(Australian Associated Press)
There is a little Aussie outback shire, almost 15,000km from Memphis, where legend has it all staff keep an Elvis suit behind their door.
It’s not a far-fetched tale if you know the history. Almost three decades ago, Bob and Anne Steel staged a 60th birthday party for the local newspaper editor, cranked up some Elvis tunes and the joint began to swing.
“Everyone was singing along,” Bob recalls.
The sweet devotion for the boy from Mississippi at their Gracelands restaurant that night got the couple with a burning love for Elvis thinking how they could get those stakes up higher.
The idea for the Parkes Elvis Festival was born, and first staged in 1993. While it wasn’t an overnight success, it got better with the help of council backing.
Now every January, the rural hamlet of 12,000 people west of Sydney swells more than double its size for the celebration, which coincides with the king of rock ‘n roll’s January 8 birthday.
It’s not unusual to see caped Elvis’s crossing the dusty highway in the height of the scorching heat as the town transforms into a sea of quiffs and sideburns.
What is now dubbed the world’s biggest tribute event to the king, pumps millions into local coffers and sets local sales of rhinestone jumpsuits soaring.
The guitar man’s face is projected onto buildings at night, his music piped through the town loudspeakers and even the bakery sells custard tarts bearing his face etched in nutmeg.
There’s no escaping the wonder of Elvis, even if you try.
“Elvis is the most famous face in the world,” Bob Steel explains.
“More people in the world know Elvis than any other single person and he’s been dead since 1977. Even little kids know who Elvis is.”
When festival fever reaches high pitch, the Miss Priscilla contest is a boon for local hairdressers, Elvis impersonators of varying talent strut their stuff and even pint-sized Presleys opt for a gong.
The fun continues with a street parade and a renewal of vows ceremony overseen by an Elvis celebrant, because sometimes tigers play too rough and life can make it all shook up.
Some locals move out when Parkes morphs into Elvis city, to avoid the influx of fans known to come from afar as Switzerland.
Others rent out their digs for a nice sum as accommodation sells out.
Elvis has seeped into the culture of the town, otherwise known for its giant radio telescope that picks up whispers from space.
It’s a far cry from the pre-festival days, where Bob Steel recalls motels ran empty and businesses closed down in January, because it was too quiet in the dry, hot town.
Despite a slow build up, it’s now the busiest time of year.
Festival organisers point to an official endorsement from Elvis Presley Enterprises as integral to its growth.
The friendliness of revellers also keeps fans returning – it’s the kind of place where no one’s gonna be lonesome tonight.
Al (Alvis) Gersbach, a grader operator for shire, is the town’s “on call Elvis” and has been dressing up as the icon for 15 years.
At the end of the 2018 event, he is seen sweating in a black studded jumpsuit as the mercury nudges 40 degrees.
“It’s been a long week,” he muses.
Alvis has seen the town transform since the very first festival.
“I used to take my children down to watch the street parade as a couple of floats went past and thought, ‘oh well, that’s a little bit different. Now it takes nearly two hours to do the whole thing’,” he says.
The longtime Elvis fan never refuses a photo, despite some unusual requests.
“It’s about giving someone else joy. That’s what you try to do, put a smile on the dial,” he says.
The best thing about his “on call” job is the chance to be someone else – and an icon at that.
“He’s a guy that’s come from nowhere. He’s had nothing and quite happy to give things away to people who had nothing,” he explains.
IF YOU GO
GETTING THERE: Dedicated Elvis train services run from Sydney Central train station to Parkes, 365km west of Sydney. Regional Express (REX) flies directly to Parkes from Sydney several times daily. The drive from Sydney to Parkes is five hours.
STAYING THERE: Accommodation books out quickly. The Astro Dish Motor Inn (www.astrodish.com.au/) offers modern decor and facilities and is a close walk to Cooke Park, the hub of the festival, featuring the main stage and markets. The Home Hosting Program is also an option for groups and couples while comfortable tent accommodation is available, with sturdy ready-built tents including stretcher beds and mattresses. Other camping, caravan or motorhome sites are also available.
PLAYING THERE: The Parkes Elvis Festival takes place annually on the second weekend in January. For more info, visit www.parkeselvisfestival.com.au
You can also see the rural town’s rich agricultural and mining history in its museums, take a hike through Goobang National Park, enjoy the magnificent vista from the top of Parkes Memorial Hill and check out the world famous Parkes Dish, as the CSIRO radio telescope tunes into the universe. The town has a thriving social calendar, hosting events throughout the year.
* The writer travelled as a guest of Destination NSW.