Imagine a sleepy country town of twelve thousand inhabitants transformed for one week every year by an invasion of raucous aliens wearing white bejeweled jump suits and huge wigs. Imagine a town on the edge of the Australian outback where the summer temperature rises regularly past 40 degrees Celsius, causing the tar on the roads to turn molten. Put these together and you have the annual Elvis Presley Festival in Parkes, a town in the central-west of New South Wales better known for wheat and wool.
There are probably as many international Elvis festivals as there are Biennales of contemporary art. Both phenomena attract a hard core of fans known for their cultish devotion, and a mass of curiosity-seekers. One difference is that the Biennales are found in major cities such as Venice, Sydney and Sao Paolo, but the Elvis festivals tend to be in more out-of-the-way locations. When there is no Elvis festival in progress few would feel an uncontrollable urge to visit Collingwood, Ontario; Branson, Missouri; or Porthcawl in Wales.
Parkes has at least one other attraction: the Parkes Observatory – a famous radio telescope that played a role in beaming the pictures of the moon landing to TV screens around the world. That story has been immortalized in the Australian film of 2000, The Dish. Although the action is set in Parkes, the movie was mostly shot in the nearby town of Forbes, which has better survived the soulless redevelopment that overtook so many Australian country towns in the 1970s.
There may be no plausible connection between astronomy and Elvis-ology, but most festival visitors also make their way out to the Observatory, which has a fascinating visitors’ centre. Apart from Elvis, Elvis, Elvis, there is nothing in Parkes that would encourage one to linger in the town. Fully aware of this, the event organizers lay on a packed program of events to keep fans immersed in rapturous contemplation of the King from morning till midnight. The festival website lists more than a hundred events, and boasts that the entertainment is almost non-stop.
The preferred way of arriving in Parkes is by train from Sydney, on board the Elvis Express, accompanied a battalion of Elvis impersonators in full regalia. The next day begins with the kind of gargantuan breakfast Elvis used to eat, such as the “Hunka Hunka” special advertised by the Parkes Services Club. Perhaps a quick trip to Elvis Central is in order, to pick up a few souvenirs and some stick-on sideburns, or to have one’s photo taken with a cardboard cut-out of the King. Then it’s off to Cooke Park, where a busy market is held and free entertainment echoes all day from an enormous stage.
During day-light hours the excitement is held in check by the temperature, which can be withering. The festival is timed to coincide with Elvis’s birthday on 8 January, but this is also one of the hottest times of the year in the central west. So although the free Elvis in the Park concerts are well attended, only the most diehard fans will spend more than a few hours under the huge awning that shelters the audience from the sun. There is a steady exchange between Cooke Park and the air-conditioned interiors of pubs, clubs and other venues, as people periodically seek to cool down and re-hydrate. One popular alternative is a free screening of Elvis’s 1961 film, Blue Hawaii in the Library, where an Elvis art competition is also on display. Other highlights range from the selection of Miss Priscilla 2008, to the Cheeseburger-eating Competition at the Paragon café.
The pubs and clubs all host their own Elvis-oriented programs, prompting many sweat-soaked fans to settle down with a beer in the dark, cavernous recesses of venues such the Parkes Leagues Club, and take whatever is on offer. One good reason for preferring the free entertainment in the park is that visitors get to sample the talents of leading Elvis impersonators such Mark Andrew and Silas Lulic. If they intend to take in a paid show in the evening, they can make an informed choice.
The festival has been going since 1993, and attendances have grown every year, making early hotel bookings a necessity. In 2008 an estimated eight thousand people attended. There are no statistics on what percentage of these visitors came attired as Elvis or Priscilla, but the streets were so full of clones that one could almost believe those statisticians who tell us that according to their current rate of increase, by the year 2010, every third person in the world will be an Elvis impersonator.
If there was a fixation on Elvis’s late period, which began with his legendary comeback in Las Vegas in 1969, this may be because most of the Elvis impersonators seemed to have measurements that rivaled those of the King himself during his twilight years. By the end, Elvis had piled on the kilos so much that he had to starve himself for weeks and wear a corset onstage to get through those twice-nightly performances in Vegas. His latter-day disciples seem more relaxed about their waistlines, being content to wear King-sized costumes.
The festival’s central event is the Elvis Street Parade, which brings together every Elvis and Priscilla in Parkes, in what seemed like an endless procession down the town’s main street. This was the perfect demonstration of what a flexible, all-purpose icon Elvis has become. There were biker Elvises and lawn-bowler Elvises; pre-school and geriatric versions; Elvises of all ethnic persuasions, and from many different parts of the world. I looked unsuccessfully, for the former Japanese Prime-Minister, Junichiro Koizumi, famous for recording his own album of Elvis numbers and erecting a statue of the King in Tokyo’s Harajuku district.
Elvis’s child bride, Priscilla, is represented on the floats by an equally broad range of age groups and body types, her elfin beauty transformed into a wig-and-frock affair that anyone can emulate.
Later that day, when dozens of Elvises are assembled on stage, the dominance of the ‘Las Vegas’ look is apparent. It seems to be a middle-aged male fantasy to slip on a white jump suit covered in sparkling stones, with high collar, short cape, and massive belt. The big wigs and sunglasses allow for the harmonious co-existence of exhibitionism and anonymity, as the guys relive the dreams of their teens.
Elvis is often credited with the invention of rock and roll, which in its early days was seen as a menace to youth and public morality. This all changed with the King’s stint in the army, from 1958-1960, which established him as an all-American boy. As his career progressed through a decade of trashy Hollywood movies and corny hit singles, Elvis became separated from the popular music of his times. Compared to the Beatles or the Rolling Stones he looked like a throwback to another era. Yet to his millions of ever-loyal fans he remained the living embodiment of the rock and roll spirit, no matter how nakedly commercial his songs became, nor how weird his outfits.
By a strange inversion, as the music grew more middle-of-the-road and Elvis himself descended into a stupor caused by drug abuse and over-eating, the hero worship only continued to grow. The King’s premature death in 1977 unleashed one of the greatest tides of public mourning ever devoted to a public figure. To this day, there are many who refuse to believe that Elvis is really dead. One day, it is said, the Saviour will return, and sort out the terrible mess into which rock and roll has degenerated.
While we’re waiting, events such as the Parkes Elvis Festival are keeping the flames alive. Although the average age of attendees is well over fifty, new generations of Elvis fans are being introduced to a King who epitomizes the most socially-acceptable, God-fearing, family-oriented values. The culmination, this year, was the Elvis Gospel Church Service, held in the Big W car park – a huge concrete bunker attached to a shopping centre. Between an assortment of songs and dances, film clips and prayers, we learned about Elvis’s life-long devotion to the Lord and the old Gospel songs. This was followed the same day by Back to the Altar with Elvis, where a succession of couples renewed their marriage vows on stage in Cooke Park.
The King’s long-term devotion to more esoteric religious beliefs, or the fact that his own fairytale marriage to Priscilla quickly fell apart, have not sullied his image in central-western New South Wales. Under a blazing Aussie sun, Elvis remains not only the king of rock and roll, but the patron saint of good clean fun. He is Christ-like and Kitsch; an icon that can be praised and parodied, worshipped and spoofed simultaneously. Faced with an act like that, one can only join the true believers, and admit that yes, Elvis really is alive and well. If his Second Comeback is being staged, not in Las Vegas, but a little country town in rural New South Wales, he makes up in saintliness what he loses in numbers.
Originally published in International Travel Plan