CAPITAL REGION Don Romines walked into the men’s room at The Capital Living Nursing and Rehabilitation Centre a mild-mannered guy in a plaid shirt and khakis. Five minutes later, he emerged a rock icon.
Gold accents glinted on his tight, white, bell-bottom jumpsuit, its V-neck revealing a gold chain and plenty of chest hair. He swaggered to the front of the room and turned on the music.
For the next hour he gyrated, sweated and crooned to an appreciative audience, wrapping brightly colored scarves around necks, passing out teddy bears and planting the occasional kiss.
Most days, the hazel-eyed 51-year-old works in the engineering department at Ellis Hospital, but on days off, he’s Donny Elvis.
The Capital Region has quite a collection of Elvis Presley tribute artists who regularly perform in local venues. They can be spotted around town in their street clothes, sporting the trademark sideburns and dark pompadour.
Elvis sightings will likely increase this week, as the 11th annual Lake-George.com Elvis Festival takes over Lake George. The five-day event will include 52 tribute artists from across the region and around the world. On their heels will be an estimated 5,000 fans.
Jason Sherry, the festival’s producer, said Elvis tribute artists continue to captivate audiences because fans are eager to recapture a moment from their youth.
Tribute artists work hard to be the spitting image of Elvis. They wear the signature hairstyle, the snazzy suits and belt out hits like “Hound Dog” and “Jailhouse Rock.”
But there’s something unique about each of them: their backstory. Here’s the skinny on a few local tribute artists:
Elvis tribute artist Don Romines of Schenectady performs May 15 for residents at The Capital Living Nursing and Rehabilitation Centre in Schenectady.
Romines first walked in Elvis’ blue suede shoes on Halloween 1987. His friends raved about his costume, so when he heard about an Elvis look-alike contest a few weeks later, he entered, and won.
Fast forward to the early ’90s, when Romines caught wind of a promotion for Elvis Cologne at the JC Penney store in Crossgates Mall. He asked if organizers might want a live “Elvis” to stand by the display, and before he knew it, he was promoting the cologne throughout New England.
This is a guy who hated music class in school and never took a music lesson. He said he picked up Elvis’ sound and moves by watching videos and listening to his music.
“I don’t have a studio or anything. I practice when I drive,” he said right before showtime at his May 15 performance at The Capital Living in Schenectady.
Romines has about a dozen different jumpsuits. He buys them from B&K Enterprises in Indiana, a company that works from designs created exclusively for the star. He went to Indiana to get fitted for his latest outfit, a $3,800 peacock jumpsuit. It’s a tight, white number embroidered with an elaborate blue, green and gold bird.
He joked about having to use a shoehorn to get into his suits.
“I’ve got to watch those pizzas, you know,” he said with a grin.
A Schenectady native, he performs at local nursing homes, parties, charity events and club meetings. His act has also taken him to Rhode Island, Florida and the Imperial Palace in Las Vegas.
“I’ve met so many people and been places I never would have went,” he said, “and I gotta thank Elvis for that, I guess.”
Elvis tribute artist Kevin Harder of Gansevoort performs at a benefit for fellow tribute artist Paul Hunt May 10 in Schenectady.
Kevin Harder of Gansevoort is a relative newcomer to the tribute artist scene.
The 53-year-old sang country music as a hobby until about seven years ago, when his wife talked him into trying an Elvis act.
Harder said he’s been singing along with The King since his mom played Presley records on her hi-fi.
“When the other kids used to all take off, I used to dance in front of it and try to mimic it and sing like him,” he said.
At a May 10 benefit performance in Schenectady, Harder looked the part in his flashy red “Burning Love” jumpsuit. A natural blond, his hair was dyed jet black and brushed back. His white patent leather shoes caught the light.
“A lot of people wouldn’t come out and see me if I wasn’t in a jumpsuit,” he said. “Just a blond-haired guy singing a country song’s probably not going to draw much of a crowd. But when you put the suit on, and the whole persona, for that short time, people think they’re lost in the ’70s, you know?”
When he’s not working as grounds supervisor at Skidmore Apartments in Saratoga Springs, Harder plays Elvis at nursing homes, parties, benefits, parades and even funerals.
He’s 11 years older than Elvis was when he died, but he said performers can impersonate The King into their 70s.
“When your hair falls out, you get a wig, and you hope your voice holds out and the jumpsuit stays on,” he said with a laugh.
Harder’s jumpsuits are made by a tribute-artist-turned-truck-driver in Ohio.
“It’s authentic to what Elvis wore and they don’t come cheap,” he said, pointing to his intricate, satin-lined get-up. “This here is a $1,500 jumpsuit — and that’s with my discount.”
Doing his thing on stage, he said he’s ripped his share of outfits.
“That’s embarrassing, but the show goes on,” he said with a grin.
The May 10 benefit Harder performed at was a fundraiser for fellow tribute artist Paul Hunt of Guilderland, known to many as Little Elvis. Hunt had a stroke in February while in Illinois for the Midwest Tribute to the King competition and is recuperating at Sunnyview Rehabilitation Hospital in Schenectady. His wife, Reenie, and 140 fan club members are cheering him on.
Funds raised at the benefit will help cover his mounting medical bills.
The 63-year-old has been impersonating Elvis since age 15, his wife said.
“His father left when he was very young, and he grabbed on to Elvis as a father figure and just wanted to learn everything about him, be just like him,” she said.
Hunt has made a living, for the most part, as a musician. In addition to singing, he plays guitar, harmonica and keyboard. Over the years, he’s performed all over the United States and Canada.
“Paul’s just a little guy. He’s 5-foot-6, and the look on people’s faces when he opens his mouth, they’re just like, ‘Where does it come from out of this little guy?’ ” she said with a laugh.
Hunt got to meet Elvis in 1975, backstage at Boston Garden.
His wife recounted: “When he told Elvis, ‘I do your songs; I love you,’ Elvis’ advice to him was, ‘I’m honored, but you be you and you’ll be great.’ It was the highlight of Paul’s life, meeting him in person.”
Marge Johnson, president of Hunt’s fan club, raved about Little Elvis: “He’s got gorgeous jumpsuits. They fit him to a T. He is so particular about everything. When he sings, he mixes in the crowd. He talks to you, and you feel as if you’ve known him a lifetime. He’s it — that’s it.”
Drew Polsun of Glenville also has his share of adoring fans. Members of his fan club get a monthly newsletter, an 8-by-10 photo of him in his Elvis attire and, once a year, he treats them to a party, complete with a concert.
The 56-year-old started singing Elvis songs at 6, after seeing Elvis’ 1964 feature film “Roustabout.”
“I formed my first band when I was 12 and was actually doing tributes to Elvis when Elvis was still alive, back in ’76,” he said.
In the 1980s, he and his band did an hour-long Elvis show.
“Even back then, there were women lined up out the door waiting for a scarf and a kiss,” he recalled.
Since then, Polsun has played Elvis in many different states. In 2012, he said he won the fan’s choice award at both the Lake George and Pocono Mountains Elvis festivals. He has performed on the Las Vegas Hilton stage, where Elvis spent many nights singing, and was chosen to perform as a surprise guest for Edison Pena, one of the Chilean miners who was trapped in a mine for 70 days in 2010.
Polsun is a full-time maintenance worker in a local school district. He said he thinks about retiring, but not from his Elvis gig. “If I’m still able to do it, I’ll be doing it,” he promised, describing the gratification he feels when he makes a fan smile.
He recalled an 80-year-old widow who saw him perform and later wrote him a letter.
“She used to just lay on the couch, never leave the house and just tell God that she was ready to go, and after she saw me perform, it brought new light into her life and gave her a reason to go on,” he said. “When you change someone’s life with a song, it just makes it all worthwhile.”