Frequently, critics and audiences alike declare that Lou Vuto's ""Salute to Elvis"" is the best show of its type in the country- and they happen to be right.
For over eight years, Lou has been doing this unique job: entertaining hundreds of thousands of people in the audiences with his tribute to Elvis Presley. So how did all of this begin?
In the autumn of '95 when Pete Willcox was leaving Memories and the owners were searching for a replacement, Lou was performing his show in Dayton, Ohio. Coincidentally, one of the original owners also lived in Dayton, and anyway, Lou had been offered the position once when he was unable to take the job. As Dee Gallon, now the sole owner of Memories Theatre, explains, ""My brother, Michael, presented me with a video of Lou and said he had seen him a couple of times in Dayton, and although he had been doing Elvis, we weren't sure how he would do at Memories for a 'full' season. So, as luck would have it, in October 1995, our regular performer had to be out of town for several days, and we thought, 'What better way to find out?' So we brought Lou down for a three day 'audition.' He passed the test with flying colors and was hired immediately.""
But what was their final reason for hiring this very talented performer? Dee Gallon continues, ""My first impression of him was that he was so nice and cared about Elvis as I do, so that I would never have to worry about him doing anything on or off-stage to harm Elvis or his name. The final determining factor in hiring him was Charlie Hodge's opinion that, 'He's nervous, but he could be the lean, mean, young Elvis you need here, and he'll get better and better.' What better opinion than Charlie Hodge?...And I loved his energy.""
Lou uses this unbounded energy almost continuously throughout each show, and it is especially obvious with songs like ""Polk Salad Annie."" While strobe lights flash towards the end of the song, Lou dances so fast-paced, yet so highly choreographed, that the final visual effect resembles 100 turning pages in a child's flip book. But many people think that he surpasses even ""Polk Salad Annie"" with ""Suspicious Minds""- the hit that many consider the highlight of the night at Memories. Lou duplicates Elvis' moves exactly from ""That's the Way it Is,"" and while Lou sings, the screens by the stage show Elvis simultaneously performing each move with Lou.
This type of Elvis authenticity comes from Lou's natural talent coupled with a lot of hard work. Dee states that one of Lou's outstanding traits is ""his constant effort to make the show better and better. He never stops studying Elvis. And he's the 'hardest' worker onstage I've ever seen, and I've seen many. A perfect example of this is the New Year's Eve show
."" But Lou's formula for entertainment actually sounds very simple: ""Basically what I try to do is not that complicated. I try to entertain and get people to enjoy themselves."" And after each show, he only hopes that the audience ""had a good time, maybe forgot about the outside world for a few hours.""
Does he succeed? Without a doubt, Lou gives the audience much more than the price of a ticket. To create this great show, though, everyone on and off-stage has to work together while combining their unique talents.
And Dee Gallon definitely has an eye for talent, as the old saying goes. Each member of the Showband, led by the multitalented Hank Miles, and each of the Three Inspirations adds a distinct style to the music while backing Lou and also during the first half of the show. For example, Christine Llewellen impresses the crowds as Patsy Cline, and Betty Koopman steals the show as Dolly Parton. Also, Flash Grimes is unbelievable as Linda Ronstadt and during her tear-enducing duet of ""Crying"" with Larry Branson (Roy Orbison).
Also adding his talent to the show each night is the one-and-only Charlie Hodge, Elvis' best friend and band member from the 50's until Presley's death in 1977. Charlie adds his wonderful musical talents to the stage when he joins the Showband while playing the guitar and harmonizing with Lou for certain songs. It's clear that Lou and Charlie's abilities complement each other very well onstage. Lou remarks, ""I really enjoy working with Charlie. He is a wonderful man, a wonderful talent in his own right, and...was very close to Elvis. He is always willing to share anything that he feels might be helpful, not only with me but with everyone on stage. He really gets a thrill out of being helpful in that regard. He has helped me in many ways.""
One of the ways that Charlie helps Lou is through coaching him vocally. And Lou is blessed with a beautiful voice, anyway. Each note is satiny smooth and clear, and he maintains a fresh sound with each song even after he has performed most of them over 1,000 times. Josh Livingston, otherwise known as the talented Joliet Jake Blues, says that ""(Lou has an) awesome voice (and is a) pleasure to work with and learn from."" Also, when Lou sings, there is a feeling that he is singing much more than simple lyrics with little personal meaning to him. Lou says, ""When the lyrics have to do with something in my life, I do think of those things when I am singing. I think that those songs will be the best ones delivered and performed. Otherwise, I can think of something close enough to the subject of the song from my life, so I can put my all into singing it."" This is probably why the songs ""pop out"" and make the audience sit back and really pay attention. With Gospel music, for example, Lou's light and sincerity shine through his voice and manner. To many in the audience, songs like ""In the Garden"" have a special impact, because the song reflects God's perfect love for everybody. Concerning gospel music, Lou says, ""If you don't believe what you are singing about, you won't inspire or excite anyone else.""
So, Lou gives feeling and meaning to each song, but does he also sound like Elvis? Yes- Lou sounds almost identical to Elvis. People constantly confuse Lou's tapes and CD's for Presley, and sometimes people actually assume that he is lip-synching onstage. But quickly it becomes clear- even to the cynics- that Lou Vuto is not the ""Milli Vanilli of the Great Smoky Mountains,"" because he inserts himself, as well as a lot of Elvis, into each song. Jarrod Millsaps, the theatre's wacky Elwood Blues, says that ""(Lou is) one of the best Elvis tribute artists I have ever seen."" And as Charlie Hodge points out, ""(Lou is) probably the biggest Elvis fan that I've ever seen, and you can tell it by his work.""
Charlie obviously loves working with Lou because of his great performance but more importantly because of who Lou is. When asked his opinion of Lou, Charlie's first comment was, ""It's such a pleasure to have worked with such a fine Christian man."" Dee Gallon sees Lou as, ""...honest, caring and fair."" And apparently others notice Lou's nature, because whenever someone in the Smoky Mountain area mentions him, they almost invariably say that's he is a great entertainer and also ""such a sweet person.""
Usually, Lou's down-to-earth, kind manner slightly surprises the audiences when they meet him. Lou is surprisingly humble, and he feels that he owes much to the audience. When mentioning his fans, he says, ""I am very thankful and feel very humbled that they put up with me. They are so wonderful to support me and Memories. There are so many other things they can do with their time and money, and I'm very honored that they choose to come to see me. That's part of why I feel the way I do when they come. I feel I owe them the best show I can reach down and pull out of my gut.""
After the show, Lou also enjoys taking time with each person in the long line that spans across the auditorium. So, he signs pictures, CD's, tapes, scarves that women receive during ""Love Me Tender,"" brochures, and ticket stubs. And then like Richard Dawson on a Family Feud rerun, Lou delivers kiss-after-kiss to the ladies in line. Dee Gallon expresses how impressed she is with Lou regarding the way he treats the audiences: ""Of course, his patience with the fans is ongoing, no matter what. And that is what makes him 'special'.""
Kenny James, Memories' terrific Buddy Holly, definitely thinks highly of Lou. In a recent interview, Kenny stated, ""I have worked with hundreds of Elvis impersonators. I have seen good ones, and I have seen some guys who you think should be doing something else. Lou Vuto, I have to say, is one of the best. He is a great entertainer, and when he is off stage, he has those qualities...that I learned from guys like Chubby Checker. Very friendly, open and honest. And like Chubby, a true Christian. Lou and I have become good friends since I've been here, and I feel blessed to be a part of his show.""
Lou is simply one-of-a-kind. With his voice, stage presence, and nature, Lou Vuto truly stands out as a great performer and a great guy. As Charlie Hodge points out, ""Everyone should come and see his tribute to Elvis,"" and he continues with a smile, ""And I wish they would also come to see me."" So take it from Charlie, and visit the place where Lou Vuto, Charlie Hodge, the Memories Showband, the Three Inspirations, and all of the tribute artists magically bring yesterday to the present. You will then see that the name ""Memories Theatre"" points to more than the shadows of the past that they revive- it instead indicates the memories that they create each show.