Parkes Won't Be Lonesome Tonight As A Trainload Of Elvis Heads To Town
A virgin, a Scotsman, a karate team and an Indian singer walk onto a train. It's not the start of a bad joke -- it's the start of one of Australia's most unexpectedly iconic cultural celebrations.
It's the Parkes Elvis Festival -- five days of music and celebration in a country town previously best-known for quite a large satellite dish.
"It's the best weekend of the year," Deanna, of Rose Bay, told 10 daily of the extravaganza that brings 25,000 fans of Presley, the King of Rock and Roll, to the central NSW town.
"Last year we had 220 million media hits worldwide," claimed Parkes mayor Ken Keith, wearing signature gold-frame sunglasses and a nametag that simply says 'Elvis'.
"You can’t buy that publicity for a town like ours."
Hundreds of Elvis impersonators, fans and curious onlookers gathered at Sydney's Central train station on Thursday, as the 'Elvis Express' prepared for departure.
The send-off celebration -- with dancers, photos, singing and a lot of black pompadour wigs -- has become an annual tradition, with two full trains chugging their way to Parkes from the city.
"We're virgins," three women in blue giggle from behind their cats-eye sunglasses.
"This is our first time," Tracey jokes.
The ladies in blue, about to board the special express train, say they're going to be "partying for five days" for Michelle's husband's 60th birthday. The couple are thinking of renewing their wedding vows in Parkes.
Ross and Christopher, two brothers from Glasgow, are in for the party as well.
"Beer," Chris replied when asked what he was most looking forward to.
Four fans from Osaka, Japan, clad in personalised karate outfits, are along for the ride too, alongside a Bollywood star draped in gold.
"It's time to party for a few days," Alfred, from India, said.
Women in shiny sequined dresses, gold and silver, dance in front of Elvis impersonators of varying shape, size, background and skill performing on stage for the early-morning commuter crowd.
Vegas-style showgirls with feathery headdresses wander through the throngs, as an Elvis in a gold jumpsuit sings some late-career hits; an Elvis in military khakis belts out earlier tunes; an Elvis sans wig and sideburns go through some deep cuts.
Bopping along are older women in flowing sundresses with large tattoos of the lightning bolt 'TCB' logo on their calves; a Chinese woman in a lurid Mambo shirt; younger folks in Hawaiian-style leisurewear, all flowery shirts and flower leis.
It's the unofficial launch of the long-running festival, which has grown from a small community gathering to a world-famous event.
Mayor Keith said the long weekend injects $15 million annually into the Parkes economy, and more than $40 million into the wider region.
A massive 200 events are planned for 2019 from Wednesday to Sunday, with the calendar spruiking special arrangements like 'Elvis golf', 'barefoot bowls with Elvis', markets, photography exhibitions, 'Elvis yogalates' ("Yoga plus Pilates", the program helpfully explained), 'Elvis bingo', karaoke, and of course, a whole lot of music.
The highlight for many is a huge grand parade through the town's main streets.
"The whole town is out there. The kids, the schools, dancing girls, you feel like a celebrity yourself," Jenny, from Blaxland in Sydney's west, told 10 daily.
"When the Elvises start bestowing scarves on the women in the audience, that is to die for. It’s so funny," said Dawn, preparing for her fourth time at the festival with her sisters Gail and Elsa.
There are fat Elvises and skinny Elvises, old Elvises and young Elvises, tall and small Elvises, from all corners of the world.
What brings this wildly diverse group of people together, in honour of a man now four decades deceased?
"He’s the king," said Ross, one of the lads from Glasgow in a specially-made green tartan jumpsuit.
"I can’t believe you're asking that," Michelle, one of the ladies in blue, said in shock.
"Elvis. He’s the king. How old are you? You’re a baby. Oh god."
"Our whole life has been Elvis, from our parents to us and we’ve drummed it into our kids and grandkids now."
The almost invincible, unequaled legacy of Elvis continues through today, just as strong in the generation who could have seen him live on stage as in the generation that only knows him from videos, records and movies.
Grandparents, parents and children of the same family turn out for the Parkes festival. Elvis sunglasses, hairstyles and outfits are embedded deep into the western cultural psyche, the gold sunglasses and thick black sideburns so iconic that they're sold in virtually every costume shop in the world.
The Elvis legacy is still such a strong touchpoint that his image and songs are even being used to sell iPhones -- with a recent ad for Apple's Facetime service showing Elvis impersonators worldwide linking up to sing a song together.
But back in Sydney, preparing to head to Parkes, even the train staff are in the spirit. T-shirts, black wigs, glasses, jumpsuits -- it's all on show at the platform.
The Elvis crowds are preparing to board their train and be whisked away for a weekend celebrating a man long dead. But it's a celebration of life, not death, and there's nothing but smiling happy faces milling about today -- a far cry from the usual sight at a main commuter hub on an early morning.
"The best thing about the festival, everybody gets into the mood. Everybody enjoys their little moment with Elvis," said Alfred, from India, who calls himself 'Bollywood Elvis'.
"People look forward to it. People who are sad and lonely. It’s time to party for a few days."