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August 22, 2014

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on the strip:

Big Elvis: Big man, big voice

But the biggest thing about Pete ‘Big Elvis’ Vallee is the 500 pounds of him that are no longer there, thanks to old-fashioned diet and exercise and the above-and-beyond dedication of friends

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Leila Navidi

Pete Vallee performs as “Big Elvis” at Bill’s Gamblin’ Hall and Saloon in Las Vegas on Tuesday, April 21, 2009.

Big Elvis

Pete Launch slideshow »

Eat Like A King

When Pete “Big Elvis” Vallee changed the way he thought about food, he turned to healthier recipes to help him lose weight. Here’s one:

Big Elvis’ “Stoup” (not quite stew, not quite soup)

  • 3 cans of salt-free tomato sauce
  • 1 large can of diced tomatoes
  • 5 pounds of mixed frozen vegetables
  • 1 chopped onion
  • 10 skinless chicken thighs

Season with oregano, parsley, sage and Italian herb mix. Place ingredients in large crockpot and cook on medium for 10 hours

Serves two, for two or three days.

If You Go

  • Where: Bill’s Gamblin’ Hall & Saloon, 3595 Las Vegas Blvd. South
  • When: 3, 5 and 6:30 p.m. Mondays through Fridays
  • Admission: Free

Beyond the Sun

Elvis Tribute Artists

"The King" of Rock and Roll has been gone for more than 30 years, but on any given night in Las Vegas the spirit of Elvis Presley lives on. For Elvis tribute artists like Trent Carlini, Jesse Garon, Darren Lee and Pete "Big Elvis" Vallee, the message they try to relate on stage is one of fun energy and high intensity, a routine that Elvis himself would be proud of. "It's almost like you're on autopilot," Garon said, of drifting into the Presley persona. "You're no longer the other guy, you're the 'King.' It's almost like being in your zen, your spot."

The first time you see him, on the sign, he’s a cartoon, an apple-bellied goof in a gold-studded white jumpsuit, tall black hair, a guitar and gold sunglasses.

Big Elvis, the sign says.

He’s the free weekdays lounge show at Bill’s Gamblin’ Hall & Saloon, just across the Strip from Caesars Palace. Go into the lounge and settle into a chair out of granddad’s rec room for the three o’clock show.

Big Elvis’ intro music is “Thus Spake Zarathustra,” better known as the ascending theme from “2001: A Space Odyssey” — ba baa baaaa BAA-BUM bum-bum bum-bum bum-bum.

Big Elvis comes out to a karaoke track of “Burnin’ Love.” Here comes the hunka hunka!

And then the man opens his mouth.

People’s drinks pause, resting on their lips, and the unsuspecting turn from their slot machines to the stage. Men dip their longneck beers as if to say, Check that guy out.

It’s a barrel-deep, lusty baritone, flattering and conquering the crowd, an argument that can make you wonder whether maybe they didn’t crown the king too early.

Big Elvis is a large man, 400-plus pounds draped in a jumpsuit. He perches on a wooden throne when he’s not wooing and rousing the crowd, his dark eyes shimmering under his pool-water blue Elvis glasses.

He tries to start a Maracas-shaking line. “Come on up,” he teases. “Nobody’s died up here yet, and I’m the proof.”

Barely.

He’s literally half the Big Elvis he used to be, back when he was lurking on stage like a wounded animal, nursing hits of oxygen. Back when he was Way Too Big Elvis.

Back before he lost those 500 pounds.

• • •

Pete Vallee was born 44 years ago in Memphis, Tenn. He was the fourth and last child, a surprise that cut short his mother’s attempt to revive her singing career. He was raised mostly in Bellingham, Wash., and his parents divorced when he was 6 years old. Pete’s mother worked two jobs, but it wasn’t always enough to keep food in the house. Looking back, he says food meant to him that he was loved and life was going OK.

Country, gospel and rockabilly music filled his life, especially the music of Elvis Aaron Presley. Pete first performed Elvis’ music on stage at his Tukwila high school talent show when he was 14 years old. It was 1979, two years after Elvis died. Pete weighed 200 pounds, but at 6-foot-3, he was just husky.

At 19, he was 260 pounds. At 29, 550 pounds. By the time he was 40, he weighed about 960 pounds, according to the bulk mail scale at his local post office.

• • •

Dr. Louis J. Aronne knows how a human might get to weigh half a ton. He is director of the comprehensive weight control program at New York-Presbyterian Hospital and Weill Medical College of Cornell University.

Aronne says the body regulates weight partly with a hormone called leptin, which tells the brain how much fat is stored. If there’s enough leptin floating through your blood, you’re not hungry. But as you gain too much weight, your brain becomes resistant to leptin. That happened to Pete. He ate because he was hungry, and grew hungry because he ate.

Pete could down a large pizza from Dominos, an order of cinnamon breadsticks, plus an order of the cheese ones — and three or four hours later, find himself at the drive-through window.

But in the meantime, Pete had a career, one that the weight didn’t exactly hurt. After all, he was performing as Big Elvis.

Big Elvis was born 13 years ago in Auburn, Wash., in a nearly empty auditorium of a community college.

After Pete stopped playing, a man named Bob Sluys struck up a conversation. You can’t hide your weight, Sluys told him. People will notice, so why don’t you use it as a show business gimmick? Milk it for all you can.

Pete credits Sluys for coming up with the name “Big Elvis,” but Sluys isn’t so sure. Either way, it couldn’t have come at a better time.

Pete moved to Las Vegas to follow his ex-wife and young daughter and son.

He landed a job singing at the now-defunct Roadhouse Casino on Boulder Highway.

A year later, Pete’s ex-wife moved to Colorado with their children but Pete stayed in Vegas, figuring he had made it into show business. He got married again, for a year.

Then in 2000, Pete met the woman he says saved his life.

Lucille DiPietro Star was a criminal and divorce attorney in Boston before she moved to Las Vegas. Then she went into show business.

She and her fiance decided to become talent managers. A friend told them she had to see an Elvis impersonator out on Boulder Highway.

A big man, maybe 450 or 500 pounds, came out in a two-piece suit with a large collar and set up his own sound system. Then he started to sing.

“And I thought, ‘Oh my God, what is he doing out here?’ ”

Lucille and the man who was now her husband told Pete they wanted to represent him. He wasn’t enthusiastic. He’d known people before who wanted to be his manager, look out for his money. Right. He declined and moved further down Boulder Highway to the Magic Star (now the Wildfire). A year later, he decided he might be ready for representation after all.

The next year, Lucille and her husband got Pete onto the Strip, back when Bill’s was the Barbary Coast.

And as the Big Elvis show grew, so did Pete’s weight, to the point where he couldn’t walk for more than 10 or 15 steps. He had an oxygen bottle stashed next to the stage for quick whiffs. He appeared in Las Vegas’ centennial Helldorado Days parade in 2005, towed on a trailer. When Pete saw himself on TV, he looked unbelievably huge, pale and sweaty.

Lucille’s husband had died a month before and her dad was in town to see her. They told Pete he was going to die, sooner rather than later. Lucille’s dad paid for a psychiatrist to fly out from Boston and meet with Pete. Lucille moved into his house and slept on a couch in his office.

For a year and a half, Lucille and five neighbors and friends of Pete’s kept checking on him, preparing meals — vegetables, chicken and fish, no salt and no carbohydrates. And they pushed exercise. Lucille would take Pete to the parking lot of a soccer field and as he walked around it, she drove his car next to him so he could stop and rest against it. Gaining wind, Pete bought an aboveground pool and started swimming 45 minutes each day.

Now, four years later, Pete says he weighs 405 pounds — meaning that without surgery, using only diet and exercise, he has lost more than a quarter of a ton.

Is it possible? Dr. Aronne says yes, for some people.

When people quickly lose more than 10 percent of their weight, usually the body’s starvation defenses kick in. The weight — even the water weight that sloughs off at as much as 50 pounds at a time — stops coming off and people are wracked with hunger. At this point, most people plateau forever or break their diet.

However, some people can retrain their bodies. And, Arrone says, when it’s possible, it’s most likely to happen on Pete’s diet.

“You know how they have those disclaimers that say, ‘Results not typical?’ These results are not typical,” Arrone says. “But people can do it, and I give them lots of credit.”

Pete says whenever he wakes up starving in the night, he thinks of his children, of seeing them grow up. Then he prays.

He says he can never repay Lucille.

And, if you ask his friends, Pete is a man who tries to give back.

One of those neighbors who helped take care of Pete? His name’s Chuck Rawlings, himself a one-time Elvis impersonator. Pete asked him to sing and play guitar in the show, doing Conway Twitty and more — an addition paid out of Pete’s and Lucille’s share. Sue Laurenz, president of the Las Vegas Elvis fan club, remembers when Pete anonymously covered the funeral expenses of a security guard for Elvis at the International (now the Las Vegas Hilton).

Pete himself is inclined not to discuss these matters, and just mumbles that he’s only doing what Elvis would do.

These days, he’s got a new fiancee, Amanda Lasham, who’s roughly two fifths of his weight. She has a tattoo on the back of her neck that says “Elvis Presley” — Pete wouldn’t let her get “Big Elvis.” She lives with him, cooks for him and hides the Domino’s Pizza fliers so he won’t be tempted. And she comes to all his shows, standing just inside his dressing room door, dancing through every song.

What else could she do? Because every day, Monday through Friday, at 3, 5 and 6:30 p.m., the sound system starts up... ba baa baaaa BAA-BUM bum-bum bum-bum bum-bum ...

And then there he is, without a jungle room, a custom garage full of Cadillacs or much gold anything, giving everything he has with a voice to shake Graceland, sweating down toward his goal of 250 pounds.

Big Elvis.

Brendan Buhler can be reached at 259-8817 or at [email protected]

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