The Newsroom’s Noel Fisher visits Parkes in Central West NSW for the annual Elvis Festival.
I sit on a lonely railway platform in a Central Western NSW town, watching a train driver prepare his diesel loco for the evening run to some distant place. The shade of the portico is a pleasant relief from the January heat of Parkes.
The well-kept station mostly plays witness to the stretched line of goods’ wagons, and wheat hoppers pulled by growling diesel electric engines. But today, this peaceful and tranquil scene will be shattered by a heaving crowd, here to greet the Elvis train, travelling from Sydney.
This train pulls into the station only once a year and marks the beginning of the annual Parkes Elvis Presley Festival.
Like many good ideas, the festival was born over a glass of wine in 1992 when a group of local Elvis fans hatched the idea at an Elvis-themed birthday party to celebrate the King of Rock and Roll’s birthday on January 8th 1935. The very first festival was a one-night event with a few hundred people attending. Today it stretches over five days and over 22,000 people gather to pay homage to Elvis Presley, nearly 40 years after his death. The event even attracts international acclaim including the BBC.
Hotels are booked out months in advance making finding a room hard. The closest accommodation I have been able to secure is in Orange, an hour’s drive away, but many bring their own accommodation with campervans, caravans and motor homes filling the streets. One group from Mandurah in Western Australia spent eight days on the road towing a caravan.
The arrival of the Elvis train is the key moment of the five-day event, I’m waiting patiently at Parkes station with hundreds of tourists and locals. I staked out my spot early to have the best angle to photograph the train pulling up and the people pouring out. One imagines that the Elvis train would be a beautifully restored steam tender spewing steam and smoke as it thunders down the rails. Rather, a NSW Trainlink XPT is booked months in advance and heads off with much fanfare from Sydney Central station. On board, the euphoric party atmosphere doesn’t let up for the seven-hour trek west.
Word is spreading that for the first time ever the train has been decorated with special insignia to mark the occasion and distinguish it from all the other XPT trains running that day. Although I suspect it doesn’t need it given the continuous Elvis tunes and the strangely attired group of passengers will likely give it away!
As 4pm approaches, the scheduled arrival time, the throng of humanity crowded on the platform moves closer and closer to the edge. Volunteers in hi-vis push the mass back behind the yellow line that adorns all railway platforms. At last! We hear the distinctive air horn of the modern train. It’s 4.20pm, only 20 minutes late.
The train edges slowly to a halt and the excitement reaches fever pitch and the many Elvii, the plural of Elvis, show girls and assorted characters associated with rock and roll make the most of their brief celebrity. Waiting crowds want to be photographed with costumed devotees. As they spill out of the station, classic cars wait to ferry some of the lucky Elvii to the centre of Parkes.
Bling is everywhere … then I spot something unusual. The Mayor of Parkes, Councillor Ken Keith, has made the journey from Sydney back home dressed as Elvis complete with a blue sequinned jump suit, wig, glasses and his mayoral medallion, which is shining brightly among his bling.
The festival is about to hit full stride. One of the major events is the busking competition. Every few metres there is an Elvis impersonator, Elvis tribute artist or musician. Some are competing and others are just there for a bit of fun.
There is a definite distinction between an Elvis impersonator and an Elvis tribute artist. All wear Elvis costumes, but it is all about the portrayal and the reverence to the memory of the King. An impersonator will put on a wig, a glittery costume and a fake accent. The tribute artist takes time to style his personal looks to resemble the artist at the various stages of his career. Carefully researched costumes reflect those worn by the man. I have heard several discussions between tribute artists on the detail of the costumes and which performance Elvis wore them. Talking to Queenslander Paul Reynolds aka Paul Aloha, the 2016 runner up of the Busking competition, he is concerned that after singing on the street for three days straight his voice will suffer for the Ultimate Elvis Tribute Artist Contest.
Donny Edwards, considered one of the best Elvis tribute artists in the world and the headline act for 2016, has been invited to many festivals around the globe. When asked how the Parkes festival compares, he tells me, “This is one of the top festivals I’ve been too.” The Texan native has an uncanny appearance that resembles a young Presley. His Texan drawl is now a Tennessee twang, but he lives in Las Vegas now where he performs his Elvis show nightly.
As the only tribute artist to have been given permission to perform at Elvis’s Memphis, Tennessee home, Graceland, Donny says that the most important aspect to being a successful Elvis tribute artist is to “respect the man and respect the artist. I do this to honour the King”.
Donny is joined by Helen Rowbotham at Parkes’ other claim to fame, the Dish, the radio telescope that was the star of the 2000 movie, The Dish. Helen is the 2016 winner of the Miss Priscilla 2016 competition, another of the many activities taking place during the festival.
2017 marks the 25th annual Parkes Elvis Festival. To celebrate the 25th year of the festival, 2017 will feature two headline acts – Jake Rowley from the US and the UK’s Pete Storm. The two men are known as two of the world’s best Elvis performers. Rowley and Storm are set to perform four spectacular tribute shows at the Parkes Leagues Club for the Festival’s 2017 feature concert series.
Each year there is an Elvis theme, 2017 will be Viva Las Vegas.
But for right now the crowds have drifted back to their normal lives. The Elvii have departed and Parkes’ railway station is quiet for another year. – Story and photos by Noel Fisher.