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The man who would be THE KING

It's now or never for Kenny Grube, who has always wanted to be a rock star. He hopes to reach the promised land by impersonating Elvis.

By MICHAEL KRUSE
Published June 30, 2005


BIRMINGHAM, Ala. - Not even a half-hour before show time, Hernando County's Elvis Presley is upstairs, in Room 615 of the Sheraton, wearing a tight white suit circa 1972, changing his daughter's diaper.

"We got 20 minutes to get down there," he says to his family.

And then?

Three songs to go huge.

Kenny Grube is a part-time drum teacher, a full-time stay-at-home dad, and a guy who wanted to be a rock star for pretty much forever.

For years he hung Sheetrock during the day, and at night played the drums in dingy bars from Ocala to Sarasota, hoping what almost everyone hopes. That someone sees. That someone hears.

No one did.

So, pork chop 'burns. White suit with big collar.

At 38, he makes a semiliving impersonating the most successful rock star of all. He has a regular monthly gig at the Spring Hill outlet mall. He does church banquets, birthday parties and retirement homes. He's done the Hernando County Fair.

Real name: Kenny Grube. Stage name: Kenn "E" Grube. Says so on the small "Elvis On Tour" brochure done up on the old Compaq at his home north of Weeki Wachee.

Now, waiting across from the Sheraton, in the Birmingham Jefferson Convention Complex, Ballroom A, is his first out-of-state appearance, and his first competition against other Elvises. Winner gets a thousand bucks and a spot in the Images of the King contest in August during Elvis Week in Memphis.

But this isn't about Elvis; it might be his best - and last - shot to be a traveling, money-making entertainer. He travels with groupies. Three of them.

Wife, Stephanie, irons the dozens of scarves he'll hand out to what he hopes will be a standing, adoring - screaming? - crowd.

Siobhan, pronounced Chuh-VAHN, who's 7, wears Lizzie McGuire flip-flops and a fuzzy, purple Dora the Explorer backpack. She's playing Nintendo.

Kaitlyn, just turned 2, now has a dry diaper.

Kenny, in that white jumpsuit made by a woman back in Brooksville, steps into the bathroom to shave, careful not to nick his 'burns.

"Guess I should have done this before," he says.

He has gelled, jet-black hair and he polishes his shiny-white, high-heeled boots with baby wipes. He puts gaudy gold thrift-store rings on seven of his fingers. He slips on a pair of fat-rimmed, red-tinted sun specs.

"Looks all right?" he says.

"Looks great," Stephanie says. "You in that frame of mind?"

"Yep," he says.

"Good," Stephanie says. "You're going to do great, babe."

* * *

Go back a couple of nights. To the last gig before the biggest gig of his Elvis-impersonating life. Kenny's singing at a Greater Hernando Chamber of Commerce dinner mixer, in an assisted living facility, on a stage set between two fake ficus trees.

His audience: men in sneakers with Velcro strips. Business-card-hander-outers eating cheese cubes and drinking blush-colored wine out of jars.

They weren't part of the dream either.

After the show, Kenny, Stephanie, Siobhan and Kaitlyn climb into the "new" motor home - a 1993 Winnebago Warrior - for the overnight drive to Alabama.

They've had the rig for six weeks. Bought it for seven grand.

"Hopefully we go nationwide," Kenny says, "and then we got a home, too."

The odometer's stuck on 186,976.

The speedometer says 0 no matter what.

The check engine light is on.

"I think we're in good shape," Kenny says.

Left on State Route 50. Right on U.S. 19. Four hundred eighty-six miles to Birmingham.

Kenny was 16 when he moved to Spring Hill from Long Island in the mid '80s. First chance he had, he was going to head back to New York. "To be a rock star, man," he says at the wheel, in the dark now, somewhere past Citrus County.

Up north, he'd delivered papers to buy his first set of drums, and concert tickets, too. Crash. Talking Heads. Big on U2. He saw a show on the "Bloody Sunday" tour. He looked up at the red-glow ceiling and over at the stage and wanted to be them.

Down in Spring Hill, he met Stephanie in a math class in their junior year at Springstead High, worked at the just-built Pizza Hut over on U.S. 19, then dropped out and got his GED.

"Nonconformist" is the word he uses now.

Gene Owens, Stephanie's Irish-talking father, says Kenny was a "burning-rubber boy. I told him, "Easy, lad.' "

Kenny and Stephanie married in 1989. He was 22. She was 21.

He had started framing houses at 18. By his early 20s he was doing drywall and Sheetrock. All along he was playing the drums, with different bands - 20, 25, easy, over the years - then sleeping five, six hours a night, "then going hanging drywall." Play, sleep a few hours, go hang drywall. He did that up until two years ago.

"What do they say? When you quit something, being great was right around the corner?" he says. "But right now Elvis is my bread and butter."

That started in November '03, when he put on a gold suit and emceed an event at Spring Hill's Music Bum store. A lark. Then came singing telegrams and school functions and dinner parties. Stephanie works full time as the marketing director for an assisted living facility. But Kenny can make $650 to $1,000 a week, doing three, even four shows a weekend, at $250 an hour. Last year, Stephanie says, Kenny earned about $15,000.

"By the remarks that people have said, I think it's a good enough show to make it really big," Kenny says. In the motor home, a plastic Elvis dangles from the rearview mirror and shakes with the bumps along the way.

"If it's just good enough to stay in Central Florida, that's okay, too, but I believe we could get really big."

It's getting wee-hours late, and the cab gets quiet somewhere south of Tallahassee, where the road is long and dark and the bright lights come only every once in a while.

* * *

The next morning, after a few head-nodding veers off into the rumble strip, then a couple of hours napping near the Alabama border, Kenny pulls up in the front of the Sheraton and shuts off the engine.

A 20-something bellhop asks him if he'd like to valet or "self-park."

"I'll just self-park," Kenny says.

But the Winnebago Warrior won't start. It wants to, wants to, wants to. Won't. Chickachickachicka.

He opens the hood and looks around.

He goes up to Room 615 to make some calls.

"Is this the Toyota dealer?

"Can I have the service department?

"Booked up 'til Tuesday?"

It takes 17 calls at a dollar per to find someone who will tow the Warrior and take a look.

Up in the room, Kenny starts singing the lyrics from Promised Land. Elvis had a song for everything.

We had motor trouble that turn into a struggle

Halfway across Alabam'

And that hound broke down and left us all stranded

In downtown Birmingham.

A big man named Jimmy from ABC Towing shows up to take away the Warrior. It passes a row of elm trees, truck lights blinking, and disappears around a bend.

"We gotta win the show now," Kenny says.

* * *

The next day, after the changing of the diaper and the shaving in the tight white suit, Kenny is in the dressing room with most of the other Elvises.

Some are talking about the best places to get an American eagle belt buckle the size of an eggplant. Some are drinking bottled water, quick and nervous. One is staring at the floor. One is 6 years old.

These Elvises - some, honest to God, say "Elvi" - mean business.

Todd C. Martin, from Monroe, La., has brought along a whole crew of groupies wearing black satin jackets that say on the back "Todd C. Martin Fan Club."

David Lee, the "world champion" Elvis impersonator from last summer's Images of the King, has dozens of gray-haired ladies who scream like schoolgirls in a black-and-white film.

The guy scheduled to go right before Kenny says his outfit, cream-colored and studded with jewels, cost him $2,800, cape and all.

Kenny?

He's serious enough to dye his regularly dirty-blond hair midnight black - with Just For Men for black men. That dye holds better, he says. He greases up his hair with Got2BGlued rubber spiking cement.

No one's talking about this now, not in this dressing room, but the newbie from Hernando County's wearing pantyhose. Boxers leave lines.

The whole outfit cost "only" $250 bucks. His black backup boots came from the Crystal River Goodwill. He sprays his sweaty suits with Febreze. There's a knock on the dressing room door.

It's Stephanie.

Behind a black curtain, 20 feet from the T-shaped stage, the two of them hold hands. They pray.

What happens next is part American Idol, part hip-shaking, fist-pumping, knee-quivering Americana. Four kids start the competition, followed by 23 adults from South Bend, Ind., and Columbus, Ohio, Tuscaloosa, Ala., and Louisville, Ky.

The kids get one song apiece. Everyone else has three songs, or about 12 minutes. One kid will win. Five adults will be finalists.

The judges are Elvis fans and former Elvis impersonators. They sit at a table behind the few hundred small green chairs here in Ballroom A.

Kenny is No. 2 in the queue.

"Moving right along," the emcee microphones out onto the crowd.

"From Tampa, Florida . . . "

Kenny sings A Little Less Conversation, then You've Lost That Lovin' Feelin', then American Trilogy, and soon almost everyone in the room is standing, swaying, doing just about everything but holding up lighters in the dark. A woman in the front row even shrieks.

Stephanie's not sitting down anymore. She's standing up, back behind all the chairs. Maybe she's nervous. Maybe she can't believe what she's seeing.

The judges sit and watch.

Nine hours, 21 Elvises and one dinner break later, the emcee takes the stage.

"Are you ready for the top five?" he says loudly.

Cheers.

He names a name.

A second.

Then a third.

And a fourth.

Kenny sits in the back row of the green chairs, rubbing the belly of Kaitlyn, who's sleeping. Stephanie holds his hand. Kenny holds still.

The emcee: "Danny Dale!"

Later, Kenny will say he'd like to know who those judges are: "What's their affiliation?" But right now, Kaitlyn is sleeping, Siobhan is tired, and he is, too. So the Grube family goes back to Room 615.

* * *

"I guess I just wanted to make a living being a full-time musician," Kenny is saying on the way back to Florida, "being able to travel the country, with a tour bus, with all the trappings, all the benefits."

Now, though, the former "rubber-burning" rebel usually drives with his hands at 10 and 2 on the wheel.

"He doesn't look like Mr. Mom," Stephanie says. But he is. Kenny spends parts of his days playing blocks with Kaitlyn and taking Siobhan to Biguns Barbecue. Here in the motor home he drives with his left hand and feeds Kaitlyn a saltine with his right.

Back in the mid '80s, when they were 18, 19 years old, Kenny and Stephanie sat back to back on the top of the bunk bed in his parents' house on Melrose Avenue and wrote down on separate pads what they wanted to do.

A lot of what they put down was the same:

Design and build their own home. They have.

Be debt-free by 45. Stephanie says they almost are.

Own property. They have a plot in the Panhandle.

Travel. They go to Ireland about every other year.

Have a family. Kaitlyn and "Chivvie" are sleeping in the back.

There was so much to do.

As for Kenny?

He wanted to make a record under his own name. And he has done small CDs with some local bands, and he has subbed in, he says, with Elston Gunnn and the Bellamy Brothers. But no record under his own name.

That's disappointing. He says so.

Finally, the motor home makes its way into Florida. Stephanie and Siobhan are napping in back. Kaitlyn's up front with sleepy red cheeks and her pink butterfly sandals, and Kenny uses his right hand to play with her corkscrew, corn-colored curls.

The dream is not dead.

This is the dream.

All of this.

They're almost home. It's 11:37 p.m. at a lit-up gas station in dark, quiet Perry. Kenny gases up the Warrior, and then . . .

Wants to, wants to, wants to. Won't.

Again.

Chickachickachicka.

- Michael Kruse can be reached at mkruse@sptimes.com or 352 848-1434.