BWW Interviews: The Newest 'Must-See' Show in Palm Springs! Steve Connolly is SPIRIT OF THE KING at Spa Resort Casino
Veteran Las Vegas performer Steve Connolly stars as the legendary Elvis Presley in the stage production SPIRIT OF THE KING, which premiered March 6 for an open-ended engagement in the Cascade Lounge of the Spa Resort Casino in Palm Springs. Dubbed "The hardest working KING in show biz," Steve Connolly has performed as Elvis Presley more than 4,000 times in his career and was chosen by the Las Vegas Review Journal's staff as "Best Elvis in Las Vegas" in 2006 and 2007. I had the chance sit down recently with Mr. Connolly to talk about his career and "all things Elvis". He was charming, funny, charismatic -- and, holds "The King" and his legacy in great reverence. Here are a few highlights from our brief chat:
DG: It's wonderful to meet you. So, where are you from?
SC: (In his best "Elvis Presley") I'm from Tupelo, Mississippi, man. I was born in a shotgun shack. (Laughs and drops the dialect) Ah, me, personally, I'm from Massachusetts. I was born in Winchester, Massachusetts. Grew up, Malden which is a subway stop - Boston - very cosmopolitan - greater Boston city. Then I moved to Worcester, Massachusetts - or as the say in Worcester - Woostah. "Hey, I'm from Woostah! Take route 9. It's cheapah". So, I mean, I tried to lose that accent when I was in college taking theatre courses. I graduated from Clark University in Worcester, Massachusetts. I got a scholarship to art school at the Worcester Museum Art School. And I did graduate high school. Voted Most Artistic by my high school class which was - you know - a real feather in my cap. I've had a few more since, but still very proud of that.
DG: So, you were in theatre all through school?
SC: Oh, yeah. I played Cool Hand Luke in the high school play. Cool Hand Luke. The lead part in that. I was The Grinch in eighth grade. The lead in that. I was in a play every year. I wasn't always the lead but I was the lead in those two and those were big deals - I had all the lines, you know. Playing the Paul Newman part was a big deal.
DG: Did you always know you wanted to be a performer?
SC: Yeah, I can remember tellin' a nun in the second grade, when she was wondering if I was day-dreaming too much - "What are you going to do with your life? You can't day dream your life away". I said, "I already know what I'm gonna do. I'm gonna be an actor, a singer and a musician". And, that's pretty much what I am.
DG: College. You pursued theatre?
SC: Well, theatre and art. I'm a painter. I went to art school. I studied art and theatre. I was an intern - a music intern - for a sound company also. I interned as a curator at a couple of museums. In particular the Worcester Museum of Art. So, there was a point when I thought I might be a curator. And I thought "Hey, I'm too good lookin' for this place". (He laughs) All those guys walking around in white robes and scraggly facial hair. I keep trying to get the museum's director to put one of my paintings in the museum and he said "well, if you become more famous that's one way to do it - or you could donate one and when you die maybe some committee will get together and decide whether your life was worth some wall space".
DG: Is painting your medium?
SC: I'm extremely confident as a painter, as an artist. And I'm very confident as a musician. I think music started to be a challenge. I mean, I played out at fifteen on stage. And I played in bands all through art school. In fact, I had college professors saying, "You're spending too much time with the music. You need to focus on your art. You're never gonna make it". My first thing when I got out of art school - I worked at churches restoring statues, I restored over 700 statues. Marble -- carved fingers out of marble and put 'em back on - used fiberglass to repair marble.
DG: So, when did you make the connection to Elvis?
SC: Well, I had always been an Elvis fan, and as a little kid always liked "Heartbreak Hotel" when Fonzie sang it on Happy Days - I was a huge Elvis fan. I saw all his movies. My mother was a huge Elvis fan. So, it was in the house. I can remember when Elvis died looking at my mother cry. And, so ... but as far as really seeing it musically - you know, when I got into my musical career I was into whatever contemporary music my age group was into. But I did slip in the Elvis tunes fairly soon, and they always went over well. It didn't matter who was in the audience. Whether I was playing to a Goth, leather, Motley Crue crowd or some top 40 ... and I would play whatever night clubs in New England I could get a job at. So I did a handful of Elvis tunes. A guy who was a former drummer I used to work with - he became a producer - and he said, "You know, you should really just do Elvis". He was helping me move one time and I had this Elvis statue that I bought from The Frankiin Mint - and why I bought that, I just thought the black leather Elvis was cool and would be something good to have in my house - ya know, next to my Beethoven bust - and so he said, "Look. You have Elvis right here. See. It's an omen. I got this show coming up and I want you to do it". So that's how it all happened. My band had broken up - him and me put together a band for this one Elvis gig I was gonna do - and that was the launching point. That was the pivotal point where things changed. After that event, I started getting requests to do Elvis and literally within six months I went from a hundred dollar a night guitar player to a thousand dollar a night Elvis. (As Elvis) "Thank you very much!" (as himself) And, beyond the monetary change, which was good - I really started to like it. I didn't sell out. I really enjoy the moment. I just love what I'm doing.
DG: How long have you been doing this?
SC: The Elvis? I hate to even admit it because I don't want you to start locking in my age. Don't put the age in - can we make sure we don't talk about my age? You can look it up on Wikipedia. (He laughs) But, uh ... fourteen years in Vegas, and a couple of years before that ... 4500 ticketed shows. And that doesn't count weddings, private parties and all ...
DG: Is there one particular performance that stands out?
SC: Well, I played The Bakersfield Business Conference for 16,000 people and that was pretty huge. I played for over 40,000 people at an Arizona Diamondback's Game - I threw out the first pitch. That was memorable. Performing for President Clinton. That's a huge moment. Steven Tyler. Getting off the stage and having Steven Tyler run up to me and grab me and say "That was amazing. I cut my teeth on Elvis. You were the best!" Literally grabbing onto my arm and shaking me. And I'm thinking - "You're Steven Tyler. You're my idol. I've seen you seventeen times." So, those moments. My own mother in the audience. And my own father, who always thought I was wasting my time.
DG: When did you first appear in Vegas?
SC: March of 1996. I said fourteen years, but I think it's actually been more like seventeen. I got my first gig in March of 1996. I played The Liberace Villa. And I got the MGM Grand gig in May of '96. My first two gigs in Vegas were The Liberace Villa and The Liberace Museum. It's because of a Liberace Impersonator that I actually went to Vegas. I did 22 shows in Boston with a bunch of Vegas people, but they auditioned the Elvis from Boston. And the Liberace guy said "Steve, you're just as good as the Elvis's in Vegas. You should come out -- and so I did and he helped me to get connected.
DG: If you weren't doing this, what do you think you might be doing?
SC: If I weren't performing I would probably be restoring statues. I was very well connected and rising in the restoration world. I had mentors and I had equipment that was given to me by curators at the Worcester Art Museum - tools - so I'd probably still be doing that.
DG: What's something people would not know about you by looking at your resume?
SC: That's an interesting question. I needed that question two days ago so I could spend time thinking about it. You might not know that I worked for the Mafia between the ages of twelve and thirteen. (He laughs) No, you don't know that. Umm ... I'm a massive New England Patriot fan. I like football ... sports .., and I'm a little bit nutty when it comes to that. Somebody recently asked me what I do for fun. Well, for example, yesterday I watched four episodes of Miami CSI and fell asleep on the couch. Really fun. And I had a little thing of chocolate covered peanuts. I always fancied myself as an athlete. I wanted to be boxer - I wanted to be an athlete.
DG: What do you hope that audiences take away from your show?
SC: I hope that what people do take away is that I am not exploiting Elvis. I'm honoring Elvis, you know? I get on my knees before every show and I say "God, may the gifts that you have given me freely - may I honor you by giving them back to you now." I have a healthy ego, but I strive to be humble.
DG: One final question - how do you want to be remembered on your tombstone?
SC: That he had integrity. This is a guy who died with his integrity. No matter how things shake down, that is a value that I hope people remember me for. And that I was a good father and was responsible.
The SPIRIT OF THE KING runs Saturday-Wednesday nightly at 6:00 p.m. with Sunday matinees at 2 p.m. Tickets start at $35 and are available at www.spiritofthekingPS.com or by calling 800-585-3737.