The late Elvis Presley, who would have turned 80 Thursday, has been an integral part of Craig Florian’s life for as long as the 46-year-old Glenwood city councilman can remember.
Florian’s first exposure to the king of rock and roll came as a child in the 1970s when he often listened to his mother’s Elvis Presley record albums. In high school, Florian had an Elvis-related role in “Bye, Bye Birdie.”
During his college days, there was a memorable night at Cheers Lounge when the karaoke crowd was so moved by Florian’s performance of an Elvis song that they put down their drinks to listen and applaud.
“I’d do karaoke. I’d usually sing some Barry Manilow, but one night I saw there was an Elvis song and I said I’ll try it – I’ll even put on the Elvis accent.
“Normally, it was a bar where people would just drink and talk and not even pay attention to the singer. By the end of the song, everybody kind of stopped drinking and watched me. I actually kind of got a huge applause at the end of that. I started thinking maybe there’s something here.”
In 1998, Florian and his wife, Vicky, were married at the Graceland Wedding Chapel in Las Vegas - with an Elvis impersonator at their side.
All those experiences helped prepare Florian for life as an Elvis impersonator / tribute artist, an identity he’s embraced for the past 13 years.
Florian’s first paid Elvis gig came in 2002, shortly after playing the role of an Elvis impersonator in the Mills Masquers’ production of “Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat.” Glenwood resident Harold Woodard was impressed enough to ask Florian to perform at his wife’s 60th birthday party.
“He offered me 60 bucks to ‘come sing in the basement of the legion hall and wear your little outfit’ so I realized I could make money off it,” Florian said. “That’s where it started, but since 2002, I’ve done anywhere from one to nine shows every month.”
Florian said he takes in anywhere from $100 - $1,000 for his “Craig Florian As Elvis” performances, with the rate based on the length of the show, venue and travel distance. He’s performed as many as three shows in one day and customizes his song selection to the event he’s performing. The Elvis songs he sings at a birthday party or nightclub might not be the same songs he performs at a wedding.
He’s competed at regional Elvis impersonator contests, claiming a first-place prize at Winnavegas Casino in Sloan. He’s also donated his time and Elvis talent at fundraisers, like the American Cancer Society’s Relay For Life in Glenwood.
There are some keys to being a successful Elvis impersonator, Florian said.
For starters, obviously, you need to be able to sing a wide repertoire of Presley’s songs, but you also need to “look the part.” Florian has black hair and sideburns and he wears “authentic Elvis” jumpsuits made by his grandmother and mother. He does some of the decorating and jewelry work on the jumpsuits himself.
“You have to have authentic Elvis jumpsuits that have the detail on them. If you’re wearing one that’s hokey, right away they’re going to look at you and say it’s a joke,” Florian said. “Yes, Elvis has become a bit of a character over the years. Audiences expect you to say ‘Thank you very much.’ If I don’t say ‘thank you very much’ at least once during the show, somebody will say something to me.
“The last, most important part, you have to be able to look your audience in the eye and directly interact with your audience throughout the entire show or you will lose them.”
Florian enjoys performing and interacting with his audience, but playing the role of Elvis Presley can be grueling work, he said.
“It’s nice to have people applaud and show their appreciation, but it also takes a lot out of a person. On a small scale, I get a sense sometimes of what it was like to be Elvis,” Florian said. “The fact audiences expect so much out of you. I think it weighs on a person that you have to give so much. I think that might have been one of the reasons that led to Elvis’ death – so many people wanted so much from him and he wanted to give it. You can only give so much of yourself before you’re drained.”
Florian said he draws energy from his audiences and is amazed by the impact Presley’s music continues to have on people, nearly four decades since his death in August 1977.
“Of all the celebrities throughout time, how many have been dead for 37 years and there’s still 30,000 guys walking around this country impersonating them? You can’t say that about Michael Jackson. There’s no other star that’s had that much starpower,” he said.
It isn’t unusual for Florian to get up close and personal with his audiences.
“My favorite shows are when I’m not up on the stage. I prefer to interact with the audience, singing in a wireless microphone,” Florian said. “People want to shake my hand, they want to touch my cape and my outfit. Sometimes they even touch me inappropriately, but it’s just a great compliment – just showing how much they appreciate me.”
Florian said only once - while performing in a large dining hall for residents from some group homes - did things get out of control.
“The music starts, I go out and as soon as they see me, they start to mob me. They start trying to pull the jewels off my outfit, they start pulling my cape and they want my scarves,” Florian recalled. “The staff had to come in and surround me and buffer me. That’s a weird feeling. I had never been in a situation like that before. They took me up and got me on the stage. Two or three of the staff members had to stay up there with me.
“It wasn’t a bad thing, it was more of a ‘Look what all these people are willing to do because I’m Elvis.’ I kind of got a taste of what he (Elvis) would go through every single day.”
Florian said his show is most enjoyed by those from the Baby Boomer generation and people between the ages of 60-90.
Jeanie Wagner, 79, had never seen Florian perform until last spring, when her family hired him to entertain at her birthday party. She came away impressed.
“It was a wonderful surprise,” Wagner said. “He had a great voice and his outfit was very impressive. He made it extra fun by letting me sing and dance right along with him.”
Wagner said the song she enjoyed the most was All Shook Up.
In recent years, Florian has increased the number of shows he does for senior citizens and people residing in nursing homes and assisted living facilities.
“The elderly are often forgotten, and I think I bring a lot of joy to the rest homes I visit,” Florian said.
Florian believes Presley’s music will continue to be popular for years to come and he plans to continue performing as long as he has an audience.
“I think I’m getting a little old, but I’m not going to stop doing it until people stop calling,” he said.
As for his favorite Elvis songs, Florian has a few - Blue Suede Shoes, Suspicious Minds, I Can’t Help Falling In Love With You, Burning Love and Lord, You Gave Me A Mountain.”
Burning Love is No. 1 on that favorites list and is the song Florian usually starts his show with.
“It’s a big peppy high energy number,” Florian said with a grin, “and hey, let’s face it, I am a hunk of burning love.”