Star-Bulletin Features

Friday, April 27, 2001

Jonathan Von Brana is Elvis Presley during a
Navatek I dinner cruise as he clowns around with
visitor Stephen Swisher of Monahans, Texas.

‘Elvis’ is in
the Navatek 1

Von Brana does Elvis his way

By John Berger

JONATHON Von Brana hits the stage in a tight black jump suit with gold accents and a golden eagle design across the back, a broad belt, and a gargantuan buckle. He opens with a medley of "That's All Right" and "C.C. Rider" and has the crowd on the Navatek I cheering.

Elvis impressionists don't come any better than Von Brana. Those who remember him as the star of the high-tech, big-budget Waikiki production "Legends in Concert" may be surprised by how good he is working without all the lasers, video clips and the concert-quality sound system that embellished his performance in "Legends." The Navatek stage is small, the ceiling is low, there are no special effects, and the audience is almost on top of him.

Von Brana loves it.

"People ask, 'Is this a step down?,' but for my heart and my soul and my pocketbook this is definitely a step up," he said aboard the Navatek I.

"Yes, I'm competing with whales and dolphins and the sunset, but I worked a big stage for many years and I worked 'Flashback' for many years, and after being on the boat doing this show for a few months I feel rejuvenated."

His set list includes "Are You Lonesome Tonight" and "Suspicious Minds" and the title songs from several of Elvis' biggest movies, songs he'll also perform tonight during "Hulawood," the $175 per person Hawaii Theatre benefit that is also a tribute to the films that helped put Hawaiian music on the map.

Jonathan Von Brana shakes, rattles and rolls as
Elvis Presley during a Navatek I dinner cruise.

In the past, Von Brana had to follow producers' concept of Elvis. On Navatek he's been free to do more of the songs from the films Elvis made here: "Blue Hawaii," "Girls! Girls! Girls!" and "Paradise, Hawaiian Style." He'll be singing "Blue Hawaii" and "Rock-A-Hula Baby" at "Hulawood" tonight.

After performing as an Elvis impressionist for more than 20 years, Von Brana is finally portraying Elvis as he has always wanted to do. He always had the sideburns and pompadour, and the hip thrusts, but he doesn't ask his audience to pretend that he is Elvis. Nor does he mumble a stereotypical "Thankyuverrmuch" after each song. Instead, he personalizes his performance by sharing his experiences growing up listening and watching Elvis.

"This is actually the way I used to do it before I made it in Las Vegas, and it's the way I really enjoy doing it. I try to sound like him when I sing and look like him when I dance, but other than that I'm not going to talk like him or pretend I'm him.

"I have found over the years that if you are telling the truth it shows and people can feel it. I wanted to tell those stories in 'Flashback' but the investors really wanted me to 'be' Elvis. Navatek lets me put the show together and be me. I tell the stories and do the jokes and people accept me. They tell me they can see I have respect (for Elvis). Coming from an Elvis fan, you can't get a higher compliment than that."

The story of Von Brana's career sounds like the plot of an Elvis movie. Von Brana was 19 and partying one night in a San Diego nightclub when a friend with a warped sense of humor told the club DJ that a professional Elvis impersonator was in the house. Suddenly Von Brana was on the spot. He had never even tried impersonating Elvis.

"They announced me as an Elvis impersonator and I was tipsy enough that I got up -- I was wearing all black -- and I flipped my collar up and they played "Jailhouse Rock" and the women started to scream. That's all it took."

Within a few weeks Von Brana was making as much as $500 a week performing karaoke-style to Elvis songs. Someone told him, "You're too good for this," and helped him get a band together.

"I didn't know if I could sing alone because I'd been singing along with the records, but we rehearsed in my garage for about three months and got a gig."

Von Brana and the band were signed for a two-week engagement. It lasted two months. Before it was over he'd been signed for another two-week engagement which ran for two years. Von Brana headed for Los Angeles, and within a year he was working Vegas.

Von Brana left "Legends" in Vegas and came here in 1987 to open "Flashback," a smaller celebrity lookalike show. "Legends" came to Waikiki in 1993 and Von Brana became its headliner.

"I've been doing this for over 20 years and had no time off until 'Legends' closed (in Waikiki). There were times when I'd really started to lose my feel for entertaining and I almost quit. I really lost a lot of love (for the business) but since I've been here on the boat I've been having so much fun, I feel 10 years younger!"


A benefit for Hawaii Theatre

In concert: 6:30 p.m. today
Place: Kahala Mandarin Oriental Hotel
Cost: $175 per person
Call: 791-1302


In concert: Jonathon Von Brana as Elvis, 5:30 to 7:30 p.m. Tuesdays to Sundays
Place: Navatek 1
Cost: $44 per person includes Sunset Dinner Cruise Show with buffet dinner (Hawaii I.D. required)
Call: 973-1322 or go online at

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