Elvis impersonators have been around since shortly after Elvis shook onto the scene in the mid-1950s. They range from informal impersonators to professional Elvis Tribute Artists (ETAs). In Wisconsin, they are almost universally optimistic about the future of both the profession and Elvis’s legacy, and they have carried that legacy through the pandemic in their own unique ways. The following list does not include every artist currently performing as Elvis in Wisconsin—which in itself demonstrates how strong the profession is. For the sake of brevity and focus, the list only includes active Elvis performers, not retired ones. Without further adieu, the Elvises of Wisconsin.
Location: Green Bay
Started portraying Elvis: 1997
Favorite songs to perform: Aron says his mood determines the songs he enjoys performing, and that he is a “true fan” of everything Elvis did, “from gospel to rock and roll to ballads to movie tunes.”
Favorite places to perform: For Aron, the audience is what matters, not the location. His favorite places to perform are “wherever Elvis fans are.”
The future: Aron says he has seen the profession change tremendously over the years, with ETAs, fans, and producers all coming and going. “You have to be willing to not only change with it and go with the flow, but create your own change with your own ideas.”
The pandemic: “It’s completely stopped almost 75% to 80% of all live performances. Worldwide, not just in the ETA world.”
Location: Cottage Grove
Started portraying Elvis: 2014. After performing in front of a select group of family and friends, Beck became hooked.
Favorite places to perform: Beck travels all over the state, but his favorite spot to perform is Badger Farms, right outside of Cottage Grove, where he has done an annual show since he started performing.
The future: Beck thinks it is growing fast, sees more and more young teens getting into it, and says there is no shortage of Elvis fans. He doesn’t act as if he’s Elvis, but instead pays him tribute. He does it because it brings him enjoyment and he feels Elvis is the greatest entertainer ever.
The pandemic: Before the pandemic, Beck averaged two to three shows a week. Since March 2020, he’s had four performances in total. He says many Elvis performers have been relying on YouTube and Facebook Live to reach their audience. “I’m sure I’m not alone in saying I am very anxious to go back to normal.”
Started portraying Elvis: 1973. In Wausau, at the age of 8—when Elvis was still living—Graveen started singing Elvis songs to his classmates. Some of his early outfits were made by his mother and other relatives. He sang along to records, and then had a band in the late ’70s and early 1980s. In the ’80s, karaoke came along and he began singing to tape. He moved to the Milwaukee area in the 1990s and got back into the business a few years later, this time singing to CDs. He also started wearing professional Elvis costumes made by B&K Enterprises, a company where some of Elvis’s original costume designers worked. He performs “The Strictly Elvis Show.”
Favorite songs to perform: Graveen’s top two are “Suspicious Minds” and “Burning Love.” His favorite gospel numbers are “How Great Thou Art” and “Amazing Grace.” He also likes to perform “An American Trilogy” and “It’s Now Or Never.” He prefers to sing the songs to pre-recorded tracks instead of with a live band, so he can get as close to the Elvis sound as possible. He uses the EP Project for many of his backing tracks.
Favorite places to perform: Ninety-five percent of Graveen’s shows are at senior facilities, and his show is geared to those 70 and over. He says he doesn’t go over as well in bars.
The future: Even though his show is largely geared towards older folks, Graveen sees a lot more younger people into Elvis now than he did when he started out. Although the first generation of Elvis fans is passing away, he sees many people who are in their 50s, like him, as well as people in their 20s or 30s, who are carrying on the music. “I don’t think Elvis is ever going to die out,” he says, and adds he knows he’ll be able to perform Elvis songs as long as he wants. He wants to continue doing it so he can bring people entertainment and happiness, and bring glory to God. “We gotta bring some happiness, there is enough bad stuff in the world,” he says. Of the opportunity he has to perform, he reflects: “I’m just blessed.”
The pandemic: Being that almost all of Graveen’s shows are at senior facilities, almost all of them have been canceled. But that hasn’t stopped him from performing, and he has worked to adapt and get creative. Last year, he was able to give some outdoor and socially distanced performances at retirement communities, such as at Heritage Place in Brookfield and Avalon Square in Waukesha. He has also been putting on two-hour long shows in his basement through Facebook Live. Still, one of the aspects of performing he misses most is close interaction with his fans. With the vaccines coming, he is hopeful he will be back inside senior living facilities in some capacity in the not-too-distant-future. He wants to make sure his fans get to see their families first, but when he gets the call, he will be ready.
Started Portraying Elvis: 2012. Hardginski met Elvis Tribute Artist Dan Sanchez at a karaoke bar while attending a relative’s birthday party, and was invited by him to take part in an Elvis tribute contest he was putting together in Oshkosh in September 2012. Hardginski did so, became hooked, and performed his first solo tribute show at the Little Chute Library in January 2013.
Favorite songs to perform: While Hardginski covers a lot of Elvis’s musical catalog—including songs from all decades of his career and gospel and Christmas material—his favorite song to perform is “Suspicious Minds,” which he says is a “high-energy song that incorporates a lot of great moves including some karate at the end.” He watches video footage of Elvis to help him capture Elvis’s stage mannerisms, and his goal is to do a show that is respectful of Elvis, but also entertaining and memorable for his audience. He puts his audience at the center of his show: “I like to make my show about them, so I encourage people to clap, sing along, and even get up and dance.”
Favorite places to perform: Hardginski has performed at birthdays, anniversaries, wedding receptions, community events, corporate events, private house parties, and public venues. “Yet some of my favorite places to perform are assisted living communities throughout Wisconsin,” he says.
The future: “It’s amazing how many people are interested in having an Elvis at their events, so I see a strong future.”
The pandemic: Hardginski did 158 shows in 2019, but the number was reduced to 53 in 2020. These 2020 shows were either in January or February, or in the summer and early fall.
Location: Green Bay
Started portraying Elvis: Circa 2001. Shortly after starting Frank’s Dinner Theatre, Hermans sang an Elvis song as a joke of sorts, and everyone liked it. He picked it up from there and created “The Elvis ‘Lost’ Show.” He doesn’t see himself as an Elvis purist, or as an Elvis Tribute Artist or Elvis impersonator, but instead as someone who showcases the funny side of Elvis. Although he has done Elvis contests in the past, he stopped doing them about five years ago. Today he does both individual shows and tribute shows as part of Let Me Be Frank Productions.
Favorite songs to perform: Hermans’s favorite song to sing is “Surrender,” because it shows off his tenor range and has an operatic ending. One of the highlights of his career was performing it at the Ultimate Elvis Tribute Artist Contest in Branson.
Favorite places to perform: Hermans’s favorite places to perform are the Meyer Theatre in Green Bay, the Capitol Civic Centre in Manitowoc, and the Ashwaubenon Performing Arts Center. He likes the first two places because of their old-time feel and look, and likes the latter—which opened in the past decade—because of its upgraded sound system.
The future: When Hermans started out, he saw the “older” Elvis being portrayed more. More recently, he has seen younger guys come in and portray the younger and more “rockabilly” Elvis. He says this group of performers didn’t grow up with Elvis movies or music in the same way that previous generations had, and views the new trend as an Elvis resurgence. He would like to see this continue because he thinks it’s important to keep the names and music of Elvis and other artists alive and popular. He’s optimistic about the future, saying “It’s never gonna stop.”
The pandemic: Performing as Elvis had been a guaranteed paycheck for Hermans until the pandemic arrived, then the gigs stopped. People have started calling him again, and he is hopeful where things are headed with the virus, and thinks things will start picking up again soon. He’s starting to do a few shows again, but wants to make sure they are being done safely, so seating has been limited and other precautions have been in place.
Started portraying Elvis: Circa 2011. After singing along to Elvis records for most of his life, Lesak performed in front of a live audience for the first time at Olympic Lanes (Now JB’s on 41) during an open mic night. He was inspired to take it to the next level after a woman approached him with tears in her eyes after he had sung “For The Good Times,” saying, “I closed my eyes when you were singing, and it was just like he [Elvis] was still here.” Lesak soon began doing charity events, and he started being hired for paid gigs in 2019. He performs “The STEVE EL SHOW,” which is a play on his last name and ELvis.
Favorite songs to perform: He favors performing Elvis’s 1970s catalog. Some of his favorites are “I Got A Feelin’ In My Body,” “How Great Thou Art,” “You Gave Me A Mountain,” “I Can’t Stop Loving You,” and “For The Good Times.”
Favorite places to perform: Lesak’s favorite place to perform is Puddler’s Hall in Bay View. That’s where he did his first paid gig, and he’s gone back for a repeat performance. He loves the atmosphere and being able to get close to the audience, and says he’ll always be grateful to the owners, who “opened the door for THE STEVE EL SHOW to get going.” Some of his other favorite places to perform are senior living centers, where he finds it “super rewarding when people are clapping and singing along,” and along the route of the Riverwest 24 Hour Bike Race.
The future: Lesak thinks the future looks promising because he sees people in their 20s and 30s enjoying Elvis-related shows.
The pandemic: “The pandemic has brought everything to a grinding halt. Just as THE STEVE EL SHOW was getting going, the rug got pulled out from under us along with everyone else,” Lesak says. He has been able to make a few appearances at Elvis Prince’s shows during the past year, who Lesak says has been gracious in inviting him to perform. Lesak also has done some free shows on Facebook, for fun, to keep fans engaged, and to grow his brand and following. He says these shows are not as rewarding as being in front of a live audience. “I feed off the audience and they feed off my energy—that can’t be replicated unless you are live on stage. I cannot wait until that can happen again!”
Started portraying Elvis: 1996. Mach first performed a live Elvis show at the age of 25. He originally was based in Milwaukee, but moved to Waupun a decade ago.
Favorite songs to perform: Mach says his list of favorites is way too long, but that he likes Elvis’s catalog from the 1970s the most and thinks that’s when Elvis was at his best.
Favorite places to perform: Mach doesn’t have a favorite place to perform, but says he regularly performs at weddings, birthdays, and other parties and celebrations, and will travel up to 150 miles to do so.
The future: Mach says many established performers are getting up there in age and there is room for the newer generation of performers that has been starting out. He believes it’s the responsibility of him and others who have been doing it for a while to be an example for the younger performers so they can carry on the legend of Elvis.
The pandemic: Although the pandemic has slowed things down, Mach has been doing a few side events like karaoke shows at bars, and he believes there is light at the end of the tunnel and things will take a turn for the better.
Started portraying Elvis: 1995. Masten started portraying Elvis at the age of 19. He cut his teeth performing at the WOLX Elvis Birthday Bash in Madison. He won that contest three years in a row, which helped propel him to other opportunities. In particular, he won first place at the Elvis Presley Festival in Des Moines, Iowa, in 1997, which qualified him for the International Images of Elvis contest in Memphis.
Favorite songs to perform: Masten prefers to portray the younger Elvis, and his favorite song to perform—the signature song at his shows—is “One Night.”
Favorite places to perform: Masten’s favorite places to perform are northern Wisconsin vacation destinations, particularly around the Minocqua area, as well as Wisconsin Dells. He says Elvis seems to go over best in these places, which he thinks in part is because people are in a vacation mindset when there.
The future: It’s been over 25 years since Masten started performing, and he says during that time “it hasn’t lost any steam.” He says he hasn’t seen it change much—and he means that in a good way. The one thing he has seen is younger singers carrying on the tradition, and kids continuing to get into the music. In fact, there’s one kid who actually inspired him: his son. For a time, Masten had stopped performing, but when his son Nolan was three he saw pictures of Elvis and started asking about him, and it inspired Masten to get back on stage. Now he even brings Nolan up for a few songs during his shows. He says he doesn’t care if his son carries on in the tradition or not—what’s most important to him is the time he spends with his son and that he is learning how to interact with and be comfortable around people.
Overall, Masten thinks what the many Elvis Tribute Artists are doing to keep the memory of Elvis alive is such an important thing. Sometimes people will take issue with Elvis performers not being exactly like Elvis, and say, “there’s only one King.” But Masten doesn’t view it like that. He says it doesn’t matter to him how young or old performers are, or if they look exactly like Elvis. What’s important to him is they are letting younger generations hear Elvis’s music and keeping his legacy growing strong.
The pandemic: The pandemic hasn’t changed much of what Masten does. He does many of his shows up north, especially during the summer, and establishments didn’t close down there as much as they did farther south. He said he was able to do shows on 16 straight weekends last summer.
Location: Stevens Point/Plover area. Originally from Stratford, Wisconsin.
Started portraying Elvis: 2006. Pongratz got his start at the age of 14.
Favorite songs to perform: “Polk Salad Annie” is Pongratz’s favorite song because he likes how Elvis moved to it on stage. He also likes “Moody Blue” because it was his dad’s favorite song. He sings it at every show.
Favorite places to perform: Pongratz says the coolest place he’s performed at is Jerry Lee Lewis’ Cafe & Honky Tonk on Beale Street in Memphis. He enjoys performing at the Elvis Explosion contest in La Crosse because he gets to see other Elvis Tribute Artists and fans showing up from all over. He also really enjoys performing at Paradise Shores 4, a resort in Holcombe, which he says has great food and staff and a fantastic view.
The future: When Pongratz first started out, he had to burn karaoke tracks to a CD for a DJ to play. The technology has changed, and now he has everything on a laptop, which allows him to sing pretty much anything. He thinks the future of the business looks great, and he has found that there are always kids that look up to Elvis, so he doesn’t think it will ever end.
The pandemic: He had been performing at assisted living homes at least once a month and at various bars or resorts on the weekends, but it all stopped last March. He’s done a handful of shows since, but says people are getting braver about going out now, so shows are starting to pick up again.
Started portraying Elvis: Circa 1986. Born and raised in Memphis, Tennessee, Prince started performing as Elvis more than 35 years ago. His father was a polka musician and had hoped he would continue in the family tradition, but he decided to go in another direction. In the mid-1990s, he moved up to Milwaukee to be closer to family, and continued performing there. In March 2020, he was inducted as a “Legend” in the International ETA Hall of Fame, which he says is such an honor.
Favorite songs to perform: Prince especially likes to perform Elvis’s material from the 1970s.
Favorite places to perform: Prince likes to perform in various types of venues. He often does dinner and show performances. One of his favorite spots to perform at is the Tripoli Shrine Center in Milwaukee.
The future: Prince has seen good tribute artists come and go over his long career, and says performing all these years gave him a better understanding of how much Elvis really touched people’s lives. He views Elvis as the most intense superstar of his time, and as someone who had a huge heart—a heart so big for his fans and for people he didn’t even know. Prince sees young people—six, seven, and eight-year-olds—getting into the music, and thinks the future of Elvis performers will become even better than it is now. As for Prince, he will perform until he no longer can. “I do this for the love of Elvis,” he says.
The pandemic: Prince says he has been lucky enough to continue doing shows, but he stresses he takes the highest precautions, spacing tables far apart and following CDC guidelines for capacity. He speaks highly of his backing band, but he isn’t performing with them right now on account of the pandemic, to keep them safe, and is using backing tracks instead.
Started portraying Elvis: 2004
Favorite songs to perform: Since there are so many Elvis songs, Van Thiel says it’s hard to pick a favorite, but two of his are “An American Trilogy” and “My Way.” He enjoys performing love ballads with lots of emotion and range, and says that no matter what someone’s mood may be, there is an Elvis song that can have an effect on it.
Favorite places to perform: Van Thiel, who uses the tagline “The Voice of Elvis,” enjoys performing stage shows at theaters, performing for small dinner parties, and putting on shows at Wisconsin State Fair and Summerfest. Some venues where Van Thiel enjoys performing stage shows include the Pabst Theater in Milwaukee, the Stefanie H. Weill Center for the Performing Arts in Sheboygan, and the Grand Opera House in Oshkosh. Still, he says the smaller dinner shows are probably his favorite, because he can be more accessible and it’s easier to get out in the crowd and connect with people.
The future: Van Thiel hasn’t seen too much change since he started, although, sadly, many older fans have passed away. He has noticed fans becoming more knowledgeable of Elvis over the years, and thinks he’s gaining more respect for his work as a tribute artist. He doesn’t see the “cheeky schmaltzy image” of the Elvis impersonator as being dominant, and thinks there now is a deeper appreciation for him—the tribute performer—as an artist.
Van Thiel meets older people who weren’t Elvis fans years ago, but became fans in part because of his tribute show. He believes there will be a future for Elvis, as he also sees kids whose parents or grandparents were fans becoming fans themselves, and even meets kids who want to pay tribute to Elvis like he does. Ultimately, Van Thiel believes there is a specialness about Elvis that will keep the King in the public consciousness for a long time to come, and that Elvis tribute artists are the “missionaries of keeping the music.”
The pandemic: It’s been a hard year for Van Thiel, as essentially all of his shows have been canceled since the pandemic started. Being that a big part of his routine is shaking hands and interacting closely with the crowd, it’s unknown when shows will return exactly as they were before. But he is hoping he will be able to perform later this year, and has been thinking about how it will look.
Exclusive articles, podcasts, and more. Support Milwaukee Record on Patreon.