PARKES, Australia — Beneath the beating sun of Australia’s vast drought-afflicted plains, a King still reigns from beyond the grave. Each year on his birthday, thousands of loyal subjects flock to Parkes, a cosy bed of rurality almost 200 miles inland from Sydney, to celebrate his undying legacy.
The annual Parkes Elvis Festival, which has just wrapped up its 18th year, has distinguished itself as perhaps the oddest location on the global circuit for Presley devotees to sing collective praise to the Memphis Flash.
“Elvis couldn’t make it today,” said Gnarnayarrahe Waitairie, an aboriginal Australian and long-running Elvis impersonator. “But he’s sent all his other beautiful Elvis people here for the festival and they’re out there singing their hearts out. Praise be the King.”
Since its humble inception in 1993 as a loose collection of a few hundred enthusiasts, the Elvis Festival, like the man himself, has swelled in girth considerably. Today, the festival draws more than double the population of Parkes, this year growing to more than 12,000 visitors and bringing in more than 5 million dollars in revenue, according to festival organisers.
|Parkes locals play bowls, a popular sport in Australia, during the Elvis festival.|
Among the events for the week there is a lookalike competition for both Elvis (in junior and senior categories) and Priscilla, an Elvis Idol, a street parade, memorabilia exhibitions and an Elvis-led renewal of wedding vows. Not to mention a near-constant stream of tribute concerts ranging from professional impersonators to drunken karaoke.
Elvii (as some fanaticists have pluralized the word) of all shapes and sizes crowded the streets, pouring out of pubs and flooding the local park. Men, and women, from under 5 to well over 50 turned out in full regalia. There were the young and fit whose jumpsuit V-necks settled handsomely below their diaphragms, to those who proudly displayed their embodiment of mid-70s Elvis, all gut and double chin.
Edwin Posa, 43, from Sydney’s Western Suburbs took out first place in this year’s lookalike comp. An Elvis fan from his childhood, the father of three has competed three years running.
Judging criteria comes down to authenticity of looks, both in physical appearance and costume, dance style, while vocal talents and overall performance are a must for the "Elvis Idol" competition later in the day.
“I always think my hair could be out of place, I’m very worried about my hair,” Posa said.
While his mum tailored his first white jumpsuit, he had the second one professionally tailored, ordering the rhinestones in from the States.
“You’ve got to get [the suit] custom made, that’s the way to go,” he chirped triumphantly, trophy and a $500 check in hand.
Other impersonators, such as "Crap Elvis," a native of North London, take a more light-hearted approach to the performance.
The self-proclaimed "world’s worst Elvis impersonator," 39-year-old Matt Hale has been busking in a $30 Elvis suit across the globe.
“There was no chance I could be the best Elvis in the world but I had a real chance at being the worst.”
Hale, under his memorable moniker, has even produced a CD of Elvis covers with his own stylistic twist. Favourites at the festival included "Let me be your Terrorist" and "Stalkin’ You" (parodies on the Elvis hits "Let me be your Teddy Bear" and "Stuck on You" respectively).
For the Saturday morning street parade, a favorite of the week, Main Street was gleaming with Rhinestone-studded Nudi Cohn knock-offs and chrome coloured aviators. A seemingly endless procession of Chevrolets, Cadillac’s and Lincolns guzzled petrol in rumbling baritones.
Mayor of Parkes Shire, Ken Keith, recalls the days when only a handful of council vehicles took part in the parade and residents shied away from the event. Now, he says, locals are getting into the spirit.
“It’s really starting to bring the community together,” the 57-year-old councilor said, even confessing to his own trepidations about the town’s adopted royalty. “I have to admit I was a bit more of a Beatles fan in my youth … but I’m starting to become [an Elvis fan].”
The runaway popularity of their brainchild has demanded quick thinking on part of the local council. Tent and caravan space has spilled onto the local showground while savvy townsfolk are leasing out their homes to eager weekenders. To keep the festival contained within the confines of Parkes, the local administration concedes it must evolve or perish.
Rumors are spreading, locals say, that neighbouring councils with more accommodating amenities are conspiring for a coup d’etat on festivities.
“If [visitors] can’t get into an air-conditioned pub and have a cold beer and something to eat then that becomes an issue,” Keith said.
For the moment, however, it seems like the locals have got a firm hold of the throne.
“It’s done wonders to the town in terms of tourism,” said Elvis Lennox, a co-founder of the festival who legally changed his name in 1997.
“It’s something for a little place like Parkes to put us on the map.