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Next Car's Editor, Stephen Walker, 
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Next Car's Stephen Walker at the
Elvis Festival in Parkes NSW

The Elvis Festival in Parkes, NSW

by Stephen Walker

25th January, 2008

Home > News > Events

Road testing a new car is one thing, but road testing an "Elvis Festival" is quite another.

However, in a quest to determine why nobody (repeat nobody) ever impersonates a motoring journalist, I travelled to Parkes NSW to witness and road test as best I could an event which takes over an entire country town for a weekend each year, as it (Parkes) hosts an event known as the "Elvis Festival".

The homely town of Parkes is situated in the central west of New South Wales, on the Newell Highway between Peak Hill and Forbes. It is usually home to 15,000 people (2004 figures). But on the second weekend of January, thousands come into town for the annual festival which is timed to coincide with Elvis' birthday. This year, an estimated 8,000 visitors arrived, including innumerable Elvis impersonators.

Perhaps you've heard of Elvis Presley, perhaps you have not.

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Elvis was an American entertainer who was born on 8th January, 1935, in Tupelo, Mississippi, USA. He died 16th August, 1977 in Memphis, Tennessee, USA. During his 42 years on earth he became excessively famous as a rock'n'roll singer. In fact, many people refer to Mr. Presley as the "King of Rock'n'Roll". Even before he died, people were impersonating the long-term Memphis resident. Today, an entire industry is supported by these would be Elvis', who are affectionately known as "Elvis Impersonators".

During 6 days in Parkes, NSW, I observed many Elvis impersonations. Sadly, though, I noticed no-one impersonating a motoring journalist. There was obviously a good reason for that, although that particular reason did escape me.

The sheer volume of participation makes this festival a 'must see' for those who enjoy experiencing life in this great country. For those who can wrap themselves into the grand scheme of things, enjoyment is guaranteed. Just check the images taken at the festival. Smiling faces abound!


Elvis Impersonators

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Observing the many Elvis impersonators attending the festival in Parkes was a highlight of the journey. Some very innovative costumes were worn. Here's a 'shot' of Silas Lulic (29), a young man from Melbourne, impersonating a young Elvis Presley. Check out Silas' costume. It authentically reproduced Elvis' uniform from his days in the US Army. Silas has a lifetime interest in Elvis, having inherited his mum's interest in the American performer. It was Silas' second visit to Parkes for the Elvis Festival. Understandably, Silas Lulic, won the 2008 Elvis Look-a-Like Competition with his superb costume, which was unique to say the least, as most impersonators wore the traditional Elvis jump suit. Silas performed in Forbes on the Saturday night and in Parkes on the Sunday. Proving his worth as a great Elvis Presley impersonator, Silas will perform with Elvis' drummer DJ Fontana at the Dallas Brooks Centre in Melbourne, on 24th, 25th and 26th April, 2008. These will be the 78 year old drummer's final public appearances in Australia. It's a great tribute to both DJ and Silas that they will perform together.

Shown with Silas Lulic in the accompanying image is local Parkes lady, Wendy Lillington (32), who was participating in the Priscilla Look-a-Like competition for the first time. Wendy, usually a redhead, had her natural hair 'done' for the competition. The Parkes community involvement is a highlight of the festival for Wendy, who inherited an interest in Elvis from her parents.

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Another talented performer was Joe Piastrino, a professional Elvis impersonator, from Melbourne, Victoria. During the Elvis Sound-a-Like competition, Joe sang "Welcome To My World" and "American Trilogy", both being particularly well received by the attentive audience in Cooke Park. Joe has a life-time interest in Elvis and has been singing Elvis songs since he was 7 years old. He has performed on hundreds of occasions as an Elvis impersonator. In addition to Elvis Presley, Joe impersonates Buddy Holly, the Everly Brothers (in the singular) and Roy Orbison.

Joe's family runs "Ibiza Hair", a hair salon in Albert Park, Melbourne.

When you see Joe perform you come to the conclusion that some Elvis impersonators need more rehearsal time, because Joe demonstrated his professionalism with a polished performance that would have been welcomed anywhere, anytime.

Images of more impersonators at the festival are linked here.


Cars of the Elvis Festival

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Elvis Presley was at the height of his career in the late 1950s and throughout the 1960s. His interest in cars was well known. On that basis you would expect to see many cars of that era, particularly American cars, in Parkes as part of the festival. Likewise, because Elvis had an interest in motor cycles, you would expect to see era motor cycles. To a degree, there were vehicles of the 50s and 60s in Parkes during the festival. However, the number of era related American cars was not nearly as many as this car enthusiast would have expected. Although, after speaking with several people it would seem that the number of American cars at subsequent festivals is likely to increase.

One car which comes to mind, when talking about Elvis, is Cadillac. It seems Elvis Presley had a keen interest in Cadillac, a brand of car which some people still have an interest in, even today. Here is an image of a 1959 Cadillac coupe.

Images of vehicles at the festival are shown here.


Daytime Entertainment

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Throughout the shopping centre and at several licenced clubs many Elvis impersonators were found performing free of charge. Some were acting as buskers, whilst others were established performers attracting sizeable audiences. Some sold their CDs as a means of defraying expenses.

Here's an image (opposite) of Rick Gattenhof, from Melbourne, performing at Cafe de Flowers in Parkes. He performed a long version of the popular hymn "How Great Thou Art" to the delight of his audience, amongst hours of other songs.

Just being in Parkes is entertainment in itself. The atmosphere propels (almost) everyone into the 'Elvis' theme.

The streets of the Parkes shopping centre were 'alive' with entertainment on the Friday, making a Thursday arrival a necessity from my perspective.


Nightly Entertainment

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At numerous licenced premises, some semi-professional or professional entertainment is offered. These premises are unsuitable, of course, for families with children. However, it seemed to me that the plentiful 'free' entertainment is of such a high standard that families won't be disappointed by not having a night-out at the club.

In one club, Don Masters (19) (see the 2011 updated image opposite) from Sydney NSW, wearing a suit made by his mum, sang "Suspicious Minds" to an extremely enthusiastic audience who demonstrated their grateful appreciation quite joyfully. Don has been singing Elvis since he first performed at his school, in suburban Sydney, when he sang "Blue Suede Shoes" when he was 8 years old. At 6' 6" tall, Don is head and shoulders above all comers in Parkes! This year marked Don's second visit to Parkes and he attracted an audience quite easily. Be assured, no-one left when Donald Masters was on the floor. Later, I witnessed Don sing "It's Now Or Never". His powerful projection of the chorus enthralled the audience. His mum and dad, who were in the audience, would have been, quite justly, proud of their boy.


Children's Involvement

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Don't think that only adults dress-up as Elvis or Priscilla. Many children enjoy this festival, too. There were those who simply wore a wig or a plastic hair-do. Then there were others who had the costume on and they looked great. But as a surprise, there was at least one little 'Elvis' on duty. And he had a good audience observing his performance, as he demonstrated his commitment to the 'cause'.

This festival was quite child friendly and this was admirably demonstrated by the large number of children participating.

For the most part, adult participants were well behaved. During the festival, I only witnessed one performer who possessed low behavioural standards. Presumably, the organising committee will not accept any future participation from this particular Elvis impersonator, as many would have believed his type of behaviour would be best left to the football players we often read about.


Street Parade

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At 10:00 hours on the Saturday morning, during the Elvis Festival, a parade goes through the town centre. It is the hallmark of a town's participation and defines the Festival because of the active support of so many Parkes residents and businesses. The parade took over an hour to pass. If you're ever in Parkes for this festival, you just have to witness the street parade.

Some 70+ cars and 50+ motor cycles were involved. Numerous 'floats' (approximately 15) with active support of many businesses were, also, participating. There were countless characters present, mostly dressed as Elvis or Priscilla. The Celestial Band (from Sydney NSW) added a little variety to the parade this year. The band features approximately 70 players and dancers.


Girls, Girls, Girls

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There she was just walking down the street (to quote the well known 1960s British entertainers, Manfred Mann) ..... and just who was it? It was Priscilla Presley!

Priscilla was married to Elvis, after they met in Germany during Elvis' army days. They divorced in 1973.

For this year, Priscilla was a distinctly evident participant. Local ladies and visitors, alike, warmed to the concept of including the former Mrs. Presley in the amazing annual Elvis Festival.

Local hairdressers were in on the act and many of those businesses supported the festival. There were many Priscillas spotted working in banks, retail stores, cafes and, of course, hair salons.

There was no age barrier for involvement, young girls, young ladies and older ladies, too, were all in on the act.


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Priscilla Look-a-Like

Numerous competitions were conducted during the Elvis Festival. One such competition was the Priscilla Look-a-Like Contest. This year, 'Blue Hawaii' was a sub-theme throughout the festival. Blue Hawaii was one of the many films in which Elvis performed.

This year, the Priscilla Look-a-Like competition was won by a keen dancer, Debbie Anderson (47) of Bellingen, NSW. Debbie, also, won when she first entered the competition in 2003. A favourite Elvis song of Debbie's is "Why Me Lord", a gospel song which Debbie mentioned is sang from the heart by Elvis.

Priscilla Presley ..... it was a nice touch to include this aspect of the festival.

Today, Priscilla Presley plays the role of Priscilla Presley, former wife of Elvis Presley.


Gospel Service

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An obvious highlight of the Elvis Festival is the well attended Gospel Service held on the Sunday morning. Despite its early start of 08:30 hours, over 2,100 people gathered in the sheltered car park of the Big W store in Parkes and participated enthusiastically. Many folks, of course, recognise that Elvis Presley was spiritually aware and the many gospel songs in his repertoire was testimony to his belief in God. If you've never heard Elvis sing "How Great Thou Art", you would be doing yourself a great favour by borrowing a copy and listening to the words. It is a song (hymn) which rejoices in the fact that we are not here on Earth by accident!

The service was conducted by Rev Tom Stuart of the Uniting Church, Parkes, who demonstrated, clearly, a well researched understanding of Elvis' life and the influence his music has and has had on people. Tom also shared his view on Elvis' spiritual beliefs. If any aspect of the whole festival is noteworthy, it has to be listening to Tom's clearly defined understanding of Elvis. If you attend a future Elvis Festival in Parkes, take my advice if you will, and be sure to arrive early for the Gospel Service. Have an early Saturday night and be ready to listen to every word Tom Stuart has to say. Additionally, enjoy the music too!

Some absolutely joyous songs, performed perfectly, by various artists (including but not limited to Lexine Solomon, Nixson Eduard and the Parkes Uniting Church Band) vibrated through the car park proving that Christian songs have a very broad appeal because I observed people were still arriving throughout the service, yet I saw no-one leaving. Every seat in my (often changing) line of sight was occupied!

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Elvis Presley proved his value as an entertainer, the stories tell it all. His beliefs, as we learned on the day, told the story of the man.

In coming gospel services, a theme "Holy Longing" through our insights into the life of Elvis Presley will be explored. I would not want to miss it.

During the Gospel Service this year, Damian McGuiness (19), from Melbourne, attending his fifth Elvis Festival, made his first performance when he sang "If I Can Dream" during the service. It was one of many highlights, which, importantly, demonstrated due reverence whilst at the same time provided entertainment for the large audience. Other songs included "Oh Happy Day" and "Amazing Grace". Additionally, Cliff Richard's "The Millennium Prayer", admirably sang by Nixson Eduard, was enjoyed by many.

Additional images taken at the Gospel Service are: here.


Crying In The Chapel

Another feature of the Elvis Festival is the Wedding Vow renewal ceremony. This year, dozens of couples were joyful in the public pronouncement of their love for each other. There was certainly no crying in Cooke Park, Parkes, the make-believe Chapel on this occasion. However, tears of joy may have flowed as celebrant Andrew "Elvis" Appleby conducted his 3rd Annual "Back to the Altar" ceremony.

Of course, the definition of marriage is the union of man and woman before God. So, in context, the vow renewal ceremony is a generic service conducted on a mass basis for mass appeal. Therefore, it is not a real vow renewal ceremony as such, because many participants would have had different words before them at the time of their marriage. It's more a case of a contemporary 'feel good' arrangement, because, legalistically, if something is being renewed it has to be the same. But that didn't deter the enthusiasm for the event.

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The oldest couple renewing their Wedding Vows were Parkes locals, Ray and Myrtle Barber (centre of the image opposite). The 92 and 89 year olds were a clear favourite with the capacity audience. Ray and Myrtle looked splendid as they presented themselves at the Festival. Their involvement was 'orchestrated' by their daughter-in-law, Janette. Ray and Myrtle pledged their original vows on 2nd August, 1941 at St. Georges Anglican Church, Parkes. In acknowledging their successful 66.5 year marriage, a truly appreciative audience clapped enthusiastically as their attendance was announced. In conversation, Myrtle Barber mentioned that she has enjoyed Elvis Presley on television and a favourite song is the Elvis classic "Love Me Tender". Myrtle wore her wedding day "Orange Blossom" flower spray and Ray wore his "Orange Blossom" button-hole. Additionally, Ray wore his Wedding Day bow tie and his wedding gift from Myrtle, a watch which is still keeping good time to this day. It was, indeed, an honour to meet and speak with Ray and Myrtle. Kindly click on the image above for a larger and clearer view of this wonderful couple. A close-up image of Ray and Myrtle is here.

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Although this was their first visit to the "Elvis Festival" in Parkes, John and Jolinta Burton (see image opposite) have seen Elvis perform in Las Vegas, USA. The Burton's, from Sydney NSW, were another couple who participated in the wedding vow renewal programme in Parkes and they even adopted the theme "Blue Hawaii" in their attire. Further, you may have noticed that the happy couple are wearing festive hair styles.

In Parkes, the Elvis Festival produces many 'topical' hair arrangements, some are natural, some are wigs, some are plastic, but all produce a unique atmosphere that has to be experienced to be believed!


Cooke Park

The 'epicentre' of the Elvis Festival is the shopping centre and Cooke Park, which is just along from the shopping centre. The park is usually open and well shaded, offering a pleasant sanctuary for residents and visitors, alike. It is also 'home' to a memorial to our fallen service personnel. Unfortunately, a stage for the Elvis Festival in the park dominates the memorial. A better placement of the stage would preserve the integrity of the valued memorial. It is quite sad to even think that organisers consider a stage should take any priority over the memorial. No-one could ever believe our fallen service personnel should play second fiddle to a deceased American rock'n'roll singer.

The park hosts a market and numerous entertainment segments. On the Sunday morning, after the Gospel Service, a "Sound Like Elvis" competition was conducted. The first entrant was an objectionable performer, without talent I might add. After witnessing this individual, my suggestion is for the organising committee to uphold a high moral standard. There is no evidence suggesting the audience wanted the moral standards of public performances to be lowered.


Meals

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Eating Elvis Presley themed meals is popular during the festival. Burgers, sandwiches, quiches and more were given themed names. For example, there was a "Stuck On You" burger. Everyone outside of Parkes would know it as an egg burger. No need to ask what the 'stuck on you' means in the name of that burger, because I do not know and I do not want to know! Thankfully, despite many innovative names, I did not come across any "Don't Be Cruel" burgers!


Accommodation

It was soon discovered that booking accommodation for the Elvis Festival was best done early so as to avoid disappointment, especially if you wanted motel accommodation in Parkes. Some motel accommodation in neighbouring towns had been available up to a week before the event. However, the tourist information office was an excellent source of information on the prospects of accommodation. The Parkes community is right behind the event and plentiful home hospitality, at reasonable rates, was available. For example, I arrived in town, unannounced, on the Wednesday evening. It was easy to locate motel accommodation for the Wednesday and Thursday nights, together with Sunday and Monday nights. However, the town was a sell-out for both the Friday and Saturday night. On that basis, it was easy to accept a referral from the tourist office for home hospitality at this point, following advice that nearby towns were also operating on a sell-out basis.

Plenty of sites were available at caravan parks, in Parkes, this year.


Audience Participation

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Although there were no impersonations of a motoring journalist, there was quite active audience participation by residents and visitors which meant that enjoyment was at unprecedented levels for the Elvis Festival.

Just check-out these three local chaps (opposite), you just have to enjoy their work!

Images of some of the attendees at the festival are shown here.


Follow That Dream

Road testing the Elvis Festival was a remarkable experience. And, in support of local lady, Wendy Lillington, I must agree that the involvement of the Parkes township, as a whole, was a memorable experience. To witness the enjoyment of participation by so many and to be there for the Gospel Service makes the Elvis Festival a great event.

Perhaps you've been considering a trip to Parkes, NSW, for the "Elvis Festival". The next festival is already locked in for 7th to 11th January, 2009. The Saturday and Sunday are the really big days, but Friday is well worthy of your attention, too. In fact, I wouldn't want to miss the Friday. The festival is always held during the second weekend in January, being a weekend near Elvis' birth date of 8th January (1935).

In reviewing any prospect of holidaying in Parkes, NSW, there are only a few words that I can offer and those words come from the King of Rock'n'Roll himself ..... "It's Now Or Never".



Note: words in italics are song titles from Elvis Presley's repertoire.



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