Monday, May 9, 2011 | 5:34 p.m.
Say this for Fremont Street: Among all the wonderful free performances and equally wonderful free people watching is a remarkably dexterous approach to entertainment.
Consider what’s been unfolding under the glowing showcases on the Fremont Street Experience canopy in just the past few days: On Friday and Saturday, it was the second Ultimate Elvis Tribute Artist Contest. The event was all the name implies: A total of 20 Elvis Tribute Artists (ETAs, they are called, as I learned Friday night) covering all of Elvis’ incarnations in his two-decade career.
Today, it’s the announcement of the “Absolutely 80s” summer concert series at FSE.
FSE is Fremont Street Experience, BTW. With ETAs and FSE and even BTW, the attraction is becoming AC (Acronym Central).
In keeping with that characteristic, a former VJ (Video Jockey) is fronting the “Absolutely 80s” series. She would be Nina Blackwood, once of MTV, who announced the set of shows Monday afternoon on her “80s on 8” Sirius XM channel.
Blackwood’s announcement continues the FSE momentum that was forged during the Ultimate Elvis Tribute Artist contest, which was a preliminary competition leading to the Ultimate Elvis Tribute Artist Contest in Memphis, set for Aug. 10-16.
The winner crowned Saturday night was Johnny Fortuno, and if that name seems familiar, it should: Fortuno is one of the country’s best professional ETAs; I saw him perform in January 2010 at the Club at the Cannery as part of that hotel’s celebration of the King’s 75th birthday.
Coincidentally, the night I watched Fortuno perform at the Cannery, I was seated near Sam Thompson, who was one of Elvis’ bodyguards in the mid-1970s up to the time of Presley’s death. Thompson also is the brother of Linda Thompson, Elvis’ girlfriend for a time during his days in Las Vegas. On Friday, I joined Thompson, Cynthia Pepper (Elvis’ co-star in “Kissin’ Cousins”) and Gene Lubas (artistic director of “Viva Elvis!” at Aria) on the Ultimate Elvis judging panel.
I have a couple of overriding thoughts after watching all 20 ETAs in a 2-hour showcase:
There are many interpretations of the King from which to draw. We had an ETA who was dressed in a skin-tight jumpsuit who looked something like an Elvis superhero character. A couple wore baggy gold lame from Elvis' early years. A couple wore the familiar black leather from Presley’s 1968 comeback special. Of course, several wore the jumpsuits that hearkened to Elvis’ appearances at the International and Las Vegas Hilton. We had tall Elvi, short Elvi, stalky and skinny Elvi. We had one called “Counterfeit Elvis,” who could not at all take himself seriously; others, like Fortuno, so meticulously build their Elvis characterization that they appear to actually believe they are Elvis while onstage.
And, maybe, while they are offstage.
I also was struck by something so obvious, I was startled to even think it: Elvis was great. At one point, I turned to Thompson and said, “You know, watching these guys, I’m reminded just how great Elvis was because hardly anyone can perform even one song as well as he did.”
“I was just thinking the same thing,” said Thompson, who saw Elvis perform hundreds of live shows. “These guys are singing really tough songs and barely making it through, and Elvis did all of them, night after night.”
Along with qualifying for the Ultimate Elvis finals, Fortuno picks up $2,500 in first-place prize money and wins a vacation package to Graceland, where his very physical resemblance to Presley might cause some Elvis devotees to pass out.
Dragging the celebration into the 1980s is the “Absolute 80s” concert series, and I am one who believes that decade has not been properly appreciated for its nostalgic appeal. FSE has previously exhumed the 1960s and 1970s with such concert showcases, and I have to say that those who grew up in the ’60s have had about enough nostalgia for one lifetime.
For “Absolute 80s,” the original idea was to link the celebration to the 30th anniversary of the launch of MTV. Problem is, MTV is not marking the anniversary itself. The cable channel kicked off on Aug. 1, 1981, with the video to The Buggles’ “Video Killed the Radio Star,” which would have been quite prophetic if the title were actually “Internet Downloads and File-Sharing Killed the Radio Star.”
But turning 30 is not something youth-driven MTV wants trumpeted. Nor is the cable channel once famous for airing music videos referring to itself as a music TV outlet. “Music Television” is no longer in its title. It’s just “MTV,” similar to the evolution of ESPN from its original name, the Entertainment and Sports Programming Network.
Nonetheless, FSE is bringing some tantalizing artists to its summer-long showcase: Terri Nunn and Berlin are May 28, Dale Bozzio and Missing Persons are June 4, ABC is June 18, Colin Hay of Men at Work is July 2, Wang Chung is July 23, Loverboy is Aug. 6, Tony Hadley of Spandau Ballet with Men Without Hats is Aug. 20, and Howard Jones closes the series Sept. 3. As part of the celebration, Blackwood will be shown on Viva Vision each night over the 100-day festival, counting down her own list of the greatest songs of the '80s.
If "Careless Whisper" by Wham is on that list, I'm walking. And I might fling a plastic football full of Bacardi and Coke at the big screen.
But no matter the play list, it should be a wild summer, a carnival of leg warmers, Ray-Bans, big hair and shoulder-exposing sweatshirts. Even Elvis will be welcomed to the party.
At FSE, he always fits in.