The Great Pretender

The many faces of Dale Preston
Allen Beaulieu

Though he's an impersonator by trade, in his civvies Dale Preston resembles the wrong celebrity. "When I'm not in costume," he says almost apologetically, "I actually look like Tim Conway from The Carol Burnett Show." (He does, actually.) But the instant he dons his oversized glittering shades and rhinestone-festooned fedora ("I got it on eBay"), Preston passes for Elton John effectively enough to inspire spit-takes from passersby. Maybe they're just surprised to see a guy kitted out so flamboyantly at a suburban Caribou coffeehouse. (For what it's worth--75 cents at Cheapo--Elton John's 1974 album was also called Caribou.) Whatever the reason for the stares, Preston feeds on attention. He's utterly nonchalant about appearing in celebrity drag in the middle of the afternoon.

While some impersonators are fixated on or limited to a single famous persona, Preston, who does most of his work at private parties and conventions, has diversified his portfolio. "Musically, I perform as Elton John, Billy Joel, and Elvis Presley," he says, gesticulating with bejewelled hands that could humble a Hilton. Sometimes he performs as all three in one night, which he says requires a lot of concentration. "I also appear as Ozzy Osbourne, but he's long forgotten his own music. So I do the Ozzy we all know and love, with the neck brace and the whole slow-thinking thing. Ozzy's more a comedy. I work with a Sharon, too."

"A Sharon." "An Elvis." Such is the parlance of the impersonator's world, where there's never just one of any famous face. "I work with two main people right now," he says. "A gentleman that does Garth Brooks, Jimmy Buffet, and Johnny Cash, and a woman who does Shania Twain, Juice Newton, and Sharon Osbourne. We have nine solid characters altogether."

Though he manages to make his Elvis feel something more than obligatory, Preston is clearly most passionate about his "Elton and Billy" show, for which he gets to use his self-taught piano chops. "I'm not saying I could hold a candle to Elton, but I get by," says Preston, who's been playing for 25 years. "I also learned a lot of tricks that he uses. I had to fudge through it for a really long time." Despite his rare (for a tribute artist) dedication to live instrumentation, Preston's talent for vocal mimicry is obviously his biggest selling point. His Billy Joel impression is both eerily accurate and seemingly effortless. "I've been told I sound just like Billy naturally, which is so flattering." It's common, of course, for singers to inadvertently mimic their idols, and Preston presents his ability as merely an extreme case. "It's like Paul McCartney, for instance," he says. "When you start singing his music, some of his vocal characteristics might come through." He sings a few bars of a Beatles tune to illustrate, attracting stares from some young boys dissecting a muffin nearby.

While discussing his craft, Preston peppers his speech with off-the-cuff impressions, including an SNL-worthy Bill Clinton. This stuff, it seems, has become involuntary. At the start of our talk, Preston realizes that he's "doing Elton" and catches himself ("I've got to lose the phony British accent"). As a kid, before the fascination with rock 'n' roll took hold, Preston had already mastered impressions of the people around him. He jokes about being burdened with such a specific talent. "I've tested as a genius, but the other half of me...I feel like I'm brain-dead sometimes. I admire people who can balance their checkbooks. I'm heavy on the creative side, not the analytical, I guess."

That creative side is finally being indulged after years of relative neglect: Though he's been aping performers since his high school days in the '70s, Preston officially began performing tribute shows two and a half years ago. "I realized after having about 20 different jobs--what a waste of time! Now I'm doing something that I absolutely love. When I walk into a place to play, whether it's a private party or a casino, people already like the guys I perform as; therefore, I'm welcome." He began performing at the urging of his wife. "She sent some photos to agents, and they called me without even hearing me and threw me into a casino. Ta-da! There I was, performing as Billy Joel with an Elton from Pennsylvania!"

The lights of Las Vegas beckon for most successful impersonators, and Preston has predictably been approached to take his show on the road. "I've been invited to go to the Stratosphere Hotel," he says. "But my son is 16, so I'm here for a couple more years. My wife is very supportive of the idea." Preston also has a 20-year-old daughter whom he describes as "musical," but he's especially interested in getting his teen son to try on a few characters. "I'm trying to talk him into doing Elvis or Mick Jagger," Preston says, demonstrating Jagger's signature "chicken flap" move with a grin.

But these brief demonstrations won't do; Preston needs a stage, or at least a reading nook. After asking permission from a befuddled Caribou employee, Preston plugs a portable CD player into the wall and launches into a series of mini-performances. He's already dressed as Elton, right down to the glittering wingtips, so he starts off with "Benny and the Jets," singing at club volume despite the absurdity of the situation. Next, he removes the Elton accessories and morphs into a Billy Joel so accurate it could warrant an exorcism. Finally, he demonstrates an Elvis song. Any nagging doubts one might have about finding a top-shelf celebrity impersonator in Minnesota ought to be cast aside right now. Everyone within earshot is freaked out.

"It's more than just a voice, it's a whole persona," he says, packing up his gear casually. A few feet away, a woman who's gradually edged closer to our table breaks into applause.

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