As the theme from “2001: A Space Odyssey” plays, a man wearing a white jumpsuit covered in red, white and blue sequins appears.
Addressing the crowd and moving around the room, he draws their attention away from their conversations. As the first song trails off, and the next begins, the audience is captivated, following his every movement.
Moving from table to table, he leaves blushing women in his wake, handing out scarves, teddy bears and kisses along the way.
on the web
For more information on Art Kistler, go to: www.elvistributeartist.com
Far from his office in the Fourth Street parking ramp, he is no longer Art Kistler, maintenance manager – he is Art Kistler, Elvis tribute artist.
For nearly 15 years, Kistler has worked for Parking and Transportation Services at the University. But 11 years ago, Kistler found another calling as an Elvis tribute artist.
Since then Kistler has traveled the country and performed hundreds of shows for thousands of Elvis fans.
Out of Sight, Out of Mind
After earning his associate’s degree from Normandale Community College in 1991, Kistler began working at the University, where he pursued a degree in Spanish. Meanwhile, Kistler studied under Clifton Ware, emeritus professor of voice, making him one of the few “Elvii” with professional training, he said.
Kistler started his work at the University as a student employee for PTS. In time, he would become maintenance manager of the entire department.
“Some of the teamsters thought I was still a student, not the boss,” he said.
In 1993, Kistler graduated from the University summa cum laude as a “nontraditional” student. On his Web site, Kistler refers to the label as his “favorite academic euphemism for old!”
Kistler arrives at work by 5:30 every morning. Starting his day with a tour of every parking facility on campus, he makes sure everything is in order before the rush of people going to class or work arrives.
At work, Kistler administers contracts for various maintenance tasks across campus. He is responsible for the University’s 15 parking facilities and more than 11,000 parking stalls, but he doesn’t let that wear on him.
“I have a tendency to take things in stride,” he said.
Recently, the International Parking Institute named the University’s PTS the 2007 Parking Organization of the Year.
Dennis Miller, assistant director of accounting and finance for PTS, said he doesn’t work directly with Kistler, but does know that his work shows a commitment to his responsibilities.
“Art is a caring person who wants to help people,” he said. “He’s kind of a service kind of guy.”
Aside from their work experience, Miller said they bonded while his father battled Alzheimer’s, an ailment Kistler’s father also suffers from.
“We’ve chatted from time to time, giving each other moral support on it,” he said. “Art’s been an emotional support – maybe that’s from his religious background and his faith. He’s been there for me.”
Ed Tolan, general maintenance manager for PTS, said Kistler is like any other boss, sans the Elvis career.
“We get along fine. After working with him for this many years, you get to know how each other are,” he said. “We don’t get much of the Elvis stuff (here) except for the teasing and ribbing.”
Tolan remembers one of the first times Kistler performed Elvis’ songs.
“We went out one night to a karaoke bar. He got up and sang Elvis, and the people in the bar were really impressed,” he said. “(They were saying) ‘Wow, you should do this for a gig,’ and pretty soon he’s doing it.”
Brian Hisle, a mechanic for PTS, remembers listening to what he thought was an Elvis song playing in Kistler’s vehicle, but it turned out to be Kistler’s own voice he heard.
Hisle said Kistler does well as manager, even though he’s strict at times.
“He’s an easy guy to work with,” he said. “He has his biannual anal fits where it’s time to buckle down and do some things. Other than that, he’s a pretty fair guy.”
Richard Klatte, utility worker for PTS, has hired Kistler to perform in the past and enjoys his performances.
“He can sing, he puts on a good show, and it’s pretty funny,” he said. “I don’t know how many more Elvis impersonators we need, but he’s actually pretty good.”
It Ain’t No Big Thing (But It’s Growing)
Music has always played a role in Kistler’s life.
He said he can remember dancing to Elvis in 1960 in his grandfather’s basement.
Kistler said Elvis’ music is special in a lot of ways, and is something that a lot of people can relate to.
“There’s a comfort level associated with that type of music. Those were simpler times,” he said. “One reason Elvis is popular to this day is because people weren’t ready to see him go.”
Kistler plays the piano, drums and the electric bass, all of which he learned by ear.
“I was known to use the piano as a percussion instrument,” he said.
Kistler’s career as an Elvis tribute artist began at his church. He sang, occasionally solo, and people would tell him how much he sounded like Elvis.
He was asked to perform as Elvis at a church social event, so Kistler and his wife Jean put together a costume, complete with borrowed pants and taped sideburns.
“The people were blown away,” Kistler said.
After the performance at church, Kistler began to perform at karaoke bars. After several performances, people started to recognize him, he said.
As time went on, Kistler won eight different Elvis impersonator competitions. Currently he has six professionally designed outfits, including one which costs more than $3,000. He also owns a trailer to carry $20,000 in sound and lighting equipment.
“I didn’t need (the trailer) when I started, I just needed the trunk of our Buick,” he said.
For the business, Kistler did the artwork, licensing, recording and mastering for the three albums he’s released and he manages his own Web site.
Since the beginning of his career as an Elvis tribute artist, Kistler has performed across the United States and on a number of cruises in the Caribbean and elsewhere.
Kistler also performed before a crowd of 5,000 to 6,000 people at the Fremont in Las Vegas, Nev., during the filming of a documentary about “Elvii.”
As part of his business, Kistler works out four times a week. The suits he wears are custom fit, so staying in shape is important, he said.
“If I gain five pounds, I start to look like the older Elvis,” he said.
Kistler has also done a number of charity and fundraising events, often for free or reduced rates.
“Sometimes my heart speaks louder than my budget,” he said. “It’s all part of the legacy of Elvis.”
Target hired Kistler to perform at St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital in Memphis, Tenn., an organization Kistler said Elvis worked with in the past.
Katie Lithander, events marketing specialist for Target, said Kistler’s performances lived up to her expectations.
“There’s not a whole lot I can say except that he’s incredible,” she said. “You’d think Elvis was in the room with you.”
Lithander said Kistler’s ability to interact with the families at St. Jude’s was the best part of having him there.
“One person from St. Jude’s, it was her birthday and he sang to her and she got red, and he was giving leis to the mothers,” she said. “There was a little kid up there who couldn’t even get enough of him. It was so cute – he did a fantastic job.”
During his time spent at St. Jude’s, Kistler bonded with the other employees from Target as well, Lithander said.
“He was just like one of the gang,” she said. “He was there to perform, but he was helping us set up, and doing décor, he was incredible.”
Her Royal Majesty Linda Glenn, founding Queen Mother of the Rowdy Red Hat Mamas chapter of the Red Hat Society, has hired Kistler three times before.
Glenn called Kistler the chapter’s “own personal Elvis” and said his performances never disappoint.
“His rendition of Elvis’ songs – they’re evocative, they’re hauntingly beautiful,” she said. “It’s a gift from God, and he knows that, and he absolutely delights in performing.”
Kistler often performs gospel songs on top of other Elvis material. Glenn said his gospel performances are her personal favorites.
“His repertoire includes some renditions of absolutely the most beloved gospel songs ever written,” she said. “Art does them well, if not better than Elvis.”
Glenn said “An American Trilogy,” a song Kistler performs at shows, is a very powerful example of his ability to invoke emotion in his audience.
“The first time I saw him perform the ‘Trilogy,’ I literally got goose bumps, as did another couple hundred other women in the room,” she said. “It brought women to their feet in awe of the splendor of it, the beauty of it, the white and the cape; it was just so well done.”
Glenn said while planning for the Rowdy Red Hat Rumble in October , she considered hiring another entertainer, but other members of the chapter wouldn’t allow it.
“When I even mentioned … I was thinking of someone different, the backlash was horrible. They were mad, pissed. I mean pissed,” she said. “There’s no one else. We have to have him, we have to have our Elvis.”
During his performances, Kistler often recognizes his wife as an invaluable part of the business and performances, Glenn said.
“He and Jean are so obviously a loving couple, as a marriage, a partnership and as a working partnership,” she said. “He never hesitates … during a performance to give accolades and credit to Jean, and that’s just awesome, there’s no egocentricity there on either part.”
Apart from his singing talent, Glenn said Kistler’s personality and lifestyle also influenced her decision to hire him again.
“He doesn’t have that kind of an ego. It goes back to a Christian lifestyle,” she said. “We’re not talking Britney Spears and $100,000, but to me, I wouldn’t pay $10 to go see her.”
Gonna Get Back Home Somehow
Kistler lives in Cottage Grove, Minn., with his wife Jean and three stepdaughters, Janessa, Jilanne, and JoVonna.
Since his first performance, Kistler has allowed his wife Jean to play a key role in his Elvis endeavors. She helps him with the sound and lighting equipment.
“He’s always been very, very, very careful to include me in everything so it feels like we’re in it together,” Jean said. “So in that sense, it’s been really fun for me.”
Kistler didn’t start performing as an Elvis tribute artist until after he and Jean had met, and she said that allowed them to work well together over the years.
“It’s been quite a ride. When I met Art he wasn’t doing Elvis, so we kind of got into this together,” she said. “When you look back 10 years ago, you realize what happened, but it was kind of a gradual thing that just seemed to take its course.”
Jean estimates she has only missed four performances since Kistler began his career as an Elvis tribute artist.
Kistler’s stepdaughter Janessa Tessmer occasionally helps with equipment and lighting for Kistler’s performances.
“We got to go on cruises because of it. It was a very nice little perk,” she said. “It was really evident that he really liked to do it. It was one of those things where you’re happy for him even though he was busy all the time.”
Tessmer said even though Kistler and Jean are always busy with the business and full-time jobs, they are able to handle it well.
“Before shows it gets kind of tense, you know, he’s ‘in the zone’ kind of thing,” she said. “For me, I wouldn’t be able to do that. It seemed like too much. It would be too much pressure.”
For Tessmer’s birthday one year, her friends spoke with Kistler and asked him to surprise her at dinner. He had a performance earlier that night, so he came to the restaurant in full costume to sing “Happy Birthday to You.”
“It was really cool that my friends would think to have him do that,” she said. “I’ll never forget that, that’s for sure.”
Jean said although Tessmer’s friends were impressed by Kistler’s act, her daughter was a little embarrassed by his appearance.
“If she could’ve crawled under the table she would have, but everybody else thought it was great,” she said.
When he’s not performing, Kistler is just like any other person, Jean said.
“I would say that what you see is what you get. Art is Art,” she said. “He’s got his priorities right in the sense that God comes first, then his family; he portrays that every day.”
Over the years, Tessmer said Kistler has impressed her with his dedication and work ethic.
“He’s really known and really puts himself out there, and he works really hard at it, so that’s admirable. It was something to look up to,” she said. “I can’t say anything bad about him. That’s just not how he is. There’s nothing to criticize.”
Kistler said he likes to perform Elvis’ music because of the way it makes people feel.
“It’s the purest music. It’s meant to make people smile,” he said. “If I had any idea 10, 11 years ago, I wouldn’t have believed it.”