September 14, 2010
Meet the ‘Blonde Elvis’ of Mount Oliver: Tribute artists are alive and well
Dan Casne makes his living redesigning and rewinding electromagnets used on overhead cranes in steel mills. It’s a technical job, and not a bad-paying one. But his true calling just might be singing.
He discovered this when he was well into his 50s. Watching karaoke one night at the Veterans of Foreign Wars building in Mount Oliver about eight years ago, a member cajoled him to take his turn on stage.
“Sing some Elvis,” he remembers the guy telling him.
An affable man with a personality as outsized as his biceps — Mr. Casne is a former amateur weightlifter who could bench 350 pounds — he good-naturedly complied.
He can’t remember what song, exactly, came out of his mouth, just that it was good enough that partygoers asked if he’d do another Elvis number at an upcoming event. The one song he promised stretched into a set of seven or eight.
“I thought it would be the first time I ever did something like that, and the last,” he recalls chuckling. “But they loved it.”
Before he knew it, Mr. Casne, 61, who lives in Allentown, was not just getting all shook up in front of crowds, but became part of the Rat Pack-inspired musical act, The Legends. In the process, he was making many a middle-aged heart go aflutter with the swiveling hips and spangly costumes that marked Elvis Presley’s Vegas years.
The musical phenomenon known as Pittsburgh’s Blonde Elvis — he wears long yellow locks instead of a coal-black pompadour — was born.
It’s not as outlandish as it sounds: Elvis actually was a dishwater blond who dyed his hair black, thinking it looked better on film.
Given that Pittsburgh’s population is the oldest among large metropolitan areas outside of Florida, and that people tend to like the music they grew up with, it’s no surprise a tribute act to one of America’s greatest cultural icons — even one with the wrong hair color — would strike a chord.
“Oh, it brings back the memories,” says retired Port Authority bus driver Jerry Contristano of Baldwin Borough, who’s been attending Mr. Casne’s shows for five years.
Oldies are popular enough that tribute acts — it’s a diss to call them impersonators — abound in local venues. Gateway Clipper Fleet recently started offering Friday lunch cruises with rotating headliner “stars”: Chris Denem singing Neil Diamond, Cathi Rhodes as country music singer Patsy Cline, Randy Galioto as Elvis and Bo Wagner, who does a Frank (Sinatra) & Dean (Martin) revue.
Mr. Casne’s success is ironic because he paid no mind to The King while growing up and is married to someone who’d rather listen to anything but.
“I prefer Hank,” admits his wife, Jo Anne. As in country legend Hank Williams Jr., who Mr. Casne also imitates on occasion at the theater he built five years ago expressly for that purpose.
He’s not an impersonator per se. He sings Elvis “his” way and has his own moves.
“I just get up and do what I do.”
If the sight of a blond Elvis singing “Blue Suede Shoes” in a studded bell-bottomed jumpsuit and yellow aviators is a hoot, Casne World is a verified howler.
Needing a place where he and his buddies could perform, Mr. Casne in 2005 ended up buying the 20,000-square-foot VFW building on Hays Avenue in which he got his start and, working nights and weekends with the help of Charles Krebs, Elaine Mitts and Gail Mervosh, transformed its 22 rooms into a mini-Graceland.
Actually, it’s friends who’ve likened the 1929 hall to Presley’s famed mansion in Memphis: Mr. Casne prefers the term “Little Vegas.” Whatever its name, it can only be described as over-the-top.
Up top, there’s a performance hall with space for 275 guests (150, if you want people to dance), tiki hut-like bars and twin dressing rooms for the talent (his has the bigger star). Elvis posters and a display of sequined jumpsuits brighten the walls.
The hall’s original 25-foot bar is downstairs in the game room, along with a pool table, leather sofas and projection-screen TV. Still to come is a 20-by-50-foot movie theater, a library, a full gym, bedrooms for the kids and grandkids.
Then there’s the lush private living quarters, the centerpiece of which is Mr. Casne’s cathedral-ceilinged bedroom and Egyptian-themed office. The fruit of 16 years of collecting, it has 8-foot replicas of the columns of Luxor Temple mounted on the walls, shelves full of reproduction statuary and miniature obelisks etched with hieroglyphics. Wondering what a full-sized replica of King Tut’s throne looks like? He’s got one of them, along with an 8-foot sculpture of the jackal-headed god Anubis.
His performances are more down to earth, what longtime fan Nancy Stabryla of North Baldwin describes as “personable.”
“He comes to your table and welcomes you, and you almost feel like family,” she says. The singing, she adds, “is excellent.”
“He’s phenomenal,” agrees her husband, Ed, retired from Neville Chemical Co. “If we’ve been there 10 times, we’ve seen 10 different shows. I’m serious, you’d be shocked.”
“I just put on a costume, jump on stage and have a good time,” Mr. Casne says.
Other tribute acts
Singer/songwriter Chris Denem wins similar praise for his Neil Diamond performances. He did his first tribute show to the pop singer in 1976 at age 19, at the New Kensington Holiday Inn with a seven-piece band.
Raised in a musical household in Penn Hills — his father, Ralph Scherder, is a classical pianist — Mr. Denem was an early fan of Mr. Diamond’s work.
“When he first came onto the scene, I thought, ‘That’s me. I can do that,’ ” recalls Mr. Denim, who also plays and records his own music. “So I started picking up his songs, and everything else just happened.”
In the 30 years since, the Butler resident has done hundreds more for crowds who sometimes confuse him for the real thing.
“When he does ‘America,’ you get chills,” says Mr. Stabryla, who has seen him perform numerous times.
Like Mr. Casne, he shies away from the word “impersonator.” He prefers to think of his work more as a tribute than a copy.
“It was just a natural fit for my voice and personality,” he says.
The fact he just happens to also look like the guy and has many of the same mannerisms? Pure happenstance, he insists, the result of genetics rather than wigs and makeup.
Many of his fans are older, but not all.
“The young girls like him because he’s cute,” says Barb Tanski, owner of Buttercup Woodlands Campground in Renfrew, Butler County, where he entertains campers at least twice a year.
Nor are they disproportionately female. Jerry Harrison of Butler estimates he’s seen him perform more than 40 times over the years with his wife, Kathy, including a couple of times in his own backyard for private parties.
Mr. Denem’s take on Diamond is so good, there are certain times when, if you turned your back to him, you’d think the “real” Neil was behind you, he says.
“He puts his heart and soul into it,” Mr. Harrison says.
Cathi Rhodes’ tribute to Patsy Cline is similarly heartfelt and dead-on, which is why Barb Ragen traveled all the way from Latrobe to see her aboard the Gateway Clipper’s Majestic on a recent Friday and made sure she was the second one on the ship.
“I follow her around to all the county fairs, too,” says Ms. Ragen, who works for Excella Health at Latrobe Hospital. “She’s so friendly to everyone, and her show is outstanding.”
The host of “Polka Carousel Show” and “CrossRhodes’ Bluegrass/Folk Music” on WBCW and WHJB radio stations for almost 10 years, Ms. Rhodes, 58, has countless acting and dancing gigs under her white rhinestone belt. The South Greensburg native also can sing. Really well.
It’s tough, walking in the cowboy boots of such a country icon. (Ms. Cline was the first female solo artist inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame.) Her interaction with the crowd, though, eases the way.
“I don’t want to have this big expanse between us,” she tells the crowd when she takes her place at the microphone, giving her red-and-white fringed shirt a little shake. “So shake a leg.”
Long before she reaches “Crazy” on the set list, people are dancing.
Other oldies but goodies
The Blonde Elvis performs with the Rat Pack at Casne World, 325 Hays Ave., Mount Oliver, on Aug. 21. Tickets ($25) include dinner and beer but must be purchased in advance by calling 412-481-3121; doors open at 6 p.m., with dinner at 7 p.m. Info: blondeelvis.com.
The Gateway Clipper Fleet’s Golden Triangle Lunch Cruise will feature Mr. Wagner’s Frank & Dean revue on Aug. 29 and select Mondays through December, and A Portrait of Patsy Cline by Ms. Rhodes on Aug. 27.
Tickets cost $36.37. Information: gatewayclipper.com. For additional Patsy Cline performances, visit cathirhodes.com.
Upcoming performances by Mr. Denem include free concerts at the Robin Hill Park gazebo, 1000 Beaver Grade Road, Moon, at noon Aug. 18, and at Leo & Sons Grill 31, corner of Diamond and Main streets in Mount Pleasant at 8:30 p.m. Aug. 20. Info: http://chrisdenem.com.