75 Years On, Elvis Festival in Small Aussie Town

by Trilok Kapur on  January 11, 2010 at 11:06 AM Lifestyle News   - G J E 4
Gnarnayarrahe Inmurry Waitairie sweats in the unforgiving Australian heat, beneath his homemade jumpsuit and the glinting black of his polyester Elvis Presley wig.
  • Aboriginal man Gnarnayarrahe Inmurry Waitairie, who calls himself íBlack Elvisí
  • An Elvis impersonator strikes a pose during the main Elvis lookalike contest at the 18th annual Parkes Elvis Festival
  • Elvis impersonators enjoy a drink during the 18th annual Parkes Elvis Festival, in the outback town of Parkes
  • A young Elvis impersonator strikes a pose during the junior Elvis lookalike contest

Guitar over one shoulder and his official busking pass on one lapel, he adjusts his sunglasses and tunes his strings as he prepares to shake, rattle and roll like his American idol.

"Aboriginals don't have an Elvis, so I thought I'd come and be him. I'm Black Elvis," Waitairie told AFP.

"Elvis can be anyone and call to anyone, because Elvis takes your heart away."

Waitairie, an indigenous dancer originally from Western Australia's Yindjibarndi country, has traded his didgeridoo and clapping sticks for polyester and rhinestones to be part of Australia's biggest Elvis celebration.

As fans in Memphis marked what would have been the 75th birthday of the man known as 'The King' of rock 'n roll, thousands converged on the tiny, drought-parched town of Parkes 300 kilometres (186 miles) west of Sydney for the annual Elvis Festival.

It began almost two decades ago as the dream of Bob and Anne Steel, who ran a retro-themed reception centre called Gracelands and were desperate to liven up the relentless summer months in the farming and mining town.

"We had hoped that a January festival would bring some business to town, and I think everybody's doing handstands now," Anne Steel told AFP.

"Most people can see what it's doing for the economy and, by God, we needed it."

Home to straight-talking farmers and mining men, it seems an unlikely place for a tribute to the pioneering popstar. The town's only previous claim to fame was "The Dish" -- a radio telescope used by NASA to receive images of the Apollo 11 moon landing in 1969.

But the Parkes Elvis Festival has exploded from a humble town carnival with 200 visitors in 1993 to a national event which this year attracted more than 10,000 people and brought in excess of five million dollars (4.6 million US) to the local economy.

Hundreds packed onto the "Elvis Express" train from Sydney on Friday, adorned in their retro best to kick off the festival weekend with serenades by a tribute artist and dancing in the aisles.

The trademark quiff and jumpsuit are a staple, and rarely is there a gent to be seen without sideburns and a swivel to his hips. Priscillas and Lisa-Maries are also out in full-skirted force, feather boas and wedding veils in tow.

The diehards stake out a street corner to busk, while others try their hardest to impress the lookalike contest judges. There's an Elvis Idol contest, gospel services and "The King's Castle", which hosts the largest collection of Elvis memorabilia in the southern hemisphere.

Waitairie, who has travelled some 600 kilometres to take part, plans to win the street busking crown and renew his wedding vows at the mass "Back to the Altar with Elvis" ceremony in a park.

"Elvis was about love, about peace," he said. "Since I was 14 I liked that about him."

White-suited lookalike contestant Graeme Mackaway, who has made the journey to Parkes four times on the "Elvis Express", said the Main Street parade is always his highlight.

"Every year we come and the crowd gets deeper and deeper and the route seems longer," said the company director who swing dances and collects antique jukeboxes in his spare time.

In just five days the festival brings in more than one-tenth of the 11,000-person town's annual tourism revenue, its third-largest earner after agriculture and mining.

Hotel rooms are booked more than a year in advance not just in Parkes, but surrounding towns, and the sportsground, converted into a tent city, is overflowing. Officials say the expanding crowd is getting younger every year.

It may have begun as the brainchild of "two silly people who were Elvis fans", said Steel, but the festival has become a celebration of 60s rock culture and a coming together of city and country life.

"I have been a fan since I was 11 and I'm now 66, but now you don't have to be an Elvis fan, there's something for everyone," she said.

"The fella who gets dragged here kicking and screaming by his wife is always the first to book for next year."

Source: AFP

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