If imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, then celebrity impersonation is a lifelong devotional. Career impersonators—from Elvis officiants for elopers in Vegas to washed up cover bands performing to senile audiences—are often disparaged as the runts of the entertainment industry.
The idea of being someone else for a living, capitalizing on someone else’s success, can feel unfathomable to some. But the impersonation industry is surprisingly lucrative, and at times, a safer bet than making it on your own as a struggling artist. There will always be a demand for impersonators, for as long as there are musical messiahs, there will be disciples.
Brian Patrick Mulligan’s history with Franklin runs deep—all the way back to the second grade. It started with Ben and Me, a picture book of a mouse that lives in the founding father’s hat and claims to have been the actual inventor of the Franklin stove and lightning rod, not to mention his services as ambassador to France, à la Ratatouille.
Most people think that impersonators choose this career path because of their uncanny celebrity resemblance, but sitting comfortably in his living room wearing a red flannel, sans the infamous Franklin skullet (mullet … with receding hairline), is Mulligan, who looks like any other 21st–century guy. For most people, a certain amount of their career bleeds into their identity; for an impersonator, their career relies on being another person. Even outside of his job, Mulligan loves the colonial life—his favorite spot in Philly, City Tavern, closed during COVID–19, but before that, it served colonial food like escalopes of veal. “Ben Franklin definitely went to City Tavern back in the 1700s,” Mulligan says.
Since high school, Mulligan has been a comedian, picking up “every kind of performance imaginable.” He then went on to study acting, theater, and directing at the Catholic University of America. Early on, he did the good work of struggling artists—bartending and the service industry—before eventually finding work full time.
The impersonation and tribute band industry is as complex as its more traditionally prestigious music and acting counterpart, but impersonators get their own specialized agencies. Mulligan even ran his own look–alike agency in Los Angeles in the '90s, before he came to Philadelphia, where he had over 1,000 impersonators on file. “Basically, I know every impersonator in Las Vegas and Los Angeles,” he says.
His life of posthumous personation unexpectedly began as Charlie Chaplin in 1987, when Mulligan’s neighbor snapped a photo of him in a Chaplin costume. Days later, he got a six–week booking. “I was young and skinny and had a full head of hair [when] I started as Charlie Chaplin many moons ago. But when I got old and heavy set I had to change over to other characters,” he says. Franklin, being as Mulligan describes him “the funniest founding father,” was a natural choice.
From Al Capone to all of the Three Stooges, he’s taken on the personas of over 30 people, before eventually becoming his, and Penn’s, favorite founding father. For the past 33 years of his life, Mulligan has been Ben Franklin, even writing a one–man show in 1990 called “Ben Franklin, America’s Inventor!”
He’s done a lot since then. As a professional Ben Franklin, Mulligan has been in various change commercials, such as a New Jersey lottery advertisement, a Bud Light promotion advertising the Philadelphia Eagles, and late night shows like Jimmy Kimmel Live! and The Jay Leno Show. He even played a Ben Franklin impersonator, a meta version of himself, in Kickin’ It.
Mulligan’s career is also a lifelong learning opportunity: “I've been studying him for 33 years, and I still learn stuff. It's just amazing, the things you can uncover.” Getting into character is more than just perfecting a voice, though this issue might not be such a problem for him, as Mulligan jokes that it’s a “good thing no one knows what Ben Franklin sounded like.”
Impersonators carry the burden of accurately representing the people they portray. For Franklin, and the other historical figures in Mulligan’s repertoire like Teddy Roosevelt and Winston Churchill, getting into character involves endless biography and textbook reading and C–SPAN interview watching. If there’s an expectation for a question and answer after an event, Mulligan has to be prepared to prove his knowledge to kids that try to stump him.
Despite some limitations, he’s still able to make Franklin his own through comedy. “I bring humor to everything I do,” Mulligan says. He’s well prepared to dish out some colonial cracks, given that his earliest impersonations include Laurel and Hardy, W.C. Fields, and other classic ‘30s Hollywood comedians.
Compared to acting, impersonators have to be “spot–on with the voice” and “tend to be experts in makeup and doing hair.” Boasting nearly 30 wigs and custom historically accurate costumes, it can take half an hour to get into the Franklin attire, and another 30 to 40 minutes for makeup and skullet application. Mulligan’s greatest challenge? Wearing heavy layers of colonial garb in the humid Philly summer heat.
Clearly there’s a niche for impersonators. Almost everyone has interacted with at least one, notably Santa Claus, who’s booked and busy throughout the holiday season. Ben Franklin is no Santa, but American history is having its own pop culture renaissance, from Hamilton to Saturday Night Live spoofs of the founding fathers. As a Philly–based performer, Mulligan constantly books gigs at schools, like a recent speech at a Villanova scholarship ceremony.
For Mulligan, the art of impersonation is both demanding and liberating. “Anything not to have a day job,” he jokes, but not really. The fact is, earnings from “one gig can be what a regular person would have to work for five days [to make].” This job makes it so that he can afford to take breaks and work on his own screenplay. When I asked what motivates him to keep impersonating, Mulligan said without hesitation “paychecks.” These impersonators, they’re just like us!
“WHY GO see them? They’ll make you feel ALIVE!”
Tribute bands exist in their own lane, but still align somewhat with the stereotypical schtick of impersonators. Just as Ben Franklin has his groupies of history teachers and Lin–Manuel Miranda fans, a cult audience can fuel the longevity of tribute bands. James Burke, the lead guitarist of The Ledbetters, a Pearl Jam tribute act, understands his target market. Along with lead singer Jamie Stem, Steven Piperno on guitar, Rocco De Lise on bass guitar, and drummer John Stover, the band promises an authentic Pearl Jam concert experience.
The band formed in 2019, but they had all been interested in music for much longer, since high school. As it goes, their rock dreams stayed trapped in their parent’s garages, and Burke joined the corporate world. “Music became something on the back burner,” he says.
The Ledbetters didn’t set out to become a Pearl Jam tribute band. Burke joined the group to cover half of Pearl Jam’s debut album Ten, but ended up playing the rest when another band that was supposed to cover the other half dropped out. “It was just really well received. They had to turn people away at first where we were playing,” Burke says. Since then, they’ve grown in popularity and started working ticketed events out of state, although for most of the members, the band is still a side gig—mainly an outlet for creativity beyond their corporate lives.
While creative passions can seem at odds with financial stability and a substantive career, Burke believes it actually makes him a better employee. By day, the band members work their nine–to–fives and come home to the kids. By night, The Ledbetters are still dads and businessmen, who also rock twice a month across Pennsylvania.
Burke, and many of the other band members, have been in cover bands before. But there’s an important distinction between cover bands and tribute bands. “They're kind of, I don't want to say a dime a dozen, but there's a ton of cover bands out there,” Burke says. Tribute bands, however, have the opportunity to authentically recreate the sound of bands, which come with an already passionate fan base.
It takes a lot of research and creativity on their part, like figuring out which guitars, pedals, and amps truly get the sound of Pearl Jam. “A song like ‘Just Breathe,’ for instance, has violins on it,” Burke explains, “So how do we replicate that without violinists in the band? It takes time and dedication, and I think that's what separates a tribute band from a cover band.”
Don’t expect to lay eyes on Eddie Vedder or Mike McCready though—The Ledbetters distinguish themselves from tribute bands that do the “costume thing.” “There are certain artists where you kind of have to [dress up], like Elton John. Prince would probably be another. Fortunately for us, Pearl Jam is just a bunch of dudes,” Burke says, referring to them as “crusty old white guys.”
When a band like Pearl Jam is past their prime, their tour circuit tends to be limited to costly repeated farewell blowouts. Thus, those that grew up with these ‘90s bands—too old to relive their grunge glory days in the pit, but just old enough to be conservative with their money—are a direct market for bands like The Ledbetters. Many fans look much like the band members themselves, but new generations are learning to love Pearl Jam as their parents did.
From small venues to an 800–person festival in Camden, The Ledbetters appreciate every opportunity to perform, especially because many of them never thought they would play again, let alone in front of a crowd. “Most of us started raising kids and focusing on our jobs, and music became something on the back burner,” Burke says, urging the pre–professionals of the world: “Don't put your music on the shelf for life. There is a way to do both.”
In terms of the future of the band, The Ledbetters are taking a page out of Pearl Jam’s lyric book. “There's a Pearl Jam quote that says, ‘I'll ride the wave where it takes me.’ I think of the band in that aspect. None of us thought it would be where it is now. And I think we're all very fortunate,” Burke says. It’s taken some time to garner this mentality. That lyric also changed how they interact with their audience. “There's sort of a disdain for tribute bands. Some people hold their nose up to it and think it's cheesy. At our age, listen to what you like, have fun, [or] don't. Some people are gonna hate just to hate.”
Impersonation isn’t an end–all, be–all for some people in the industry, but rather, a means to gain exposure. Doug Delescavage, aka Elton John in his 20s, graduated from Berklee College of Music in 2017 with a degree in audio production engineering. But he’s been performing and playing music ever since he was a wee lad, and he now teaches music and art to students pre–K through 8th grade.
Finding time to practice for five hours, four times a week is difficult with a day job, but Delescavage says, “We're fortunate that all our jobs are flexible when we take shows because they know that it’s serious for us.” His Elton John tribute band is Philadelphia Freedom, comprised of bassist and vocalist Bernie Gavlick, guitarist and vocalist Aaron Eldred, guitarist Karl Rucker, vocalist and synth player Jen Hunter, and drummer Mike Shaw. While the band started in 2019, several members knew each other before. “We've been in and out of bands over the years. We used to play a lot of Elton even back then,” Delescavage says.
Even in tribute bands, there’s a degree of creative license. “[Elton] never played his songs the exact same way every concert,” Delescavage says. “It would be the song, but it would be a new performance. So we have the template of that, but we love to take those liberties.”
Donning a red sequined shirt, white blazer, and a '70s shag during our conversation, Delescavage assures me that he “do[es] wear regular clothes.” But on stage, Philadelphia Freedom commits to their costumes, scouring anywhere from random London boutiques to SHEIN for Elton’s iconic outfits. It didn’t start out this intense, but in order to capture the aesthetic, the band quickly jumped headfirst into the costuming. For luminaries like Elton, the spectacle is as important as the music itself; wearing the bedazzled Dodgers uniform is an indispensable aspect of the performance.
In tribute bands, you’ll seldom find that the members don’t love the music they’re playing. For Delescavage, Elton John was always his favorite artist, and he has seen the British icon in concert four times. Imitating Elton thus doesn’t take too much research. “It just never dawned on me that we might be doing [his mannerisms], but I guess subconsciously, it stuck.” Of course, I had to ask if he does the British accent, to which Delescavage laughs: “Sometimes. I think it's awful to be honest, but people love it.”
Because of Elton’s status, demographics tend to be skewed towards older people, but you’ll find a greater range of ages in the audience, from those who were able to buy original vinyls, to their grandchildren who’ve heard “I’m Still Standing” sung by a gorilla in the movie Sing. Booking regular venues has helped build their own fan base of tribute groupies.
While Delescavage adores Elton, his love isn’t the only motivation behind the band. Philadelphia Freedom is more of a means of performing. He doesn’t want to be impersonating Elton forever, but Elton will forever be a part of his own writing style. “You'll mainly see it in my music. Even if I'm playing a Billy Joel piece or a classical song, there's definitely a lot of [Elton’s] influence in there for sure,” he says.
Tribute bands, just like in the traditional music industry, make their rounds, playing small venues locally, and getting ripped off in contracts. “Read the fine print,” Delescavage warns. But a hidden leg–up that tribute bands actually have over bands that perform original music is the guaranteed fanbase. “We love Elton, we love playing, and we put our own identity into what we do. But we all recognize that it's not our names selling; it's Elton John selling. With being original, you're building yourself and that can be very hard.”
Impersonators and tribute bands do in fact have tiers of success. Most tribute artists have their own websites and some freelance on pages such as GigSalad and The Bash. Tribute bands follow the same virtually impassable route as any other band: playing in bars to gain a local following. “Bars are tough, [because they] usually require three hour sets and they don’t start till ten o’clock, going until one o’clock. We’re not young kids anymore. We all have families,” Burke says.
The impersonator community isn’t as cutthroat as the typical entertainment industry. Perhaps it’s the understanding of their shared experiences that lead to mutual benefit, or the fact that there isn’t overlap for certain characters. Mulligan offers me contacts for Betsy Ross, Thomas Jefferson, and several Rockys, while The Ledbetters and Philadelphia Freedom shout out other local tribute bands. Like other music groups, tribute bands that go on tour regularly have openers. Philadelphia Freedom has opened for Almost Queen, who’ve been in the game for over two decades, and has helped the former gain exposure.
Still, there remains a competitive aspect in order to set yourself apart from other artists. “You have to study your character. You have to learn everything about your character, and invest in quality materials, costuming, and hairpieces. Because you don't want to be the bargain–basement Ben Franklin,” Mulligan says.
Like other performers in the industry, COVID–19 had a large impact on the artists. Mulligan became “choosier” with gigs post–pandemic. Both The Ledbetters and Philadelphia Freedom started in 2019, and lost the momentum they were beginning to garner because of the COVID–19 pandemic. Performers and artists lost the means to see crowds, but for bands that don’t make their own music, it marked an indefinite hiatus. “COVID really stopped us in our tracks,” Burke says.
Many tribute artists don’t go into it purposefully, but end up staying in the spontaneous career path. For tribute bands, there’s a guaranteed fanatic audience. It’s an industry that won’t die out and may actually be on the rise. “Pearl Jam and '90s stuff is probably a little too early. A lot of the '70s artists are hitting their stride now. The people that were in Pearl Jam are just getting out of the having kids phase. Who knows, maybe in ten years, [The Ledbetters will] continue to blossom,” Burke says.
Are tribute bands and impersonators the future? Or the only viable path to perhaps not fame, but a content and successful life? The possibilities are virtually limitless. Mulligan–as–Franklin has been in everything from furniture print advertisements to even officiating weddings for history teachers that get married. “It's interesting to see when, where, and who needs impersonators,” he says. Filling roles that those starting off on their own can rarely break through themselves, there’s a niche for these artists and actors to make a living, and even thrive.