By TIM ZATZARINY JR.
Dave Elsey stands onstage with his back to the audience, his outstretched arms spreading his elaborately sequined, capelike, gaudy eagle's wings.
As he belts out the final notes of his Elvis Presley tribute show, a taped snippet of the real Elvis singing " Love Me Tender" cuts in over the speakers, interspersed with radio reports of the King's death.
As the stage fades into darkness, some grown men in the audience wipe tears.
The aura of Presley, who died Aug. 16, 1977, at 42, is so powerful that some fans refuse to admit he no longer croons among us.
That's partly why they pay $12 each to watch Elsey revive the Elvis of the early 1970s. Elsey, 52, chose that era because he believes Presley's booming baritone was at its peak then.
"People love him and they can't see him anymore," Elsey said. "They need to go to somebody."
There are an estimated 35,000 Elvis impersonators working worldwide. But few, if any, have their own theater in the middle of a strip mall, sandwiched between a print shop and a clothing store.
In March 2000, Elsey and his partner, Judy Sinclair, opened the Elvis Theater in the Village Shoppescq, a retail complex in the Rio Grande section of the township, just north of Wildwood.
As the name implies, the 200-seat theater is all Elvis, all the time.
Elsey and Sinclair spent $5,000 to re-create the stage set of Presley's 1973 television concert, "Aloha From Hawaii," including flashing lights above the stage that spell out "E-L-V-I-S."
It might seem sacrilegious to shoehorn Presley's musical evolution into a 75-minute show, but Elsey hits all the high points: from the early rockabilly smashes "Heartbreak Hotel" and "Hound Dog," to "Suspicious Minds," one of Presley's most sophisticated later singles.
Three nights a week, Elsey gets into character by costuming himself in a pitch-black wig, aviator sunglasses and one of the five rhinestone-studded jumpsuits he and Sinclair decorated by hand.
The mutton-chop sideburns are his own.
Elsey sings live to taped backing tracks on which he played all the instruments. Sinclair, with the help of friends Judy and Harry Milnes of Cape May, operates the lighting and sound systems.
The audience on a recent Wednesday night ranged from children not even born before Elvis' death to people old enough to remember his first earth-shaking appearance on The Ed Sullivan Show in 1956.
Salvatore Borriello, 32, drove two hours from South Philadelphia with his fiancee, Kimberly Musco, 25, to see Elsey's show.
Borriello, who has all of Presley's albums, said the singer had a universal quality, even when he ventured into the narrower margins of gospel or country music.
"There's something in Elvis that all people can connect to," Borriello said. "Every month, I go to the CD store and they're releasing something new (by Presley). So, really, Elvis hasn't died."
John Paget, the director of Almost Elvis, a 2000 documentary about Elvis impersonators, said Presley pretenders are still in demand because the King's music needs to be seen, not just heard.
"Maybe for a minute, if the light hits (an impersonator) just right and (the audience) squints for a minute, they can glimpse Elvis," said Paget, of Olympia, Wash., who interviewed more than 100 Elvis impersonators for his film.
Elsey got hooked on Elvis at age 13, the first time he heard the singer's "Blue Hawaii" single.
Later, he played drums and sang in a local rock band called Second Time Around. Elsey quit the band and put together an Elvis tribute in 1977. His first show was at a Wildwood club on April 23, less than four months before Presley died.
Elsey, who saw Presley perform at the Philadelphia Spectrum in the 1970s, took his act on the road after the singer's death. He played one-nighters at VFW halls and smoky clubs up and down the East Coast.
After more than 20 years of lugging his own equipment from town to town, Elsey decided the audience should come to him.
He approached Sinclair, whom he had met at one of his shows, about opening a theater at the Shore. She was looking for a way out of her secretarial job and thought the idea was just strange enough to work.
Playing Elvis is Elsey's full-time job, and one he takes seriously.
"He doesn't get lost in the role he's performing," said Sinclair, 57.
At the end of every show, Elsey stands at the exit to sign autographs - in his own name - and shake hands. No one leaves without a signature or photo.
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