From a simple dinner to an iconic festival

Australian cities like Tamworth NSW are often the envy of other such cities, all because they boast having an iconic annual festival that brings thousands of spending visitors to their city each year, who inject millions of dollars into their local economy. In Tamworth’s case, it’s their annual Country Music Festival and who isn’t aware of how popular this festival is?

Many other cities, right across Australia, boast wonderful festivals like this each year with Parkes NSW being one. Parkes holds its annual Elvis Festival each January and visitors from far and wide descend on the city for their annual Elvis fix. It’s a spectacular event in every sense of the word, but it wasn’t always that way. Like most such events, it took a great deal of passion, determination and hard work to bring it to where it is today.

Would you believe, the Parkes Elvis Festival grew out of a simple dinner for “the King” some 25 years ago and today is an annual tourism spectacular.

The Parkes experience may help others contemplating such a venture, so it is with great pleasure that National Life presents David Dixon’s fascinating story behind their success.

Parkes is All shook up! over Elvis.

David Dixon

It began as a novel idea hatched between friends over a few drinks at the aptly-named Gracelands Function Centre in Parkes to commemorate Elvis Presley’s Birthday.

Quarter of a century later, the Parkes’ Elvis Festival is now one of Australia’s most successful annual experiences bringing more than 27,000 visitors to the week-long celebrations with a $43 million boost to the region each January.  

But the growing success of the iconic annual celebration of all-things Elvis was never guaranteed with the event receiving only tepid support for a number of years in its infancy.

The universal and enduring appeal of “The King of Rock’n’Roll” however eventually triumphed over adversity with trains, aeroplanes, cars, and coaches now bringing fans from all over Australia as well as Japan, Norway, Britain, (and America of course) for this annual pilgrimage.

And, as Bob Steel, founder of the festival with his wife, Anne, explains, it was the unique musical legacy of the “Man from Memphis” that planted the first seed which would grow into one of the region’s most unusual tourist successes after a birthday party held at Gracelands in about 1992.

“Roel ten Cate (local newspaper editor) and myself devised it at a party; I owned Gracelands Reception Room and used a bit of Elvis Memorabilia around the walls and I was running the bar.

“We had Elvis all night and a bit of Buddy (Holly). At the end, I was having a red wine with Roel and said, ‘we should really have something to do with Elvis’ birthday in January — there’s nothing much happens in Parkes in January’,” Bob explained.

The two hit upon the idea of a one-off Elvis birthday party and took the idea to the local community. “We got onto Tourist Officer Michael Greenwood and he called a public meeting in the picture theatre at the Services Club and said, ‘we’re going with the idea of an Elvis party and we’d like to get the town behind it’.”

“We had a Friday night Elvis Party at Gracelands in January 1993 and we booked it out with 210 people,” Bob said proudly of the first-ever Festival event.

Other happenings in those early years included market stalls at Gracelands, an Elvis movie night, a coach tour that included a visit to Forbes’ funeral parlour (!) inspired by Graceland (Elvis’ Memphis home) and a small street parade. “It had a few dozen things and a few motor-bikes, it wasn’t much,” Bob added.

He said there were sceptics aplenty about a festival celebrating an iconic American pop star who died, overweight and alone, in 1977 being held in the January heat of a central west town that is notable mostly for a radio-telescope that helped broadcast the 1969 moon landing to the world.

“There was plenty of that, people at work saying it wouldn’t last, but I said, ‘you’ve got to try it to find out,’.”

Both Medal of the Order of Australia (OAM) recipients for their years of tireless work with the Festival, Anne and Bob are still very much involved with the event.

Anne has the “portfolio” for the Priscilla (Elvis’s wife) Dinner with Bob still working on the Parkes Elvis Festival Wall of Fame that this year inducted Aussie rock legend Russell Morris whose 1960s hits featured on the Parkes-based film on the Apollo 11 mission, “The Dish”.

“Each year is better than the year before…we have two trains come up from Melbourne and Sydney and people coming from France, a Japanese couple who come every year, Germans, and the American Ambassador is a regular.

But for Bob and many others, the quality and quantity of Elvis tribute artists that grace the event is a genuine highlight. “We get 40–50 each year; whoever is the top in the world performing here.”

And it is in this, he believes that the true genius of Elvis Aaron Presley is apparent. “Elvis covered all genres; country, gospel, rock, pop. Whatever he sang, he did it well. Elvis inspired so many artists around the world, even the Beatles.”

“He was a natural artist and it shows through; he had hundreds of concerts and all were sold-out. Do you know, in Las Vegas he sometimes did three concerts a night?”

And does he believe that the real Elvis, long believed by many fans to have faked his own death in 1977, will ever make an appearance at the Festival? “Well, we all appreciate Elvis for what he achieved, but some still believe he’s still alive, that’s for sure!” Bob said.

Former Parkes newspaper editor and long-time event supporter Roel ten Cate explained that support for the event was not always universal with a period in the mid-1990s when the town was in danger of losing the event.

“After the first couple of events that were mostly the locals, we felt we needed to get a few more out-of-town people…it was pretty low-key for the first few years,” he explained.

“For the first ten years; the community felt it was a bit cringe-worthy, especially the street parade. Locals would take-off out of town for the weekend…it was considered a bit too try-hard,” Roel explained.

He said that a point was reached where the event’s future was in doubt. “in the early days it was not really that well supported. The big change came when I was speaking to a fan who came to the event each year from the Hunter Valley.

“He said to me: ‘If you want to keep this event, you fellas should put on a bit of a better show, Otherwise I’ll take it to one of the towns up my way.’ I ended up writing an article with the headline ‘It’s now or never’,” Roel explained.

He said this plea inspired the then – Mayor Robert Wilson to push the resources of the local tourist office to promote the event. “Up to that point the Council gave no support at all — he ordered the tourist office to get involved.”

“So, in a couple of years we went from 500 people to 5000 people — from the cellar to the sky.”

He said that, despite the event’s seeming-incongruity, it grew partly because of the good-natured out-of-town crowds it attracts.

“Slowly it got bigger and bigger…now we’ve got 25–30,000 visitors, most are coming up to enjoy the Elvis music.

“I remember speaking to the police superintendent and I mentioned to him the event, and he said, ‘the Festival is the quietist time in Parkes for crime for the whole year’.”

Roel agreed with Bob that the unassuming, unaffected personality of “the King” is one of the central reasons for his continuing appeal. “He always came across as a very genuine, very nice person. He loved his mother and was generous to a fault.”

He also believes that the tribute artists (don’t call them ‘Elvis Impersonators!’) are the real stars of the festivities underscoring as they do the unique performance talents of “The King”.

“I’ve been to everyone of the events and the highlight has been the feature artists, they’re fantastic! They’re British, Canadian, Australian and of course American.

“The great thing is they don’t try and outdo Elvis; they just try to honour his legacy.”

The event has come a long-way since those early struggling years of volunteers trying to keep the interest going, with a full-time team now flat-out all year essentially planning the more – than 200 events surrounding the Festival over a year ahead.

“it’s now gone to such a level that it’s now got a festival director. It’s won three years the ‘Festival of the Year’ for NSW Tourism, which means it now qualifies for the Hall of Fame,” Roel said proudly.

The benefits of the event, he says, now also spill-out to surrounding towns. “Orange is booked out, Parked, Dubbo, Forbes are all booked out. We have the Blue Suede Shoes Express and the Priscilla Plane from Sydney.”  

“When you mentioned Parkes to anyone 15 years ago, they’d say, ‘that’s where the Dish is.’ Now they say, ‘that’s where the Elvis Festival is.’ Once it was very cringe-worthy, now people have enormous pride in it,” Roel concluded.

Festival Director Cathy Treasure grew up in Cowra before traveling the world helping organise events ranging from Olympic Games to rugby and cricket world cups before coming home to head the Elvis Festival team at Parkes Tourism.

Like Roel and Bill; she believes that the special appeal of Elvis as a poor young man from Tupelo who changed popular culture forever but was also a humble person is part of the event’s enduring success.

“A lot of his music appears in pop culture. His music is quite timeless and a lot of people grew-up with him. He was a trailblazer,” Cathy said.

“My background is in event management, but since working in the job my appreciation of his legacy has grown. Elvis was known for his great charitable works; he was pretty good-looking as well!”

She also believes that the fun of the Festival is partly to do with the unique performance outfits that Elvis became famous for. “The whole Festival is about dressing-up.”

With more than 200 individual events planned for the 2020 celebrations, Cathy says that forward-planning is the key. “We really plan for the event 12 months ahead.”

With the theme of “Frankie and Johnny” from the 1966 Elvis musical film that also starred Donna Douglas (Elly May from the Beverly Hillbillies); next year’s festival runs from January 8–12 with American performer Dean Z as the feature artist.

“They’re very loyal fans and it’s a highly-positive event; crime actually goes down in the town when the event is on,” Cathy said.

“I remember I was down in the park at 6.30 one morning setting-up and a visitor asked me ‘what’s going on’ and I told him; I saw him at events for the Festival for the next three days.”

Out of the more than 200 events next year; highlights will include the now-famous street parade; street markets, free concerts, a poet’s breakfast, an ultimate artists tribute concert, and even a renewal of vows event. Tickets for all events go on sale from Monday, September 9 with the Festival continuing to grow.

Cathy believes that keeping the legacy of all the work over the years is one of her main roles.

“I’ve been here for three Festivals; and I see my role as continuing to grow and develop the event to help put Parkes on the map,” she concluded.

For more information about the Parkes Elvis Festival, go to https://www.parkeselvisfestival.com.au/

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