How the King of Rock 'n' Roll put the sleepy town of Parkes on the map and captured the imagination of a pair of geographers.
It was a hot summer’s day in 2002 when Chris Gibson received a call from his academic partner-in-crime John Connell. The two were writing a book about the intersecting concepts of music and place, and on this afternoon, John had discovered a small item in a Sydney paper about a festival taking place out west, honouring the King of Rock ’n’ Roll.
The Parkes Elvis Festival was then in its infancy, so much so that neither Chris nor John had ever heard of it. But they were intrigued. Early the next morning, they set off for the town of Parkes, six hours away. They found a hotel room (back when you could still find a last-minute hotel in Parkes during the festival) and watched the spectacle unfold.
“We didn’t know what to expect,” Chris says now, 15 years after his introduction to the weird and wonderful world of the Parkes Elvis Festival. “In those days, it was pretty small, it wasn’t well known. But we noticed the organisers were asking people to fill in a survey, so we contacted them, said ‘this is our area of interest, do you want our help analysing the results?’ and we’ve been going back ever since.
“We’ve seen the festival grow from these modest origins to become what it is now, a worldwide, well-known, quirky music festival that has really changed the town for the better. It is getting bigger each year.”
Chris, a Professor of Human Geography at the University of Wollongong, and John, a Professor of Geography at the University of Sydney, have captured the festival’s origin story in their new book, Outback Elvis: The Story of A Festival, Its Fans and A Town Called Parkes (published by NewSouth Publishing), which coincides with the 25th anniversary of the event.
The tale of how Parkes came to embrace the King – and, in the meantime, put itself firmly on the map despite the downturn occurring in regional locations throughout Australia – is one that Chris and John have been working towards for years. It has been a labour of love for the researchers, who have returned to the festival year after year, and watched it grow from an event that barely lasted through the weekend to a five-day spectacular that draws people from around the world.
“It used to get a couple of thousand people, now it’s upwards of 20,000,” says Chris. “Although it’s really hard to track a festival like that because it’s free and so much of it happens in the park and on the main street. You don’t have to buy a ticket to turn up.
“One of the ways that the town tracks how many people attend is called the Flush Factor. They look at the amount of sewage going through the system during the event. It’s an imperfect science, but the town’s population triples throughout the festival.”
A quarter of a century ago, Parkes was a sleepy refuge in regional New South Wales, with all the staples of a standard country town. A main street. A local newspaper. A team of police with little to do but investigate petty thefts and the occasional drunk driver. A cultural scene centred on the local bowling club.
The town was experiencing a period of turbulence and decline. A perfect storm of drought, unemployment, falling visitor rates and a youth exodus to the city had left Parkes in a perilous state. Parkes was in search of a new future and a new reason to bring people back to the town.
You can dress up as Elvis and it enables you to be someone different than who you are.Professor Chris Gibson
The idea for the Elvis Festival was born – as many of the best ideas are – after a few glasses of red wine. Parkes residents Bob and Anne Steel, avid Elvis fans who owned a restaurant dedicated to the King called Gracelands, were relaxing after hosting a 1950s-themed party and thought, ‘Why don’t we hold an Elvis week?’ They decided to hold it on the weekend closest to Elvis’s birthday, January 8.
A motley crew of Elvis aficionados took the spark of an idea and ran with it. In spite of the fact that Elvis had never actually visited Parkes – he had not even ventured to Australia, or the Southern Hemisphere – it signalled a new identity for a small town once known as the “crossroads of Australia”.
Twenty-five years later, the festival has become a beacon for Elvis fans around the world, a week-long event in which they can pay homage to the King, relive the songs of their youth, or simply have the chance to don a polyester jumpsuit in the height of summer. Chris says the growing notoriety of the Parkes Elvis Festival can be attributed to Elvis’s enduring fame.
“It is partly about Elvis,” he says. “In 1956, Elvis has just signed to RCA, a big record label, had released Heartbreak Hotel, and then in short succession released six number one hits. It is easy to forget now how much he challenged the authorities, and the orthodoxy. Elvis was the soundtrack to the Baby Boomer generation, who at the time were hitting adolescence. It was very liberating for teenagers who had grown up in a quite repressive era.
“For a generation who grew up with Elvis, he was iconic. There is a core group of people who attend the festival [in Parkes] every year. I would say about 50 to 60 per cent of people come without fail, and for them it is a chance to relive their youth, to reminisce about the music and the culture of an era when they were in their prime.”
However, a love of Elvis is not the only reason why tens of thousands of people flock to Parkes every year. Chris says as the festival has grown, the crowd has begun to reflect a kaleidoscope of backgrounds, interests and ages.
“A large number of people who attend aren’t Elvis fans, but for them the festival has replaced the traditional role played by the agricultural show and the B&S ball in a country town.
“The event is so large and brings so many people a year from all over Australia, from the US, from around the world. It’s the party town. Young people might not have the connection to Elvis but they are here for the atmosphere.”
The carnival atmosphere draws attendees from all walks of life, however, the demographic diversity does not prompt an increase in trouble on the streets of Parkes. On the contrary, Chris says the local police force have never seen a rise in crime during the week of the Elvis Festival, despite bringing in additional law enforcement from neighbouring towns.
Indeed, Chris believes the friendly, welcoming environment, which Parkes has worked so hard to maintain over the years, is what sets the event apart from other music festivals. Everyone is truly there to have a good time. After all, how much trouble can someone in an Elvis costume cause before it verges on the comical?
“There’s something wonderful about a festival where people let their hair down. People put the wig, the sunglasses, and the jumpsuit on. You can dress up as Elvis and it enables you to be someone different than who you are. In a country town, where if you went to the pub on a standard Saturday night you might not have the courage to talk to the pretty girl, or the pretty boy, across the bar, it’s very liberating,” says Chris, who along with John, spent weeks interviewing the colourful characters that comprise Parkes and the local Elvis committee as part of the research for their book.
“It has been described as Schoolies for grown ups. There’s a lot of people giving kisses and hugs in the street. There are no extra arrests than any other weekend of the year. There’s a self-policing atmosphere that prevails over the town, a real ‘No dickheads’ policy.
“In this day and age of lockout laws and expensive festivals with big gates around them, and sniffer dogs and bouncers and scalpers, it’s a breath of fresh air. It’s a non-commercial festival that draws people in from far and wide.”
Elvis takes many forms in Parkes. The streets are littered with jumpsuits that capture the trajectory of the King’s career; from his lithe days in the gold lame to the white suits that would define his later Vegas years, where he was decidedly plumper. There are the Rugby Elvises (or Elvii), eight players who have been attending the festival since 1997. Initially bachelors, most have since found their Priscilla (with the wigs to look the part), and have become media darlings, beloved for their colour and character during the dead January news season.
There are Elvises of every colour, creed, gender and breed. Gay and lesbian Elvii, dog Elvii, young Elvii, and old Elvii. There is donkey Elvii, baby Elvii, pug Elvii, bald Elvii, and even the local police get on board, donning their wigs and their retro shades to conduct random breath testing.
It took a number of years, but slowly the people of Parkes began to view the festival not just as the indulgences of a handful of eccentric locals, but a way to bring much-needed income and interest to an ailing region. The event now features a street parade, in all its technicolour glory; a gospel service, held in the car park of the local Big W, which draws tens of thousands of parishioners; and an outdoor vow renewal ceremony. Complete with an Elvis celebrant, the vow renewal ceremony has seen close to 400 couples say their I Do’s – again – since it began in 2006, also in the Big W car park.
“The festival has made a huge difference to the town economically,” Chris says. “It has given Parkes an enormous boost. We’ve talked to the local shopkeepers and businesses, and while people might not come to Parkes and engage a lawyer or buy furniture, the money it generates for the town then filters through the community.
“Parkes was at one point losing population but now its population is growing. People have heard of Parkes now. It’s an incredibly important thing for the town and inland Australia.”
Indeed, most motels in town now have bookings for the week of the festival years in advance, with some truly dedicated fans ensuring they have a room booked every year until they die.
“The festival has gained a reputation as this really wonderful place to go to let your hair down, in a way you can’t really do in the city anymore,” Chris says.
A museum dedicated to Elvis, called The King’s Castle, opened in 2009, and is brimming with more than 1500 authentic artefacts from Elvis’s life. It is the finest and most valuable collection of Elvis-related items in the Southern Hemisphere, the majority of which was donated by Greg Page, also known as the Yellow Wiggle. Page, who left The Wiggles in 2006, bought most of his collection, which includes Elvis and Priscilla’s wedding certificate, the original blueprints for Graceland, the last Cadillac owned by Elvis, and even a lock of the King’s hair, from an auction held at Graceland. An Elvis obsessive, Page began acquiring the collection with the express aim of establishing a museum and sharing his love of Elvis with the people of Australia.
In this remote pocket of New South Wales, Parkes has become a lesson in how regional towns can forge a new identity by embracing the creative and quirky. Indeed, neighbouring communities have taken note. Trundle, population 666, has for the past few years held an annual ABBA Festival, dedicated to the most famous pop band to come out of Sweden.
Kandos, population 1300, is attempting to bring the sounds of smooth reggae and steel drums to regional New South Wales with an annual Bob Marley Festival. It’s a long way from Jamaica, but the event, which features a showing of Cool Runnings, is getting bigger each year. And every September, the outback town of Broken Hill features three days of disco, drag and divas with the annual Broken Heel Festival, dedicated to the beloved Australian film, Priscilla, Queen of the Desert.
Chris says Parkes has given regional communities a reason to look beyond traditional agriculture, industry, and the odd tourist as a source of income, to think big in putting their towns back on the map.
“Regional Australia cannot be written off. Services, tourism and the creative industries have been a vital part of the mix. And the smartest regions are those that have recognised this, sought diversity and flexibility, and become creative.
“The Elvis Festival has created employment, generated income, provided a degree of pleasure in the drought years and given one town more than a reason to hope.
“There are now other Elvis festivals around, but this is the first. It has that quirky combination of the 42-degree heat, a playful atmosphere, and sweaty jumpsuits. There’s an authenticity to it. It’s always going to be around if it keeps hold of that atmosphere and that spirit of celebration.”
It has been a few decades since Elvis left the building but the people of Parkes are ensuring that the spirit of the man who forever changed music will continue to shine. Long live the King.