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Pretending to be the King

DON SIMS visits Graceland about eight times a year ``just to be here,'' he says. Sporting conspicuous, mutton-chop sideburns, Mr. Sims admits to being an Elvis impersonator, performing as the king at nightclubs in the St. Louis area. ``It's kinda my way to show respect for him,'' says Sims. ``He was the greatest and always will be,'' he adds softly. This week, Sims is competing against more than 30 other Elvis Presley impersonators here at Bad Bob's Vapors, a club not too far from Graceland. At a sound check, the various Elvises draw numbers and take turns warming up with the band. Some even act like Elvis offstage: ``S'cuse me, baby,'' says one as he passes by.

Joe Kent just started his Elvis routine about five months ago: ``It's a mimic,'' he explains, ``like a parrot that hears something over and over. ... I've always been a pseudo-fan, until recently.'' He has a daytime career as a magician, so ``the performing aspect comes sorta natural.''

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Why does he do it? ``Elvis is the coolest - not too many people giving away Cadillacs anymore,'' he says.

Most Elvis impersonators are die-hard fans, says Jackie Franklin who, with her husband, owns Bad Bob's and the Hound Dog Caf'e. Contestants have 15 minutes to perform the songs of their choice, and ``although it's not required, most dress up,'' she says.

But some of the real kicks in this contest come from half-pint impersonators. Paul Elvis Campione, 7, from Brooklyn, N.Y., has a glistening pink suit, rings, and slicked-back hair. After attending Elvis week for the past few years, he's somewhat of a celebrity himself, having appeared on numerous TV shows. Shy in person, but not on stage, Paul says he took to Elvis at age 3 after seeing his movies and hearing his music. ``I wanted to be like him,'' he says. His parents, Angela and Raymond Campione, say their love for Elvis probably rubbed off, but that the impersonation is their son's idea.

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