You spot a queue of familiar characters outside a soundstage here. Jennifer Aniston leans against Frank Sinatra while Lieutenant Columbo, Superman and Stevie Wonder bring up the rear.
It’s all in a day’s work for Hollywood. This is an audition for ABC’s “The Next Best Thing: Who Is the Greatest Celebrity Impersonator?” premiering tonight.
Auditions were held across the U.S. to search out these famous clones. Contestants will compete in a series of eliminations, until the grand finale, which will be filmed live from Las Vegas. The winner gets $100,000.
Comedians Jeffrey Ross, Lisa Ann Walter and Elon Gold will be the judges.
Seated at a rectangular table on a darkened soundstage here, they say it’s not easy to judge such talent. “Yesterday, Lisa danced with Clark Gable, Elon did a bit with Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis. I had Marilyn Monroe sing me a song,” says Ross.
“She practically lap-danced him,” adds Walter, who has four children and says she’s used to making final judgments.
The competitors have to look, talk, sing and dance like their subjects. Some are dead ringers for the original.
Waiting their turn outside are the two pals from “The Honeymooners,” the bus-driving Ralph Kramden and his sewer-savvy buddy, Ed Norton.
In the guise of the portly Jackie Gleason is Joe Heintzelman, originally from Nebraska, who is a budding voice-over actor. “We try to keep the spirit alive,” says Heintzelman in Gleason’s raspy voice.
Norton is played by Curtis Buttenheim, from the East Coast, who is under contract to a couple of casinos in Las Vegas, where he does a suitcase full of other imitations. They met when Buttenheim hired Heintzelman for another show.
“And I took one look at him and said, ‘Hey, are you familiar with Jackie Gleason?’ ” The pair has been working together for 10 years.
“We entertain at private parties, sewer conventions, bus and transportation expos,” says Buttenheim. “We work the International Water Works convention every year. In that milieu, Art Carney is a huge icon.”
Garbed in his trademark tux, spinning a martini glass in one hand, a cigarette in the other is Dean Martin. Steve Apple has been doing Martin for 11 years.
“I think singing him is going to make me feel younger because he was so smooth and so charming and so good-looking,” says Apple, the father of two. “They used to say women wanted to be with him and men wanted to BE him.”
There’s more to Apple than an uncanny Martin voice. He’s also been playing Groucho Marx for the last 18 years at Universal Studios Tour Hollywood. Married for 13 years, Apple admits that not everybody is a fan.
“When you’re carpooling and the kids are expecting to hear hip hop and they hear, ‘Everybody loves somebody sometimes’ … they go, ‘WHAT is this? Change the station.’”
Dressed in their WWII WAC uniforms, their hair in pompadours and sausage curls are the singing Andrews Sisters, Andrea Lee Davis, Christina Challey and Robin Kelly. They entertain at private parties, conventions and in special shows as the famous sibling trio from the ’40s.
“Andrea and I started working together in 1997. We were hired to do a show in Laughlin, Nev., that had some similar attributes,” says Kelly. “Christina joined that cast a year or so later and after we finished that show in 1999, the three of us decided we would put our own group together, and the rest is history.”
Kelly works as senior account manager for Essence Entertainment Talent Agency and can winnow out performance opportunities for the trio. Davis has a master’s degree in Italian literature from UCLA and teaches Italian. Challey works at UCLA helping to raise money for the recreation department and is working on her master’s in public administration.
They also perform as the Maguire sisters and sometimes bill themselves as the Swingdolls.
Little Richard, complete with the big hair and sparkling jacket, is here disguised as Garry Moore, father of four and a baseball coach. Though Moore does impersonations for a living he says it’s always hard to leave the family. Moore flew in from his home on Oahu this morning and is returning this afternoon.