December 9, 1996


By Seth Kaufman

Sometime soon, George Leonard will leave the curious, windowless house his father built on a mansion-lined street in Providence, RI, and drive to Manhattan. As he has for most Thursdays this past year, Mr. Leonard will perform his bizarre Elvis Sinatra lounge act at Detour, a small jazz club in the East Village. He will sing and play violin while the Elvis Sinatra band, a "virtual orchestra" that for the most part exists only on videotape, swings away on a screen to his left. 

Whether the crowd at Detour mouths the lyrics to Mr. Leonard's witty "Us Handsome Guys" ("I wish I was just an ordinary person/Being handsome makes the situation worsen"), applauds a videotaped sax solo, or treats his music as little more than a soundtrack to sop cocktails by, one thing is certain: Mr. Leonard will make no money. 

"It's a hat situation," said the 49-year-old crooner, describing the club's payment plan. "I won't do that. I can't do that. I don't know how to do that. There was this one lovely woman, and one day she passed the hat for me and collected $14. I said, 'Hey, thanks a lot. Now I'm a $14 act.' " 

Mr. Leonard's jazz act is perplexing. Although his stage name suggests a veritable Gila monster among lounge lizards, Elvis Sinatra's performance is largely shtickless, save for some bold ties and a flowery smoking jacket. He's very earnest; his straight-faced introductions of his "band" on the video screen make it difficult to tell whether he thinks his act is funny. And then there's that long drive to a low-profile gig. "Part of me," said Mr. Leonard, "is a little insane." 

Mr. Leonard, who runs his family's Pawtucket, R.I., dry-cleaning store, Mr. U.S.A. One-Hour Cleaner, is still riding out a long, strange trip that has propelled him in a number of directions --a court battle that generated international headlines, a rock opera, an early cable show with songs about outer space. 

"A force takes over, and he's driven to do it and 'he'll just do it until it's out of his system ," said Arthur McKinley, a communications executive who counts himself as a longtime friend of Mr. Leonard's. 

Mr. McKinley watched Mr. Leonard lose thousands of dollars making The Commander Video Show, a warped variety show that ran at 1:30 P.M. on Manhattan cable TV's Channel J in the late 1970s. "He knows that it's a big hassle, but like a true artist, he knows he has to do it." 

As Elvis Sinatra, Mr. Leonard, whose gray shoulder-length hair and black hardshell glasses make him look like Woody Allen with a case of the good vibes, mixes standards with songs of his own. "When I write songs, I start out dead serious," he said. "Then sometimes they get funny. But I'm really a serious songwriter." 

When Mr. Leonard played "I Love Myself When I'm With You" at a recent Detour gig, his image appeared on the video screen. Then suddenly, the two Mr. Leonards--one on stage and one on screen--were dancing in unison. It was a nifty little gimmick that brought smiles and applause from the sparse crowd. And Elvis Sinatra smiled back as he crooned, "When I'm alone in the night, I think of you and hold myself real tight." 

"Where else is there?" said Mr. Leonard when asked about his weekly trek to Detour. Mention the shorter journey from Providence to Boston, and he shakes his head: "What's there? There's nothing there. There's like two little clubs, but probably they wouldn't like me. I mean, maybe the people would, but the management wouldn't."


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