During her gender-blending performances, Patty Elvis might croon seductively into a woman’s ear one minute, then pantomime going down on a man the next. And those Ed Sullivan Show cameramen who shot Elvis Presley from the waist up in 1957? They wouldn’t know what to do with Patty Elvis’s upper half, which sports a pair of queens the King would have appreciated.
Patty Manning is likely the world’s only lesbian-feminist lap-dancing Elvis impersonator–and she doesn’t have to worry about the guardians of public decency slamming the lid on her act. Good thing, too. As Manning says, “I do kind of a ‘stripper-y’ Elvis. I’m not doing a tribute. I love his music, but my show is like an augmentation of Elvis. He had a feminine quality to him and a very sexual quality that people responded to.
“I’m not trying to be totally Elvis onstage–I’m Elvis and Patty at the same time. I cross a lot of boundaries.”
When she’s Elvis, Manning–a 40-year-old Catholic-school graduate from the northwest side–is a pop culture-drenched, big-sideburned riot. She does a fine take on the singer’s voice, and she’s skinny like Presley predrugs. But unlike some Elvis impersonators, she doesn’t expect her audience to behave as if they were witnessing the second coming. Nor does she play the fact that she’s a woman for shock value, a la The Crying Game, or emulate the old-line drag queen’s off-with-the-wig denouement.
Don Bromley, a Chicago photographer, is a fan who’s caught Patty Elvis’s act many times. “She wiggles her ass a lot like Elvis, and you think, ‘Oh yeah, Elvis must have been pretty hot, because look at her, she’s hot and she’s Elvis.’ She’s got these big lamb-chop sideburns, but she’s doing all this lap-dancey kind of thing in the audience, and she’s incredibly cute, and you’re just going right along with her.”
It’s not all about sex, however–or all about Elvis. Along with impressive versions of “Polk Salad Annie,” “Viva Las Vegas,” and other Elvis tunes, Patty Elvis does some Michael Jackson dance moves, breaks into Tom Jones’s “She’s a Lady,” and tosses in Spinal Tap’s “Sex Farm,” backed by Bill Bango on lead guitar, Dave Budrys on bass, and Scott Carson on drums and vocals. John Glynn, who books Patty Elvis at his Boulevard Cafe in Logan Square every couple of months, says, “It’s like a whole cabaret show, not just Elvis shtick. It’s so tongue-in-cheek, and it’s all her own thing–not like what you get from anybody else you’d go see.”
When she’s not Elvis or any of those other people, Manning is a part-time housepainter, part-time day care provider. She’s also a lifelong ham, entertaining offstage as well as on-, legendary for playing baseball in her first-Communion dress. Growing up near Kedzie and Roscoe, the fifth of six children, she “was always the entertainer, always the one performing for the aunts,” remembers her sister and roommate, Tina Buschner. “I hated her for that. She got all the attention.”
The variety shows and celebrity roasts of the 1970s introduced Manning to folks like James Cagney, Jack Benny, Marlon Brando, Johnny Carson–guys who were endlessly impersonated by Rich Little, John Byner, and anyone else who could grab a little airtime that way. Studying their work, Manning developed her own impersonations and practiced them on her family. Buschner recalls, “She would have us peeing in our pants, she was so funny doing Colonel Klink” from Hogan’s Heroes. “She’d do Steve Martin and Richard Nixon, and she’d crack everybody up. Our aunts would come over, and they’d be like, ‘Patty, do Carson. Patty, do Nixon.'”
As Manning remembers it, “I wasn’t the only one trying to be funny. We were always laughing and stuff. At the table, there was always silliness, milk coming out of somebody’s nose. You had to try not to do it, because Dad would get mad. But you did it.”
She rarely if ever impersonated Elvis, however. And though she did the occasional Mae West or Cher impression, for the most part her subjects were men. She thinks it was the influence of the impersonators she imitated. “Anybody Rich Little did, I did,” she recalls. “He mostly did men.”
Patty’s mother, Geraldine Manning (Ms. Illinois Senior 1996), says she loved egging Patty on, both because “she was funny enough to make anybody laugh” and because “I had the performing bug myself.” She used to line the six kids up when they were very young, she says, and have them perform “So Long, Farewell” from The Sound of Music. When her daughter started honing her act, nobody thought it was odd that a cute little girl was impersonating old men like James Cagney. “She was just so good, we all loved to watch her perform,” her mom says. “She could do Howard Cosell and Steve Lawrence, all the big names of that time.”
After graduating from Alvernia High School, Manning took a series of regular jobs but kept nursing the dream of becoming a famous impressionist. Unfortunately, by the time she began performing, in the 80s, impressionists and variety shows were out of favor–way out. It wasn’t until 1990 that she attempted Elvis, and then only as a lark. Somebody she knew heard there was an Elvis impersonators’ contest at the World Tattoo Gallery and suggested she give it a shot. Without much rehearsal, Manning sang “That’s All Right Mama” and “Little Sister” and came in third. Since then, her whole act has revolved around Elvis.
“Andy Kaufman really showed it could work–you could do Elvis without worshiping him,” she says. “You could use the Elvis character as a vehicle to say something else.” In the last 12 years she’s done dozens of shows, private parties, and charity events around Chicago and toured a couple of times nationally–once with a band headed by one of the old Go-Go’s and once with members of the Smithereens, Material Issue, and Blondie.
“I never imagined this would take over my life,” Manning says. “I wake up some mornings and say to myself, ‘What the fuck? You’re a woman and you’re an Elvis impersonator? Where is this going?'”
Perhaps because Manning’s working in Chicago and not LA or New York, television commercials, music videos, and other lucrative springboards to fame haven’t come along. And it seems the uniqueness of her act is both a blessing and a curse. “If I were just another girl singer, I wouldn’t even have made it this far in Chicago,” she muses. “I’ve got my difference, my thing that makes you notice.” On the other hand, how does an irreverent female Elvis fit into the big media picture? Could a commercial for moist towelettes be written around her character? She wonders which persona to take to the next level, Patty Manning the singer-songwriter or Patty Elvis the drag king. “I know I have the kind of ego that has to be in front of people. I’m always thinking about, How can I get asked to perform at Elton John’s Oscar party? How do I get to be a household name?”
Mulling over her options–the King seems to be doing well for her, but could he be holding her back?–keeps her channeling Elvis offstage too. Even Presley had to deal with “Elvis,” she points out. “He hated doing all those stupid movies” where he played the King, not himself or a character. But unlike Manning, he had no choice. “He had to do them. He was Elvis.”
Patty Elvis will perform at Pops Highwood, 214 Green Bay Rd., Highwood, on April 19 and 20; call 847-266-1313 for information. Then she’ll appear at the Boulevard Cafe in Chicago, 3137 W. Logan Blvd., on May 11; phone 773-384-8600 for information.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Lloyd DeGrane.