By Vanessa Oswald
The Tonawanda News
Tonawanda News — When local filmmaker John Paget chose Elvis as the topic for his documentary, he knew he’d have to find an unusual angle: Elvis impersonators.
“There had never really been a film done on Elvis impersonators, so I thought here’s an opportunity,” said Paget, who is originally from Olympia, Wash., but moved to Buffalo in 2005. “I just thought it would be a great, entertaining film and I’ve always been fascinated with Elvis and his impact on American culture.”
Every year there’s an annual contest held on the anniversary of The King’s death in Memphis, Tenn., to find the world’s best Elvis impersonator called the International “Images of Elvis” Impersonator Competition. When Paget found out about the championship he decided to follow a few of the contestants on their quest for the crown.
“I thought if I could find some characters and follow them on their way through the year at regionals and preliminaries and follow them all the way to the world championship I would have a natural and dramatic storyline to follow,” Paget said.
Through this process Paget was introduced to Irv Cass, who was competing for the title in 1999 and had been runner-up a few times before.
“So he was always a bridesmaid, never a bride,” Paget said. “He was in it for one last time and he was probably saying ‘I’m going to give it one more shot and this is going to be the last time.’ I thought ‘this is going to be interesting, either way whether he wins or not it will be a good story.’ “
Cass, who is now 45, entered his first Elvis impersonation contest in the early 1990s in his hometown South Bend, Ind. He had entered for fun with no intention of winning, but went home with fifth place.
After the show event promoter Dottie Skiat approached him to tell him she was impressed with his Elvis impersonation. She told him if he wanted to get serious — which meant growing out his hair and sideburns, applying makeup, and wearing the signature Elvis jumpsuit — to give her a call. At first Cass was hesitant, but he later realized dressing up like Elvis might be worthwhile.
“Two weeks later I called (Dottie) and said, ‘I might as well give it a shot,’ “ Cass said. “I never even thought I could be good at it, but a year after she started working with me I played my first Las Vegas show at the Imperial Palace.”
He was featured in the Legends In Concert production show, which originally started out as a tribute show for artists who had passed away, like Elvis, Dean Martin and Frank Sinatra, though now they also do tributes to stars who are still alive, such as Britney Spears. Cass now has added a Tom Jones impersonation to his resume as well.
One reason Cass believes he stands out from the pack is his former occupation as a male dancer, which he did for thirteen years. But those aren’t his only credentials.
“Elvis Presley had a lot of sex appeal, and the fans that go to see the Elvis impersonator shows are mostly women and I think they like the sexy Elvis and Irv has that going for him,” Paget said. “The other thing is I think Irv is a very sentimental and emotional guy, and I think Elvis’ music, some people accuse it of being too cheesy, but Irv is such an honest, sensitive human that I think when he sings you can tell he’s putting his heart into it.”
As he perfected his Elvis moves in Las Vegas, he decided to take a shot at the big leagues, the International “Images of Elvis” Impersonator Competition in Memphis, Tenn., where he ended up winning first place, which is highlighted in Paget’s 2001 documentary “Almost Elvis.”
Cass said after the release of Paget’s film he gained a lot of exposure, with the film being shown in the United States, Canada, Britain and Asia. Since then he’s made appearances all over the world.
“I’ve performed all over the United States, I’ve traveled overseas, I’ve done a number of gigs on cruise boats, Mexico, the Bahamas, England, Japan, Philippines and Australia. I’m excited about the show in Buffalo,” he said referring to his upcoming performance at the Riviera Theatre in North Tonawanda following a screening of “Almost Elvis.”
The event “Almost Elvis” Elvis Impersonators & Their Quest for the Crown starts at 7 p.m. Saturday. Tickets cost $25 for adults and $20 for seniors. All ages are welcome.
“It’s always cool to see this guy you’ve seen in the documentary who you’ve grown to like and love and to have him come out live as the curtain comes up; it’s always kind of a magical moment for the audience,” Paget said.IF YOU GO • WHAT: Screening of "Almost Elvis" and performance by Irv Cass, Elvis impersonator • WHEN: 7 p.m. Saturday • WHERE: Riviera Theatre, 67 Webster St., North Tonawanda • COST: $25; $20 for seniors • MORE INFORMATION: Visit www.rivieratheatre.org