I generally don't go into Denny's expecting to see anyone famous, or even anyone who looks like someone famous. If it's late enough at night, the occasional customer might walk in who reminds me of an extra from "The Dead Hate the Living," but that's about it.
Denny's Diner on south Kirkman Road is different. Exchanging the chain's standard Formica-and-foliage design aesthetic for the stylings of a '50s malt shop, the restaurant reaffirms its nostalgic identity every Saturday night by opening its doors to celebrity impersonators who put an affordable spin on the concept of the dinner show -- "diner show," perhaps?
That's how I came to be seated last weekend next to a Marilyn Monroe look-alike who was schmoozing the crowd before getting up to sing. Her platinum hair gleaming under the harsh lights, she opened her mouth to address me in a breathy, put-on voice that was at least as serviceable as Madonna's British accent.
Her life, "Marilyn" said, is becoming difficult: The female members of her clientele don't approve of her flirting with their husbands. It's the way she was made, but they "just don't understand." She was lonely and needed a friend.
My date smiled indulgently. I told Norma Jean that we'd never snub her like those nasty Kennedy boys did. She seemed relieved, and I hoped we had been spared a show-stopping suicide scene in which she might down a bottle of sleeping pills and collapse onto someone else's table.
She stood up to work the room, giving us a full view of a hot-pink evening gown that perfectly matched the neon tubing that ran across the length of the ceiling. A feather boa hung across her shoulders, and her dress was tied in a bustlelike bow that was huge enough to house Elian Gonzalez, should she ever have to spirit him out of a diner kangaroo-style.
M-G-M Grand Slam
"This is so big!" our Marilyn cooed when she was handed her microphone. "Oh my! I've never had one this big before!" The toddler who was seated in a nearby high chair appeared nonplussed.
As her soundman struggled to cue up a prerecorded backing tape and her mike emitted intermittent but fierce howls, the starlet welcomed an elderly couple to the show. The man, Frank, said he had turned 75 that very day, and he received a rub on his bald head and a serenade of "Happy Birthday, Mr. President" as gifts. Frank revealed that he had been in the audience at the real JFK fete, lo those many years ago.
"I looked better then," he admitted as Marilyn rested his face on her ample cleavage for a commemorative photo. (You can't get that for free at Club Juana.)
The sporadic attendance in the diner's nonsmoking section was no indication of the mob scene in smoking, where regulars sucked down cancer sticks while discussing the finer points of popular culture.
"Y'all know about Elvis passing away, right?" one middle-age mama asked. I wasn't sure if she had come upon some cracking new conspiracy theory or if news was merely slow in reaching Denny's.
The singer then brought out a 7-year-old girl named Elizabeth, who was dressed in matching attire and joined in a table-hopping run through "Diamonds Are a Girl's Best Friend." Her family told us that Elizabeth had gradually become a part of the act since happening on Celebrity Night some time ago, but usually augments her outfit with a beauty mole and wig that she had been in too much of a hurry to don this time. She did, however, wear a headset mike that made her appear ready to receive phoned-in orders for a Civil War Chess Set.
Marilyn followed the duet by leading a conga line across the floor. Frank stood directly behind her, clearly relishing each sudden stop.
Let's make lunch
Her duties momentarily ended, the entertainer rejoined us at our table, producing a business card that unmasked her as Dawnn R. Behrens of the Ocoee-based Double Take Productions (www.servos.com/look), a company that supplies personality impostors to conventions, promotions and other special events.
Behrens said she's been appearing at Denny's Diner every month since the eatery opened two years ago. (She's now part of a rotating roster of performers that includes faux Travoltas, Presleys and soon a Buddy Holly.) She called the work a good, rewarding supplement to her usual activities, which include shows for the Legends in Concert series on the Sterling Casino cruises that depart from Port Canaveral. But she's starting to worry about the moral implications of the gig and wondered aloud if she's providing a healthy role model for young Elizabeth.
We told her not to worry; it isn't as if she's playing Li'l Kim on Gangsta Rap Night. Performing vamped-up routines at burger joints may constitute second- or even third-hand stardom at best, but in a resort economy like ours, it's a veritable Take Our Daughters to Work Day opportunity. So thank heaven for little grills.