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TODAY

Tuesday, April 24

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Detour

The Rock-A-Tiki Lounge, on the 1900 block of West Division Street, vibrates on Wednesday nights. People crowd the heavily ornamented bar with bated breath, as the regulars lounge at tables mask anticipation with bright blue frozen drinks called Blue Hawaiis. The crowd is mixed: forty-somethings with fond memories, deep pockets and shallow livers, thirty-something after-workers, hip twenty-somethings with an abiding love for all things Elvis, hipper twenty-somethings obsessed with irony, and tourists who conflate Elvis with Americana all jostle for space and drinks, waiting for the show to start. Wednesdays are not just Wednesdays at Rock-a-Tiki; they are something else completely: Wednesday nights transform the entire cityscape into Elvisland, over which looms the intense mass of energy known to this diverse crowd as Mark Elvis. And all with no cover.

Finally, a little before 11pm, that gameshow-esque Elvis introduction music starts and Mark "Elvis" Hussman, replete with jumpsuit and natural, thick Elvis pompadour, jogs to the makeshift "stage" at the center of the long, narrow tiki lounge, and the request-driven Elvisland performance has begun. With that trademark smile that is half joy and half self-aware smirk, Mark Hussman melts away, dripping along with sweat onto the carpeted floor and only a sort of "Elvis Experience" is left, enrapturing a surprised crowd that can't believe, almost immediately, how much fun their having at a cramped bar with an overworked staff and an superlatively loud sound system. Elvis has consumed the building.

Before the show, we sat down and talked to Elvis. Two things are striking right off the bat: First, Mark Hussman doesn't look much like Elvis. He has the jumpsuit, sure, and has even mastered many of the mannerisms. His hair is approximate. Second, and this is more bizarre, he doesn't sound exactly like Elvis, either. To be sure, the man can sing -- especially considering how much he sings, his vocal chords are amazingly resilient and his voice has great range -- but that almost-baritone snarl is missing. So why, why, are all these people watching Mark "Elvis" Hussman and simply thinking... Elvis? Because his passion for creating an Elvis Experience is all the illusion he needs.

"There is a group of people known as Elvis purists who want to think that they are watching Elvis," Hussman told us, "but I don't think that's the type of show that I do. I do a more creative interactive type of show that I think Elvis would appreciate if he were watching. I realize that I am not Elvis; I refer to Elvis in my shows, which a lot of impersonators won't do."

1212003_elvis1.jpg

Mark Elvis puts on another incredible performance.

And of those impersonators, Hussman may be the best. Known nationally as the "hardest working Elvis Impersonator in America," Hussman's tally of Superstar stage-mates is wildly impressive for a guy who performs weekly at an afterthought lounge for free: Bono (yes, "Forgive Third World Debt," Bono), Shania Twain, Olivia Newton-John, and Wynona Judd. He's gotten rave reviews from everybody from Bill Zwecker to Cher -- a pretty big compliment when you take a minute to contemplate the fact that Cher knew Elvis.

Part of the appeal is that lack of pretension -- the fact that Hussman is loath to be Elvis. No, there is no creepy transmogrification, where a man sort of deletes his superego and "becomes" -- before your eyes! -- his hero. Hussman would never aspire to become -- he wants only to affect -- to project a shadow, as it were. Like Plato and his caves, except with much more sweat and polyester.

"I know what I'm doing and I know what my goal is," he says in his surprisingly soft-timbered voice, "it's simply to take Elvis' talent for performance itself, and showing people what it was like...People have a lot of choices to do things and when they choose to come here it really means a lot to me personally."

One almost doesn't want Hussman to be so good. Aren't Elvis impersonators supposed to be kitschy, just there to laugh at or be ironic? Isn't their appeal supposed to be limited to geriatrics spending pension checks on nickel slots in Reno, or people who enjoy watching curiously themed skydivers? Why the hell are otherwise normal people, many of them born after Elvis died, compelled to lose their inhibitions and dance to esoteric Elvis tunes like "Kentucky Rain" or "Hard Headed Woman?" Assuredly, many of these people know nothing of Elvis outside of his sort of public domain hits and the fact that he ate peanut butter and banana sandwiches. He'd never admit it, but much of the reason Elvisland is such a huge success isn't the appeal of Elvis, but the boundless energy and charm of the man reflecting Elvis, Mark Hussman.

Hussman was born in Chicago and raised in northwest suburban Mount Prospect. It was there that his parents gave him his first Elvis record, a recording he cherished, although he can't quite remember which one it was. But that was just the inkling: it was years later, when his mother sat him down and they watched Elvis on television, that he realized he really did just plain adore Elvis.

Hussman recalls fondly, pulling on a cigarette, "It was the 'Aloha from Hawaii' special. I remember sitting there and thinking to myself, wow, I mean it was just amazing to me. The range of songs Elvis was performing -- I mean from ballads to rockers -- just thrilled me."

That may be true, but does it really explain the high energy that comes out at Elvisland? What is it about Hussman's performances that so entrance otherwise disinterested, casual Elvis fans? The folks there say that, really, it has nothing to do with Elvis, although it doesn't hurt: it has to do with Hussman.

"He just seems to love it so much," one patron told us, "He just loves doing it so much, it's endearing. He doesn't go kitschy, he isn't laughing at himself or at Elvis. He's just making this great experience for everybody. You could hate Elvis, and you'd still smile when you see Mark." Hussman becomes Elvis, but it is a sort Meta-Elvis. A self-aware Elvis that is more energy than impersonation.

Hussman is reaping the fruits of years of work and dedication to this, his single passion. Now strictly a professional Elvis impersonator, he got his start doing -- could it be anything else? -- karaoke. He noted the crowd responded more to his Elvis songs than Beatles songs, and when an Elvis competition at Bubs City was announced in the Reader, Hussman figured, why the hell not? He entered and defeated well-known female Elvis impersonator Patty Elvis to win the crown.

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Fig2. The man who would be The King.

As the clock ticked towards show time, Mark told us the rest of that story: "I started getting bookings and small gigs and eventually I found myself singing at the United Center for the Chicago Bulls during their golden years. From there I started this thing called 'Brunch with the King.' It was something really new and different -- it was actually the first weekly show in Chicago. Eventually, I really hit it off and became good friends with the people who ran the House of Blues, and we put together the very first Elvis spectacular. That first year was on the 20th anniversary show in August 1997. At that point that was all it took and it grew into what you see today."

In suits special-ordered from a woman named Kathy Kittle of Katherine Lee Creations, Hussman has rocked Rock-A-Tiki for a year now, with ever growing crowds eager to get a glimpse of the Ersatz Elvis. With such a great reputation, as well as the big-name endorsements, is there any jealousy in the Elvis Impersonator community in Chicago? And why the hell Chicago?

Hussman almost takes issue with the question, "Chicago is a really great place in itself, with all the different people and culture but it also has a very large and extremely devoted Elvis community which makes it a very special place to live and perform in. The people in this town are the most sincere people I've come across, I've been all over the country and Chicago can't be beat´┐Żand Rick [Saucedo], Patty Elvis and I, we've all been good friends since the day we met. You meet a lot of really good friends in this business. I've been very fortunate."

A little after midnight, Elvisland has come to an end, always with a stormy, moving rendition of "American Trilogy" replete with flag-waving and chants of "U.S.A.!" Elvis reverts to Hussman and a look of disappointment falls across his face: he sincerely looks like he never wants to leave. Not because there's anything wrong with being Mark Hussman, but because he can bring so much more joy as Elvis.

Mark Elvis performs his Elvisland show at Rock-A-Tiki, 1942 W. Division, every Wednesday night. Tickets are now available for the Elvis Birthday Spectacular at House of Blues on January 8.

 

About the Author(s)

Ramsin Canon writes about the city at Chicago: Howtown on the Make.

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