I feel animatronic: the Rober S. Ensler interview
– by Shawn Conner
How much would you pay for a 20” James Brown figure that sings and dances to “I Feel Good”? A couple years back, I gave up about $6 for one at a summer yard sale, and knew I’d scored when a brother saw me walking away with it and offered ten on the spot.
Recently, while moving, I had to reassess the acquisition, and figure out if it was worth keeping. First, though, I wanted to know more about it; my search led me to this man.
Robert S. Ensler is a Vegas-based entertainer and online retailer. Among his impressions: Donald Trump, Frank Sinatra, Bobby Darin and Dean Martin. His connection to the latter, in fact, is how Mr. Ensler came to be a retailer of the Gemmy “animatronic dolls” – a line which includes not only my “I Feel Good” James Brown, but also Ray Charles, the Three Stooges, and, of course, Dino.
In the first of a two-part interview, I talk to Ensler about the pros and cons of being a celebrity impressionist, why Donald Trump comes easily and while he never pursued the Elvis. My thanks to Robert for taking time out to talk to The Snipe.
Robert S. Ensler: I’ve always loved the music of Sinatra and Dean Martin. I was raised on Sammy Davis. Before even Sinatra and Dean Martin. My mom had bought [the soundtrack to] one of Sammy’s musicals, Mr. Wonderful, and I played that over and over. And then she was into Frank Sinatra and I played that over and over.
I was never into the person, just the music. I just fell into the impersonation business accidentally, 10 years ago. Originally, I wanted to be a cabaret singer. I talked to this one lady and she said you know what, I already have a Sinatra impersonator, I don’t need to promote a Sinatra singer. But you look a lot like Dean and you have the same timbre as Dean. “We’re going to make you Dean Martin to go with my Frank Sinatra.” And it all started like that.
SC: How much of your work comes from impersonations?
RSE: About 20 per cent. I’ve got my e-commerce business, which is pretty much my main income. And I’m a partner in a restaurant.
SC: I wonder how the recession’s going to play out for celebrity impersonators?
RSE: It’s hurting, really bad. These businesses just don’t have the budgets any more. They want something cheap, and they want to pay less. I’ve dropped my prices 20 per cent, easily. There are several agencies I’m in contact with, and they’re hurting. It’s tough for everybody. The big corporations don’t have the money anymore. Most of my work is corporate.
SC: Have you done any in Canada?
RSE: Almost, not yet. See, when I started impersonating Dino back in ’99, there were like six Dean Marin impersonators in the whole country. Of the six, there were three, maybe four I would put in the category of A-category impersonators. And over the years all these Dean Martin impersonators have popped up. Now there’s 20 of ’em, one in just about every market. They solicit locally, ‘cos they’re trying to save money. Some agencies, just so they can make money, they’ll find a local personality. This organization that I’m involved in, the Entertainment Network, we have 300 impersonator that are seriously involved. But there are over 2,000 people that have been with it.
SC: Are you friends with a lot of the impersonators?
RSE: Oh yeah, I know pretty much most of the people in the business.
SC: Is there any commonality personality-wise?
RSE: Sometimes these people are frustrated singers. You can’t make a living as a singer, ‘cos your getting paid $150 bucks a night,. People say, “oh you look like so-and-so, you should do him,” and they just happened to look like them and sound like them. They think by putting on a wig they become an impersonator, but they’re an impressionist. But they’re categorized as an impersonator because they’re trying to look like them.
SC: There’s a line between an impersonator and an impressionist.
RSE: Yeah. Then there are those people that just sing the songs of certain people. I don’t even consider them a tribute artist.
SC: I saw a clip of you doing Dean Martin, and you do everything, right down to the hand gestures.
RSE: Yeah, which actually comes very naturally for me. It wasn’t much of a stretch, ‘cos I’m a very laidback kind of guy. I don’t like a lot of rehearsal. I like the impromptu, spontaneous–‘cos I was a theatre arts major in college. The most fun I had was in my improv classes. I improvise quite well. You know, Dean’s goal in life was to trip Frank and/or Sammy up during the Rat Pack shows, to make them break their song. And I do that quite well.
SC: Are you the guy responsible for the Dean Martin Roasts* coming to DVD**?
RSE: Oh no. I’m just a retailer, if I was responsible, I’d be driving a Rolls Royce, not my crappy little Saturn. I’d be very wealthy. I’ve only watched a couple of them. I was raised on this stuff. I used to watch his show religiously.
SC: They’re kind of politically incorrect, to say the least.
RSE: Oh, no. They are so tame. Compared to the crap they put on Comedy Central now. They were risqué for their day, but they weren’t vulgar. They were borderline racist. But it was good clean comedy. That’s why people still love this stuff, ‘cos it’s all good clean fun with these brilliant comedians from the ’40s, ’50s,’60s, and ’70s. Before Richard Pryor and George Carlin, comedy was clean.
SC: So your impersonations of others require more work than Dino?
RSE: Donald Trump is very easy for me too. People have been bugging me for years that I look like him. I used to dress up as Dean Martin and have people say, “Oh, are you Donald Trump?” Does my hair look red? “No, you have that look.” I finally had an agent say, “You need to work on your Donald Trump, I can get you jobs.” I did, and he didn’t! [Laughs]
But I started impersonating the Donald anyway. Being in retail for 40 years, me and my brothers are all, cocky is the word. I mean, I’m good at what I do, I’ve been in retail for 40 years. And I don’t like to take any shit from anybody. So part of my personality is this laidback, Dean Martin-esque personality. By the same token, I can be very Donald Trumpish – cocky, arrogant, extremely knowledgeable. I studied the guy, I studied the tapes. It wasn’t that difficult. The Bobby Darin was more difficult, since he was such a physically active person.
This is why I never pursued the Elvis. I know several former Elvis impersonators who are now Dean Martin impersonators. Because they’re too old to do Elvis, and going from Elvis to Dean is basically the same vocal. It’s just a little more more rocky, rock’n’rolling.. Elvis Presley did say at one that Dean Martin was one of his inspirations.
Next: Robert S. Ensler on the animatronic doll collectors’ market.
*Martin, who came up the ranks of crooners thanks to his co-starring roles with Jerry Lewis in a series of ‘50s buddy comedies, was given his own celebrity roast prime time TV show in the ’70s. Make of that what you will.
**I’ve seen a few of these and all I have to say is, they’re a helluva trip. There’s actual alcohol in those glasses. Scene: Laugh-In regular Ruth Buzzi plants a kiss on a reluctant Martin while Phyllis Diller, at the podium, asks, “Am I too beautiful?” Down at the far end of the table, Orson Welles, chuckles nervously while sitting next to comedian Nipsy Russell. Classic.
Robert S. Ensler interview pt. II