Tale of Two Cities: Rising and Falling in Vegas

Hard times for Elvis impersonator but lots of black ink at tattoo parlors.

March 18, 2009, 10:44 AM

March 20, 2009— -- Only in Las Vegas would Elvis be a leading economic indicator. But the recession has hit Sin City hard, and like a casino cooler -- the guy who can stop a lucky streak dead in its tracks -- it has brought hardship and misery to people like Jesse Garon.

Garon, also known as "The King," makes his living as an Elvis impersonator. And even Elvis hasn't been immune from the downturn in the Las Vegas economy.

Garon always knew that he had a calling.

"When I got out of high school, I had a choice. It was either Elvis or college," Garon said.

He chose Elvis and had been making a very nice six-figure-income impersonating his idol.

Garon ever refers to himself as "we," meaning him and, well, you know, Elvis.

"We bought a pink Cadillac," Garon said, "and we started taking people to get married and we got so busy, man, we was up to like 30 weddings a week, and it was very very, very, very lucrative and very fun.

When he first came to Vegas "it was booming everywhere. There was growth everywhere. Every hotel on the Strip was building, and there was 20 Elvises at any time."

Garon got himself a swanky house complete with replica Graceland gates. But then came the heartbreak.

In just the past few months, in a city that lives and dies on tourism, 340 groups have canceled meetings in Las Vegas. That's about 111,000 visitors; 230,000 room nights; and $131 million in nongaming revenues, all gone.

The Tropicana has filed for bankruptcy. MGM Mirage is in danger of defaulting on a loan.

All 10 categories in the Southern Nevada Index of Leading Economic Indicators, a forecast of Las Vegas' economy through June 1, declined in February. Many fell by double digits from last year's levels.

Some 11,000 construction jobs disappeared faster than water in the sand. The Las Vegas jobless rate reached 10 percent in January.

Turning to Tattoos?

Las Vegas hit a wall. And so did the Elvis index. Garon lost his house, and the Graceland gates are in storage.

"Money has not been important to me," Garon said. "But money's always represented freedom. … And I have no freedom when you have no money, and it's a terrible, terrible feeling. … I'm almost a 37-year-old man at an ATM, getting money from his mom. How more pathetic can you get?"

But the luck isn't all bad in Las Vegas.

It's only black ink at Studio 21, a family-run tattoo parlor. All the stalls are busy, and an average customer spends $250 for a look that never gets old.

"I thought it would slow down ... and it actually seems like it's getting busier," said tattoo artist Jay Wood. "I think people are just like, 'Well, whatever -- I'm just gonna get a tattoo, I guess. Everything else is bad. I might as well do something for myself.'"

"I get a lot of guys that are out of work too," said Austin Spencer, a tattoo artist whose father owns Studio 21. "And they're like, 'I waited six months to get this tattoo. I'm gonna just put it on my credit card.' "

He's booked through August.

"It sounds kind of crazy," he said. "I'm more exhausted than ever. I've had so much work. It's good, though, great problems to have right now, apparently."

Austin's sister, part owner Courtney Spencer, has an idea why body ink is recession resistant.

"You know that your job isn't permanent and you know that your family might not be permanent. What else is there but your skin?" she said. "That's permanent. You can't get rid of it. So why not decorate it?"

'Don't Count Out Elvis'

As for Elvis impersonator Jesse Garon, he's planning to keep working.

"I always told myself I was gonna retire at 42," he said. "That's when Elvis died, and that is not gonna be realized at this point."

But Garon is staying positive, and he has a message for America.

"Hey guys, you ain't alone," he said. "Even Elvis in Las Vegas is having tough times -- may not be as tough as yours, but we're all going through this thing together, man. We got a saying in the wedding business … for better or for worse. I was here for 14 years of the better and I may have to put up with a little worse, so just like husband and wife's gonna stick in there, don't count out Las Vegas and don't count out Jesse Garon, and don't count out Elvis, ever."

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