By Reggie Ellis

How does one become an Elvis impersonator?

For some it's a lifelong idolization of a pop/rock/country/gospel icon.

For others it's a childhood dream to become a performer.

For Harry Shahoian it involved skipping baseball practice.

The first time Shahoian heard "Blue Suede Shoes," he wasn't even sure who was singing, he just knew he liked the sound of the voice. The 15-year-old Armenian boy from Arcadia, Calif. liked it so much he decided to skip baseball tryouts and perform the song in the high school talent show.

"I figured the coach would let me have another tryout since I was a pretty good ballplayer," he said.

The coach didn't see it that way, and Shahoian did not make the baseball team. Little did he know that although his dreams of becoming a baseball player may have come to an end, another, more promising career was just getting started.

Shahoian wasn't immediately enthralled with Elvis or performing. He did not perform again, unless you count karaoke, until six years later while living in Los Angeles. One night while eating at a restaurant with his girlfriend, he noticed the waitress was wearing an Elvis tie. He asked if they ever entertained dinner parties and said he could do a pretty good Elvis. The waitress said they didn't do live entertainment, but that her friend was having a birthday party and was looking for live entertainment. She called a few weeks later and he arrived without much of a costume, and with butterflies.

"I talked my way into this gig as a total amateur," Shahoian said. "I was shaking and scared but something inside me said, 'do it.'"

Following a good performance, Shahoian decided this might be something to pursue. His only musical training was playing trumpet in the high school band, and of course his talent show debut, but everyone continued to praise his impersonation of Elvis. For the next seven years, Shahoian's costume got better, his mannerisms became more similar, his singing stronger and his knowledge of everything Elvis grew greater.

"Whenever I hear an Elvis song it just makes me want to sing," Shahoian said. "He's the only man inducted into the country, rock and gospel halls of fame. How can you not like someone with so much talent!"

Shahoian moved to Las Vegas in January 2000 and quickly gained notoriety and respect as one of the top Elvis impersonators. In August of last year he reached the World Series of Impersonators when he was invited to perform in the "Legends in Concert" show at the Imperial Palace Hotel and Casino in Las Vegas.

August also marked the release of his debut CD entitled "Lonely Highway," which is a tribute to Elvis. The CD was recorded live in Las Vegas, but also features two original studio recordings - "Lonely Highway" and "One More Night" - written by Frankie Moreno, who also produced the album.

"I've only had 10 voice lessons my entire life, all in the last year," Shahoian said.

Shahoian will perform "Lonely Highway," not to mention a wide array of The King's hits, during his performance at the fifth annual Starlight Ball, a benefit for the Exeter Boys & Girls Club, at 7 p.m. on Feb. 19 at the Exeter Veterans Memorial Building, located at the corner of Highway 65 and Sequoia Drive. The theme for the evening is Viva Las Vegas. Tickets for Starlight Ball are $70 and are available at NSE Insurance, the Exeter Chamber of Commerce and the Exeter Boys & Girls Club. For more information call 592-2711.

Shahoian said while performing "it would be weird think of myself as Elvis," like many impersonaters do. Shahoian said he just tries to do things like Elvis. "No one can ever be just like Elvis. I think it is more genuine when you act like Elvis without eliminating who you are as a performer."

Shahoian said he considers himself an entertainer first and an impersonator second.

"I could get up in front of crowd wearing a baseball cap and sing songs, tell jokes and work with the audience," he said. "I don't have to be Elvis to entertain."

Shahoian said he is not only attracted to Elvis Presley's music but likes the man beneath the cape as well.

"Elvis was a regular guy like you and me," he said. "He was a poor kid who had such immense talent that he was destined to be better than average. He was a nice guy that just happened to be a huge talent and once they turned the spotlight on his life he had flaws just like everyone else. I think he wanted to be a regular guy but knew he never could be. He was the greatest entertainer of all time."

Shahoian, 32, said he plans on being an Elvis impersonator for at least another 10-15 years. "I'm not even in my prime yet and even Elvis sang until he was 42." Shahoian said after his performing career is over, he may either start an Elvis-themed restaurant or become a talent scout for aspiring impersonators.

Looking back, Shahoian may have given up baseball at an early age, but he can still deliver a home run on stage.

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