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Four Score And Seven Years Later, Lincoln Impersonators Fail To Bring Top Dollar

The persistent "ring, ring, ring" ends with a machine's beep.

But instead of the expected I-can't-come-to-the-phone schtick, a recorded Civil War tune greets the caller. The melody plays a few seconds before fading and allowing a deep, dignified voice to begin its dialogue.

"Hello. This is Abraham Lincoln," it says. "I am not in my quarters at this moment. If you have a matter requiring my attention, I will respond within a score and four years -- honest."

Lancaster, Wis., resident Kevin Koester's given name slipped into career-imposed exile when he opted to adopt the life of America's 16th president.

"It's become part of who I am," he said.

More importantly, it's part of what pays his bills.

In America, an estimated 75,000 to 100,000 workers memorize famous speeches, learn song lyrics, shake their booties and live their life as somebody other than themselves. And they do it for more than the love of their particular game.

"A lot of people make a doggone good living at this, and a lot of them, this is all they do," said Janna Joos, co-owner of International Celebrity Images.

The Palm Springs, Calif., company boasts 2,000 look-alike members and hosts an annual awards show and convention for legendary look-alikes where Joos can talk to those who call the industry their own.

"I would easily say Elvis has the biggest following," Joos said, adding that about 60,000 Elvis impersonators exist nationwide."But then, of course, you have the Marilyns and the Madonnas."

And the list goes on and on, including the Austin Powers, the Bette Middlers, the Chers, the Tina Turners, the Judy Garlands, the Frank Sinatras, the Bill Clintons and now the Barack Obamas.

While the career creates various perks -- travel and experience being among the top mentioned -- it also presents particular problems.

"Let's say you are a Marilyn. You can only do that so long before you no longer look like Marilyn," Joos said. "But Joan Rivers, you could keep going with that for a long time."

Some characters require a musical inclination. Some personalities demand a certain set of looks. And others need a following that expresses interest.

"Abe Lincolns, I think, are timeless, but there's not as much call for that as there is Elvis," she said.

When asked the reason why one is preferred over the other, Joos says, "Probably because Abe doesn't sing and dance as well as Elvis."

It's true, Koester said.

The former full-time teacher abandoned his steady paycheck in pursuit of playacting -- a longtime source of happiness for the theater buff who noticed his likeness to Lincoln while serving in the Peace Corps in Africa.

"Frankly, I did it because I thought I could make a living at it," Koester said.

It turned out to be more along the lines of one-sixth of a living. Life as a full-time Lincoln lacks a little when it comes to the checkbook. So Koester supplements.

"I substitute teach. That's my big thing," he said. "And I do handiwork and odd jobs -- mowing the lawns in the summer and shoveling snow in the winter."

But like other impersonators in the tri-states, Koester said this is his pursuit of happiness.

"We do it because we like it and not because of the money," he said. "Although, no, I am not making a living at it. Perhaps I haven't marketed myself correctly."

Or maybe it's a generational thing.

"The old-time Lincolns say it's not what it used to be, that schools used to have more money in the budget for this thing," he said.

A large chunk of his 30-40 annual gigs are at area schools, where he tells the tales of the famous Illinoisan. But the number of shows multiplied by the amount each show pays equals not quite enough.

"The most I have probably ever netted in a day -- when you considered my travel expenses -- was about $350," he said.

Lincoln look-alikes fail to attract the big crowds.

"I think there's an education versus entertainment component," Koester said. "Think about it. How many people would think, 'Cool! Elvis is coming to my birthday party.' Plenty. But how many are going to say, 'Hey, I splurged and got you an Abraham Lincoln for your big day?' Nah, I don't think so."

Dubuque native Artie Mentz understands the concept. Starting at age 12, the man known as Elvis has performed under that name.

Birthday parties, Las Vegas showrooms, fundraisers for the press secretary who was shot alongside President Ronald Reagan, the Oprah show -- twice.

These are the stages for the man who has proudly worn blue suede shoes.

"Oh, I might not die a millionaire," he said of his career choice. "But I had a good time, and I met a lot of people all over the U.S., and you can't take that away from a person. I've been there and did it, you know?

"A lot of people sit in their chairs and say, 'I wish I had done this or that.' Well, I can say I had a good time and I made money while I was doing it."

Events for Mentz have paid anywhere from $100 to $5,000, depending on the arena.

"Oh, don't get me wrong," he said. "Like any entertainer, there are high times and low times."

When he started his work, Mentz performed six nights a week. Now, he limits himself to a few times, but he makes the rounds, mostly at casinos. "They pay the best," he said.

And they better. Mentz shows up for work in sparkling bedazzlement, honoring his hero through costume and song. But here comes the cost.

To be the best Elvis he can be, Mentz shells out plenty to keep looking the part. Outfits can range anywhere from $750 to $7,000, depending on the designer or tailor.

But the most time-consuming is the studying.

"You can't just have talent to succeed," he said. "You have to have what it takes on the inside. If you want to be a good impersonator, you have to really study and know the person inside and out. You have to feel their feelings."
(Photo by AP Photo/The Star Tribune, Glen Stubbe)