Many places lay their claim to Elvis Presley: Tupelo, Memphis, Hawaii...and Parkes, a small town in the southeast corner of Australia. Although The King never set foot Down Under, for the past 26 years, close to 27,000 tourists — over double the town’s population — flood the locale for the Parkes Elvis Festival. Held the second weekend of January to coincide with Elvis’ birthday, the 5-day festival celebrates all things Elvis from the music to the jumpsuits.
The idea for the festival came about — as many great things do — at an Elvis-themed dinner party. Elvis aficionados Bob and Anne Steel, two of the guests, decided to host the first festival at their Gracelands restaurant. The hot summer months are slow for tourism in Parkes, so they thought holding a festival in January would be good for the town’s economy. "(January is) a pretty slack time,” Bob told the BBC. “I went to a hoteliers' meeting, and they were all having their grizzle about quiet times. I said, well, Elvis's birthday is in January, and we could have a birthday party."
Only a few hundred people attended the first one-night festival in 1993, but the festival has steadily grown each year and now draws Elvis fans from across the globe and is endorsed by Presley’s estate.
One of the most popular ways to get to Parkes each year is aboard the themed, six-hour “Blue Suede Express” and “Elvis Express” trains organized by the festival that depart from Sydney. In addition to access to bar service and dining cars, guests on these quirky locomotives are entertained by Elvis tribute artists, receive festival welcome bags and get to fraternize with fellow Elvis impersonators.
The theme of this year’s festival — “All Shook Up” — put a special emphasis on Elvis and the ‘50s. The highlight of the festival was Saturday morning’s Northparkes Mines Street Parade. Elvis-themed floats, Elvis and Priscilla look alikes, vintage cars and motorcycles flooded Parkes’ thoroughfares, and marching bands played The King's tunes. Female attendees looking to be the face of the festival and ride in the front of the parade competed for the title of “Miss Priscilla.” This year’s winner, Erin O’Leary, died her hair jet black for the competition and spent over six hours at the hairdresser to have her locks teased into Priscilla Presley’s iconic bouffant.
The festival, which ran January 9-13, featured over 150 events, including ukulele lessons, bedazzled fashion parades, “Elvis the Pelvis” dance lessons, and less traditional activities such as “Elvis Yogalates” (a mixture of yoga and pilates) and Elvis-themed bingo. Kids got their preliminary Elvis education from the original Yellow Wiggle himself, Greg Page, who happens to be a fellow Elvis devotee.
Of course, no Elvis festival is complete without music. Elvis impersonators from around the world played nearly every hour of the 5-day festival to entertain guests, and competed for the “Ultimate Elvis Tribute Artist” crown. Artists were judged on vocals, appearance, stage presence and overall performance. This year, 22-year-old Brody Finlay became the youngest ever winner — beating out 18 other Elvii. Finlay will go on to represent Parkes at the international semi-finals in Memphis this August.