Thousands of Elvis fans and impersonators are gathering for an annual festival honouring the King of Rock and Roll. But it’s not in Memphis, Tennessee or Las Vegas — it’s in Parkes, a tiny town in Australia, where the King has been on their mind at an annual festival for 25 years.
Subel Bhandari –
The train station was full… that much was normal for Sydney’s Central Station at 7 am on a Thursday. But the platforms weren’t packed with people in business suits on their way to work. Instead, men wore shiny jumpsuits and had quiffy wigs with long sideburns.
Women wore go-go boots and bouffant wigs. Anyone caught in the rush didn’t take long to realise… they were among a group of Elvis (or Priscilla) Presley impersonators.
Flanked by choreographed dancers, Brendan Chase, a tribute singer from New Zealand, sang “Hound Dog” and “Jailhouse Rock” as Elvis fans and impersonators danced to the tunes in front of the station’s Platform One.
“All you Elvis, you are hot as ever. All you Priscilla, you are young as ever,” organiser Geff Rice told some 450 passengers preparing to take a six-hour ride on the Elvis Express to the Parkes Elvis Festival, in New South Wales, 365 km west of Sydney.
Another performer sang the last song of the morning: “Mystery Train.” Then they took off.
“The ticket for the train ride was sold out within 20 minutes,” said conductor Ross Pedly, wearing an ill-fitting Elvis wig.
The festival — a tribute to celebrate the life and music of the King of Rock and Roll — started in 1993 as an Elvis birthday party with just 14 people in a local Parkes pub called Graceland, owned by a couple who were “die-hard King fans.”
Last year, the town hosted more than 22,000 people, more than twice its total population.
Some 200 local families rented out their homes to Elvis fans. Many slept in tents and camps on open grounds.
Even neighbouring towns benefit from the incoming tourists.
According to the New South Wales government, the five-day festival brought in more than 11 million Australian dollars ($8.2 million) to the region.
The festival has become so popular that some of the hotels in the town are booked out for the event for the next five years, according to one organiser.
Parkes is largely a crop-and-livestock town.
In recent decades it has seen some economic growth due to mining boom, mostly gold and copper.
For residents like Rice, Elvis festival is a perfect way of introducing city dwellers to rural town life.
“Otherwise they would have never visited such towns,” he said.
This year the festival is set to run through Sunday with the theme Viva Las Vegas, a popular song by Elvis and a crowd favourite.
There will be 120 free and ticketed events, including concerts, performances and competitions for: the best-dressed Elvis; best dancer; and best edible Elvis art.
Organisers are expecting more than 25,000 visitors.
Chase, a professional tribute artist who performed more than 120 shows last year, was invited as an official guest.
“It’s pretty humbling. I have been a tribute singer for the King for 23 years. This is the second largest Elvis festival in the world,” Chase said.
He said he was set to perform at six venues in four days.
“The festival is a community. All those who come are Elvis fans. We all talk the same language. We are all here to celebrate his legacy.”
“Elvis is as cool as it gets,” Chase said, putting on his wig before a performance in one of the train compartments.
Heather Crawford, a Sydney resident, had come dressed up as the King himself, one of the very few women to do so.
“I have always wanted to wear a white jumpsuit made of polyester in the middle of summer,” she said, laughing. “Why not.”
“Elvis is the most iconic star of our generation. You cannot not dance when you hear his music.”
Rice, dressed in a red jumpsuit with quiff wigs, fake gold necklaces and dark sunglasses with golden frame, said he was proudly an “Elvis look-alike, and not a sing-a-like.”
“Initially I didn’t mind him. Now I love him,” the 46-year-old said. “I have been involved with this festival for the past five years and I have only seen it getting bigger and better.”
For Alfred Vaz, 60, a self-proclaimed Bollywood Raza (King), this was his fifth visit to the Parkes Elvis Festival.
“It’s because Elvis is the King,” Vaz said, donning a yellow jumpsuit with sequins. “This dress was handmade in Mumbai, especially for this occasion.”
“Oh, I love this festival and the celebrations. There is nothing like this anywhere. I will participate in singing as well as Elvis impersonator competitions,” he said. “I nail his song ‘Teddy Bear.’”