Warwick Sprawson

A writer from Melbourne, Australia

Category: Non-fiction

The King of Parkes

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.

Advance Australia Where?

Are Australians really the sunburnt slackers we like to think we are? Warwick Sprawson takes to the streets with a stopwatch to find out.

Recently I bumped into a French tourist, André, while I was on holiday in southern NSW. André loved Australia – it was so different to France – not just the plants and animals but the attitude of the people. He thought Australians were gloriously relaxed and contagiously happy. He thought we had much more time than his compatriots for a chat, a joke or to help a stranger. ‘In Paris everything is so fast – go, go, go. There are too many pressures.’ While I swelled with pride on behalf of the national identity, I also felt the tiniest bit fraudulent. It seemed to me, as an inhabitant of a gritty Melbourne suburb, that Australians were not as relaxed as we were often portrayed, and definitely not as laid-back as we used to be. My sense was that 21st century life was making us increasingly rushed and rude. Salespeople were too harried to help customers and customers became tetchy after the slightest delay. The sound of car horns, once rare, was now common. Office workers pummelled lift buttons and ate lunch at their desks. Pedestrians glanced at their watches and stepped up their pace. Was André right? Or was he just buying the national myth? I decided to try and find out.

I started my research with a 2006 ‘Pace of Life’ study by Richard Wiseman, Professor of psychology at the University of Hertfordshire in the UK. His team measured the time it took city-dwellers to walk 60 feet (18.3 metres) along a footpath in 32 cities around the world. The work built upon a 1994 study by Professor Robert Levine from the California State University, which found walking pace gave a reliable measure of a society’s pace of life, with faster cities less likely to help others and more likely to suffer heart disease. Wiseman’s study ranked the cities’ walking times (in seconds) as:

1) Singapore (Singapore): 10.55

2) Copenhagen (Denmark): 10.82

3) Madrid (Spain): 10.89

4) Guangzhou (China): 10.94

5) Dublin (Ireland): 11.03

6) Curitiba (Brazil): 11.13

7) Berlin (Germany): 11.16

8) New York (USA): 12.00

9) Utrecht (Netherlands): 12.04

10) Vienna (Austria): 12.06

11) Warsaw (Poland): 12.07

12) London (United Kingdom): 12.17

13) Zagreb (Croatia): 12.20

14) Prague (Czech Republic): 12.35

15) Wellington (New Zealand): 12.62

16) Paris (France): 12.65

17) Stockholm (Sweden): 12.75

18) Ljubljana (Slovenia): 12.76

19) Tokyo (Japan): 12.83

20) Ottawa (Canada): 13.72

21) Harare (Zimbabwe): 13.92

22) Sofia (Bulgaria): 13.96

23) Taipei (Taiwan): 14.00

24) Cairo (Egypt): 14.18

26) Bucharest (Romania): 14.36

27) Dubai (United Arab Emirates): 14.64

28) Damascus (Syria): 14.94

29) Amman (Jordan): 15.95

30) Bern (Switzerland): 17.37

31) Manama (Bahrain): 17.69

32) Blantyre (Malawi): 31.60

The study was interesting, but it didn’t help me much – Australia wasn’t among the counties included. But I was curious, would Aussies laconically lope or speedily stride?

Measuring 18.3 metres on a busy Melbourne footpath attracted a few bemused stares from passing pedestrians. The footpath I choose – a section between A’Beckett and Little Latrobe streets in the city – was flat and free from obstacles as specified in the Wiseman study. Their procedure required timing 35 men and 35 women who were unencumbered by shopping bags and not distracted by mobile phones, friends or colleagues, between 11.30 and 2 in the afternoon.

Having marked the required distance on the footpath with masking tape, I lurked on the other side of the road with my stopwatch, taking times and recording them in my notebook. When I crunched the numbers I found that Melbournians walked the distance in an average of 10.99 seconds: the fifth fastest of all the countries studied. As I had suspected, we were rushed, but were we rude? Did this pacy perambulation mean we were stressed out? Were fast nations less happy than our cruising cousins?

A 2005 World Values Survey gave me a few clues. The survey asked people from 50 nations, ‘Taking all things together, would you say you are: very happy, quite happy, not very happy, or not happy at all?’ Australia was the fifth happiest nation, behind Iceland, Sweden, Denmark and the Netherlands. Similar surveys confirmed the same thing: Australia is a very happy country.

Okay, so we’re happy – good news. But what about my gut-feeling that Australians are more stressed than they used to be? Was our happiness rising or falling?

A research paper by Ronald Inglehart, Roberto Foa, Christopher Peterson and Christian Welzel, “Social Change, Freedom and Rising Happiness” included a helpful internet appendix:

While happiness is apparently a tricky thing to measure, the graph shows a clear trend: while we’re pretty damn happy on a world scale, our happiness is decreasing. It is a trend that’s true for many other developed counties too, a phenomenon known as the ‘Easterlin Paradox’.

The Easterlin Paradox was named after Richard Easterlin, author of the seminal 1974 paper ‘Does Economic Growth Improve the Human Lot?’. Easterlin found that each nation’s  happiness levels remain largely static over time regardless of economic growth. For prosperous, democratic and tolerant societies like Australia, happiness largely depends on the amount of time we spend with friends and family, our health and the breadth of our personal freedoms. So why does our happiness seem to be declining?

One possible explanation is the long hours our jobs often demand. A 2003 OECD study showed that Australians work more hours per year than any other surveyed nation, even more than the famously hardworking Japanese. And while working more may increase our wealth, it can impact on our health and reduce the time we spend with friends and family – things that the studies indicate make us happy.

So it seems André was right, or at least partially. Australians are happy people, but perhaps not the smiling slackers of international fame. The studies imply that we are working too hard, creating pressures that can be measured in our frantic pacing along city streets. Perhaps we have somehow become convinced that it’s the pursuit of wealth that will make us happy, rather than the ‘quality of life’ issues indicated in the studies.

All of which is just a very longwinded way to say that I’m due for another holiday – we are all due for another holiday – part of our civic duty to raise the nation’s happiness. So, a shout out to my friend André – save a wave for me.

 

This article was originally published in 21D.

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