Tribute

The Palladium Theater, 253 Fifth Ave. N,

St. Petersburg

7 p.m. March 9

3 p.m. March 10

Tickets are $28 and $35 at mypalladium.org or (727) 822-3590.

Senior impersonators delight as Elvis, Dolly, Marilyn and Johnny in gowns and wigs 02/26/13 [Last modified: Tuesday, February 26, 2013 1:06pm]
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