Elvis is in the building. He is roaming the streets, riding a throbbing motorcycle and reverse-parking his pink Cadillac beside the library. A trio of Elvises lurch by on stilts, dressed in white jumpsuits and red scarves, overtaking an Elvis in a purple body stocking and chunky gold sunglasses. The mob of bouffant hair and faux rhinestones surge along Clarinda Street, the main street of Parkes, towards Cooke Park, where the world record attempt will take place. I am Elvis too, dressed in a glossy black jumpsuit and untameable wig.
How Parkes – a quiet country town of 15,000 in the centre of NSW – became Australia’s Elvis capital is testament to our capacity to embrace oddness. This is the town’s nineteenth annual Elvis festival, having grown from a small dinner dance in a local function centre in 1993, to an event that doubles the town’s population and sees the mayor donning a jumpsuit for five days straight.
In Cooke Park, Dean Vegas – ‘The Aussie Elvis’ – musters his lookalikes in front of the stage. Dressed in a red jumpsuit embroidered with golden sunbursts, Dean resembles the early 70s Elvis and maintains a perfect Southern drawl. ‘Well, I’ll be,’ he marvels. ‘This certainly is somethin’ special’. Dean is well regarded by the festival crowd. He has an easy charm – not unlike the King himself – and has not only placed highly in international Elvis tribute competitions, but was Australia’s first official Elvis marriage celebrant.
There are now hundreds of Elvises gathered before the stage, sweating beneath their nylon wigs, excited as me to be part of this world record attempt for the largest number of Elvis impersonators. This is my kind of world record: fun, easy and gently daft – as opposed to other world records out there, like completing 46002 push-ups in 24 hours or hanging 34.6 kilos from your testes.
Parkes took the world record for the largest gathering of Elvises in 2007 when they marshalled 147 impersonators. That record was smashed last year when Las Vegas, Parkes’s evil nemesis, gathered a phalanx of 646 Elvises. Parkes want the record back.
Elvises in all shapes and sizes continue to gather in the park. There are toddler Elvises in oversized sunglasses riding the shoulders of father Elvises, Elvises with intricately embroidered belts straining to contain huge beer bellies, lady Elvises in homemade sequined capes and GI Elvises slouching in faded fatigues.
‘That’s it, keep the Elvi coming,’ Dean exhorts from the stage, the plural form flowing easily from his tongue. Just another Elvis fact I’ve learned this weekend.
Dean is confident we can take the record back from Las Vegas, despite Vegas having a population of over half a million, including 500 professional Elvis impersonators, and the credibility of having had the King actually perform there. Parkes has less than 3% of Vegas’s population, although it does have several features Vegas is missing, such as a lively RSL club and a shop selling alpaca scarves. If Parkes is famous for anything it’s for the radio telescope 20km north of town, a fact the festival utilises in its logo: a jumpsuited Elvis using the telescope as a microphone. The overwhelming odds against Parkes reclaiming the record don’t quell Dean’s confidence, ‘Oh golly, this sure is somethin’. There must be hundreds of you guys. I really think we’re going to get the record. I can just imagine them over there in Vegas, scratchin’ their heads and thinkin’ Where the heck is Parkes?’
The festival started when a couple of local Elvis lovers, Bob and Anne Steele, were trying to think of ways to attract visitors to their function centre, Gracelands, in January – a time when the town is typically devoid of locals and tourists alike. They didn’t have to brainstorm too hard: the King’s birthday is on the 8 January. The first festival attracted 210 Elvis fans for dinner and dancing, there was even a tiny street parade – a few blokes with utes – and Elvis movies in the local theatre. The next few festivals were hampered by fire and flood. By the fifth festival the Steeles were running out of steam, especially as most locals hadn’t warmed to the event, many of them regarding a festival to a dead American rockstar as, well, weird. The festival seemed likely to fold.
In Cooke Park the Elvi are still coming. On stage Dean Vegas has been joined by the local mayor, Ken Keith, whose red jumpsuit and luxuriant wig clash with his bushy grey beard. Things get even more surreal when mayor introduces Jeffrey Bleich, a man in a Hawaiian shirt and large sunglasses, who turns out to be America’s ambassador to Australia. ‘America has had 44 presidents but only one King’, he says and the crowd cheers. The mayor and the ambassador cut a cake for the King’s birthday.
These days the local community are right behind the festival; yellow shirted volunteers are all over town, directing traffic, herding Elvi and running stalls. But in the late 1990s, when the festival was in danger of folding, it was left to the local paper – The Champion Post – to rally local support for the event, stressing its unique nature and its success in drawing visitors from around Australia and the world. With further council support and an upsurge of interest from the community the event has been growing ever since, the festival now featuring 140 activities from a junior Elvis lookalike competition to an Elvis themed golf day.
Dean Vegas comes down from the stage to help distribute ‘Love Me Tender’ song sheets to the crowd. Apparently the fine print for the world record requires impersonators to sing an Elvis song for three minutes. It is easy to pick the serious Elvis fans from among the crowd: they have their own hair and refuse a song sheet. Dean returns to the stage and discovers his backing tape only goes for 2 minutes 45 seconds. ‘But that’s fine folks!’ he says. ‘We’ll just repeat the chorus at the end, y’all got that?’
The music starts and we sing. Hundreds of Elvi join Dean to croon the solemn words. I exchange glances and smiles with other Elvi. Until now this whole festival has been a bit of a laugh, but now, surrounded by Elvi of all shapes, sizes and colours, I feel the power of the King. It’s not so much his music, as fine as his voice is, but his ability, more than 30 years after his death, to draw people together. When the backing tape finishes we continue to sing, slow and heartfelt, our voices a magic that hangs in the air.
In the whoops and applause after the song, Dean is handed a slip of paper by a volunteer. ‘Well the numbers are in folks.’ He sighs and looks at the piece of paper again. ‘First, I just want to thank y’all, that was truly a beautiful song and this is truly a great event.’ He gazes out over the sea of Elvi. ‘I’m sorry to inform you we were a few short of the record.’
The crowd groans.
‘Now don’t be like that, ‘Dean says. ‘You ought to be proud! This was an amazin’ effort, incredible really. For a little ol’ county town to gather 510 Elvi is outstanding, and just 136 shy of the world record.’ He pauses for effect. ‘Best of all it means you folks need to come back next year – and bring a friend.’ Around me Elvi nod in agreement.
This story originally appeared in The Big Issue.
More information on the festival can be found here.