I've been an Elvis fan since I was a kid. I saw him perform in Sioux Falls, South Dakota on June 22, 1977, about two months before his death. About 6 months ago I got the zany idea to take one of the animatronic Elvis busts made by Wowee and integrate it into a full-sized mannequin...thus creating Robo-Elvis. The only thing that would actually be articulated on Robo-Elvis would be his head and neck, but I figured the striking visual of seeing a 6 foot tall Elvis (complete with stage jumpsuit and microphone) talking and singing when you walked into Planet Wallywood, would speak for itself. Making something like this had been "always on my mind," so I figured..."it's now or never." It was time to "follow that dream." Alright, that's enough of the Elvis song references for now...

I got in contact with a robot genius named Thomas Messerschmidt who has a warehouse full of the animatronic Elvis busts. Not only has he figured out numerous hacks for the bust and back-engineered several of its features, but he had made his own Robo-Elvis. But I was looking to go a little farther with accessorizing mine and do it "my way." So with his help, and the help of former Disney Imagineer Tim Lewis, I set about making Robo-Elvis a reality. I drove "way down" to Riverside, CA for their Robot Expo in November '11 and learned a lot!

My plan was to have a top notch costumer, famous for making stitch-for-stitch, thread-accurate custom-made replicas of Elvis' famous stage jumpsuits, create a costume for the robot. I have always liked Elvis' "Flame" jumpsuit and had planned to order one. But they said they were behind schedule and the delivery time would be considerable. I didn't get "all shook up," but started pondering other options.

As fate would have it, in October of '10 I made a friend in Mike Schrimmer of Chicago. As a successful businessman and collector, he had in his collection several replica Elvis suits he purchased from a retiring Elvis Tribute Artist. He brought one to my Halloween party in L.A. on October 29th, 2010. He said I could have it as a gift. I offered to pay for it, but he said it wasn't for sale. But if I wanted it the jumpsuit was mine. Mike's just that kind of guy. When he took it out of its protective suit bag I almost fainted. It was a replica of Elvis' famous Aztec Sundial costume, the very costume I saw Elvis perform in on June 22, 1977! This costume was seemingly my "good luck charm" and I accepted the gift with appreciation! What are the chances that, of all the jumpsuits he owned, he would bring THAT particular jumpsuit with him!? There are no accidents in life. (I had seen that very jumpsuit up close and personal in 1977. It was hanging on a rack in the hotel lobby with dry cleaner plastic over it. It was on its way up to Elvis' room. I took a shot of it before it left my sight. I couldn't believe my luck! A little later the jumpsuit was gone, but the plastic was wadded up and sitting on the base of the rack. I pocketed the plastic for my collection, but to this day I have no idea what happened to it.)

Now I had the perfect costume, and the circle was complete. Somewhere out there, Elvis had to be smiling that sneering smile of his. Just for grins, I tried the costume on and it fit me perfectly! It felt weird to be in Elvis jumpsuit again, considering I hadn't been in one since I was about 20 when I was impersonating him on a regular basis. But when I caught a glimpse in the mirror I noticed one major flaw. The pant legs were about 4 inches too short! So my plans for buying a mannequin that was close to my size had to be scrapped. There wasn't enough of the side-leg applique on the under-hem, so the jumpsuit's legs couldn't be lengthened. The jumpsuit was very long in the torso and wide around the chest, but the legs were very short. So the only option was to get a shorter mannequin and have the crotch altered to fit the mannequin. As you can see, some serious alterations would be needed to make the costume work on this mannequin.

Thankfully, my pal and Special Effects Consultant Jim Ojala urged me to buy a mannequin with poseable elbows. This would allow for a more striking pose once the project was completed. I had already purchased the Animatronic Elvis bust, which Jim had in his possession, so the work began on integrating the bust into the chest of the mannequin. Jim needed to cut away parts of the fiberglass torso to accommodate the bust. He also cut parts of the bust away to help achieve a better fit, but he had to be very careful not to sever some of the electronics that were housed inside the bust's shoulder area. Consultation with Thomas and Tim proved invaluable in this procedure. Thanks guys!


The leads from the speakers, which are housed in the bust, would need to be severed. And longer wires would be attached and run down the leg of the robot, threaded through a small, hidden hole in the robot's platform, and connected to bigger speakers built into the platform's base. Likewise, the IR sensors, which allow Elvis to be controlled by a remote control, would be extended and mounted in the same way.

While Jim worked away in his shop, I set about customizing the jumpsuit. I wasn't happy with how the buckle looked, so I started designing my own. Luckily, I had taken detailed photos of the Aztec Sundial jumpsuit during my trip to Graceland in October of 2010. I referred to those and began constructing the best replica I could muster. I acquired some white vinyl, a piece of thin brass, several bags of gold studs, and some brown acrylic paint. I cut the brass to size, bent a curve into it, and cut a piece of vinyl to match. Once the design on the vinyl was completed, it was glued to the brass piece. A backing was added and velcro helped attach the buckle to the belt. I added extra trim to the belt itself to snazz it up a bit. It was definitely a blast-from-the-past to be working on an Elvis costume again. Something I hadn't done since I was 20 years old. What fun!

I also hit eBay to find replica Elvis jewelry. I had already purchased an actual Elvis scarf that he had thrown to a woman during a concert, and I was happy to be able to find a replica version of Elvis' Maltese Cross, and his TCB ring. But the jumpsuit still didn't seem right to me. So over Christmas to New Year's week...I got busy.

The butterscotch colored appliques, covered in studs and mirrored rhinestones, were nice. But they just didn't "pop" quite yet. After consulting more of the Aztec Sundial photos from Graceland, I determined that the design was missing brown highlights. Once I started painting those in, the design really started to come alive with depth, dimension and pizazz. And since the suit would never be laundered, I was able to use the same brown acrylic paint I used on the belt. So the color match would be perfect! Here's a look at the BEFORE and AFTER photos. Quite a difference! I literally stayed up all night during Christmas break, listening to Christmas music on the satellite, and painting away until my eyes grew bleary in the Chaney Room!

Meanwhile, Jim was sending my progress photos of the integration. He padded out the torso of the mannequin to minimize the size difference between the bust and the torso of the mannequin. Jim had to literally crack open the mannequin's torso and extend it several inches to accommodate the bust. Once he had it to the correct circumference, he fiberglassed it in seamlessly. He had even started to apply some of the costume jewelry rings I had supplied him with.

Shortly after the New Year, Jim came by to show me the progress. We assembled the mannequin to get an idea of the work we had yet to do. Obviously, the original Elvis scarf would be folded over the chest to disguise the seam where the bust meets the torso, and the replica Maltese Cross will hang over the scarf similar to how it is in this photo of Elvis on stage. Jim is also going to paint the entire mannequin to look more lifelike, with skin tones and textures that look more realistic than those on the animatronic bust and the mannequin.

I also purchased a vintage 1970’s Electro-Voice microphone, similar to the ones Elvis used to use on stage. Jim will be reforming the mannequin’s left hand to achieve a more realistic grasp on the microphone. Luckily, thanks to the mannequin’s bendable elbows, Robo-Elvis will be able to hang his right thumb in the chains of his belt, like the real Elvis used to do.

One of the final procedures will be to tailor the jumpsuit specifically to the contours of the mannequin. There’s a lot of work to do here, most of it involving taking up the crotch, and my seamstress Kathy Pillsbury drops by to take the measurements under Jim’s supervision. My contractor Terry, who used to be an Elvis Tribute Artist, donated a pair of his white Elvis boots for the display!



01-23-12 update....

Jim Ojala has been working feverishly on completing the necessary wire extensions inn Roboo-Elvis. The actual bust houses a speaker assembly and IR sensors. But since the speaker housing would be underneath the jumpsuit, all of that had to be moved to an external location. Otherwise the audio would come out muffled from under several layers of fabric. (The jumpsuit fabric, the jumpsuit lining and the Elvis scarf))


The IR sensors were housed on the pocket of the bust's costume, (disguised as rivets) but since we're changing out costumes, the wires of the IR sensors needed to be extended as well. Here you can see all of the soldering and wire work needed to extend the operational wiring.The IR sensors were housed on the pocket of the bust's costume, (disguised as rivets) but since we're changing out costumes, the wires of the IR sensors needed to be extended as well. Here you can see all of the soldering and wire work needed to extend the operational wiring.

Jim also has had to reform some of the fingers on the mannequin's hand in order to put a grip on the microphone. Here they are, completely reformed, andd primeredd. Ready to be painted a lifelike color scheme.

01-31-12 update...

Jim recently painted the Elvis bust a more realisticc palorrthan it had when it was manufactured. He also masked off the rings and microphone so he could paint the hands to look more lifelike. Once the gloss settles as the paint dries, the hands will look very realistic and fit the mannequin well.than it had when it was manufactured. He also masked off the rings and microphone so he could paint the hands to look more lifelike. Once the gloss settles as the paint dries, the hands will look very realistic and fit the mannequin well.

The sensors on the original animatronic Elvis bust were disguised as rivets in his jacket pockets. But Jim will need to extract them from the fabric so Terry can integrate them into the platform. Here's how they look from the front and from the back. Obviously, Jim will need to extend the wires considerably in order to make the robot work effectively via remote control..

02-27-12 update...

Kathy brought over the freshly tailored jumpsuit and it looks amazing. It fits the mannequin perfectly and really brings the image of Elvis to life! She suggested attaching some velcro to the inside of the belt where it hits the sides of the hips. I would also need to attach corresponding velcro to the points on the jumpsuit where I want the belt to rest. The weight of the buckle makes it necessary to secure the belt to the costume so it won't slip.

When Jim arrived with the mannequin he showed me the mannequin's new paint scheme. The silicone face is much more life-like than what you get by buying one of these animatronic units off the shelf. And the hands have been painted very realistic as well. The masking tape he placed over the rings and microphone to protect them from the airbrush is still attached, but will be removed just before unveiling to preserve their sparkle.

04-02-12 update...

My special effects pal Jim Ojala came by mid-afternoon with Robo-Elvis. Today was the day we'd be setting it up! The planets had aligned at long last! Terry my contractor came over, as did Sergio my hair and make-up guy. While Terry and Jim set up the bottom half of the robot on the pedestal, Sergio took the top half into the Chaney Room and styled his hair. He used several reference photos of the real Elvis from some of my photo books. When he was finished it looked terrific! Jim and Terry were running wires down the length of the mannequin, soldering connections and feeding cables down through little holes in the platform. Then we started dressing him in the jumpsuit. We got him all set up and we turned him on. It was amazing. Especially when I added a pair of Elvis’ original glasses and original Elvis scarf to him! I also added a Maltese cross necklace (just like the one Elvis used to wear) and a bracelet. Though it's not completely done yet (still waiting to attach Velcro to the inside of the belt and the waistline of the jumpsuit so it will never move, as well as waiting for some artwork on the speaker grilles) but it was amazing! The animatronic Elvis says random stuff when he's idling and it's great. He'll be quiet for a bit, but then say the oddest things out of the blue. I was looking all over for my dog Roxy (who was trying to constantly get in the middle of our workspace to get pets and love) but she wasn't around. I said, "Roxy!" Just then Robo-Elvis blurted out "Where'd you go, honey?" I looked at Terry, he looked at Jim, Jim looked at Sergio and Sergio looked at me. A chill ran down our spines. It was one of those coincidental things that you could never plan in a million years! When we stopped being weirded out, we laughed out loud! Then we had Robo-Elvis sing "Hound Dog," and halfway through the song Roxy started barking along. It was very funny!

Check out this video of Robo-Elvis in action, as well as some other great shots of his installation process!

Looks like this is the "end!" You can "ass-k" Jim anything, as long as he's not the "butt" of a joke.

Somebody give Elvis a hand! Or better yet, TWO!

A pair of Elvis' original glasses is added, as well as an original Elvis scarf, and a replica Maltese cross necklace.

In the traditional Elvis manner, Robo-Elvis' right hand is hooked into the chains of his belt.

Elvis on-stage in Planet Wallywood!

I picked up some Velcro to hold up his belt, since the mannequin doesn’t have much in the hip department. I’ll have my seamstress Kathy stitch a row of Velcro to the costume all around the hips. That way the belt will remain secure on the robot and won’t slip down. I also bought some thin, black elastic to hold his glasses on. The glasses the robot is wearing are Elvis’ actual, personal glasses. Complete with the gold TCB logos on the sides, and the gold EP in the center. I bought then from a collector who purchased them from the estate of Dennis Roberts, Elvis’ eyewear designer. Since the robot is very animated, and moves his head quite a bit, I didn’t want the original glasses flying off his head and crashing to the floor. So I tied a piece of thin, black elastic into one of the holes on the sides of the glasses, looped it around the back of his head under his wig, and tied it off on the other side of his glasses. That way they’d be secure and you’d most likely never see the elastic.

I glued the “female” side of the Velcro to the inside of the belt. I used the “female” side so it wouldn’t snag the jumpsuit when attached to it. The glue will set permanently in 24 hours, and then we can position the belt after my seamstress stitches the “male” side of the Velcro on to the robot’s jumpsuit.

My pal Scott Sebring brought over the finished speaker grilles with the gold TCB logo on them. They looked awesome, and I popped them on the speakers right away. The only thing I’m waiting on now is the bracket for the framed piece, (the shot I took of Elvis in concert in 1977 and my ticket stub) and my seamstress Kathy to finish up the Velcro work. Then I’ll shoot a video and put it up on YouTube! But so far, everybody's been enjoying Robo-Elvis immensely!

Kathy came by to stitch the Velcro to the jumpsuit, which allowed us to attach the belt to the jumpsuit in a more secure fashion. She also attached the tips of the collar to the jumpsuit so they wouldn’t spread out when the robot moved his head around. I put cardboard supports in the bottom of his pant legs to make the bell bottoms flare out more. It helped to fill them out for a crisper and cleaner look. The creator of this particular suit didn’t use any innerfacing in the pant legs so the cardboard was much needed for the visual effect. Once the cardboard stays were in place where I liked them, I stitched them in permanently.

I did some clean-up work with the wiring on the platform. I secured the A/C adaptor to the inside of the platform so it wouldn’t be seen, and I joined the wire coming out from the back of the robot’s left pant leg with the microphone cord using some black electrical tape. This will create the illusion that the wiring is part of his microphone cord.

There's always an intense sense of satisfaction whenever something this ambitious reaches completion. Now that Robo-Elvis has been finished, let's take a look at the interactivity and functionality of this very unique piece.