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November 22, 2014

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Columnist Jerry Fink: ‘Big Elvis’ organizes big homage to the King

Jerry Fink's lounge column appears on Fridays. Reach him at 259-4058 or jerry@ lasvegassun.com.

Please, a moment of silence ...

Thank you. Thank you very much.

Aug. 16 marked the 24th anniversary of the death of Elvis Presley.

About 300 mourners partied at a wake-like observance for the King on that date at the Magic Star, a small casino on South Boulder Highway in Henderson.

In an unusual twist, lounge patrons out-numbered gamblers at the facility, which has a seating capacity of 437 people.

While patrons were there to pay tribute to Elvis, they also were there to hear Pete "Big Elvis" Vallee, who organized the event.

Vallee fans are constantly battling gambling fans for seats at the small venue.

"We came out tonight for the observation," Betty Gundy, there with her husband, Al, said. "But we come out once a week to have dinner and to hear 'Big Elvis,' usually on Wednesdays.

"I'm not really an Elvis fan," she said. "I'm more into Wayne Newton. But 'Big Elvis' is a very nice young man with a pleasant voice."

Scanning the standing-room-only crowd, Gundy said the turnout was a little larger than normal for a "Big Elvis" show, but not that much more.

"It's always crowded," she said. "If I don't get here early, I don't get a seat."

Vallee, who tips the scales at 500 pounds, began performing at the Magic Star six months ago and recently was signed to a yearlong contract.

" 'Big Elvis' is a phenomenon," Magic Star entertainment director Dixie Dooley said. "When people first come out here they think it's a joke or something, but when they hear his voice and get to know the man, they fall in love with him."

Dooley is a magician who performs with Vallee at the Henderson casino. He also is the star of "Houdini Lives Again" at the Plaza.

For the Elvis-memorial evening, Dooley donned a red Elvis-style jump suit.

Charles David, 41, also was clad in Elvis attire.

"Elvis was so loved and admired," David said. "He had his imperfections as well as his perfections."

David has been performing professionally in Elvis tribute shows since age 9. Tonight he begins a nightly show (dark Mondays) show at the Plaza.

"Ever since his passing, twice a year, worldwide, there are two main weeks of celebration -- the week of his birthday, January 8, and the week of his passing, August 16. It's huge."

Not for Vinny Capri, another guest of Vallee's, who is obsessed with the King.

Every night is an Elvis celebration for Capri, a 63-year-old retired busboy, who once worked at Bally's in Atlantic City.

Three years ago Capri began routinely putting on Elvis costumes and making appearances at casinos throughout Las Vegas. He doesn't have engagements, he just shows up.

"I go out seven nights a week. Last night I was in New York-New York 'til 4 o'clock in the morning, and the night before I was in the Barbary Coast," he said. "I just go."

Capri's metamorphosis was the result of years of people telling him he looked like Elvis.

"So I finally did it," he said.

He has four Elvis suits (one he made himself); 10 Elvis belts (all of them homemade); and he drives a 1954 pink Cadillac.

Capri has appeared in four Elvis-related movies, all of them low-budget affairs except for "3,000 Miles to Graceland," released earlier this year.

"I'm in the red jump suit, right in front when they robbed the Riviera," Capri said. "I was right there in front, in line with the guys robbing the Riviera."

Jack Turner (not dressed in an Elvis suit) was also among last week's guests at the Magic Star. Turner worked in the entertainment department at the International Hotel (now the Las Vegas Hilton) when it opened in 1969. Elvis was the headliner.

"He had just finished his (1968 "Comeback Special") and the Colonel (Tom Parker) planned to launch him back into orbit," Turner recalled. "It became two orbits."

When Elvis was appearing at the International, Turner saw him on a daily basis during his performance runs.

At the start of the comeback, Elvis was in the best shape of his life. But Turner saw the decline as the years passed.

"I knew people were feeding him so much (drugs) and that he could go out one night and not come back," Turner said. "He started gaining weight and looking strange."

When Elvis went on tour word would filter back to Turner that the King wasn't quite as sharp at his performances. He was missing cues.

When he died, Turner wasn't surprised.

"I knew he was surrounded by a lot of the wrong elements," he said. "Some of his friends did him an injustice by helping him get drugs."

But Turner focuses on the good memories.

"I saw him when his shows were impeccable," he said. "This guy was in tune. When he entered a room everyone focused on him, and he loved it. But he was a very humble guy in his own way."

Thank you.

Thank you very much.

Lounging around

Marcus Dagan, a local lounge pianist, has a gig on the maiden voyage of Norwegian Cruise Lines' new $400 million, 91,000-ton ship, the Norwegian Star. He will be aboard when the megacruiser sails out of Copenhagen, Denmark, today and will be with the liner through Sept. 21. Ultimately, the floating resort will be based in Hawaii, but Dagan will jump ship in England.

J.C. Wooloughan Irish pub at the Regent Las Vegas will celebrate its second anniversary with a party from 4 p.m.-2 a.m. Thursday. Live music includes singer John Windsor and the Celtic-rock group the Indulgers. The pub was designed and built in Dublin and assembled at the casino.

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