Up here the roads are sun-baked gray, voluptuous and empty in a way that obligates fast driving. I am two hours north of Toronto in a bug-eyed borrowed Mercedes, humming with momentum and rolling hard on Tim Hortons. My only imperative is to avoid the fuzz. I’ve come up here with a small posse of Americans and Canadians, come to the Great White North in search of the Deep Down South, come to see the King, or really: the Kings.
We blur through rural intersections of standard issue (general store, gas station, tavern, repeat) and skim alongside golden shag, the Ontario farmland unfurling warmly around us. We pass the steady moral ranch houses of Simcoe County, their front lawns populated with Muskoka chairs and wooden moose statuary. Here a gardener has colonized her strawberry patch with stone and crystal fairy creatures, deep in the vegetation—a secret joke, a secret hope.
“Norm!” the Karate Elvises are screaming. “Do your thing, Norm!”
Norm is perspiring heavily and his mascara has started to run. The crowd quiets briefly as he eases into the gospel classic “Stand by Me.” As they catch the first strains of the tune the crowd shrieks—women, men, most of them grandparents—everyone shrieks. It is bat sound. The crowd is lathered but Norm is calm, Norm is in total control, and in a certain slant of light he looks downright beatific.
Then his kid comes out on stage. The kid can’t be more than six.
“Wait for it,” the Karate Elvises are telling me, shaking me by the arm.
I wait for it.
Why does one go to an Elvis Presley impersonator festival in the county of Simcoe, in the province of Ontario, in the country of Canada, on the planet of Earth?
Why does one go to an Elvis Presley impersonator festival in the county of Simcoe, in the province of Ontario, in the country of Canada, on the planet of Earth?
The question is valid but benefits from a slight rephrasing: There is a multi-day Elvis fest involving parades of classic cars, carnival rides, Elvis flicks under the stars, hundreds of live performances, food stands, merch stands, and a battle royale to determine the greatest Elvis impersonator in the land. The rephrased question is: What kind of dummy doesn’t go?
Here’s a better question: Why does one perform at an Elvis impersonator festival?
I’m roosting in an empty dive off the main drag of this small town, waiting for the day’s first Elvis. My compatriots and I have been discussing the two primary species of performer here at the festival. There are the glory hounds vying for the crown, the faces from the brochures—these men who shimmy-shake in velvet-seated theaters or bellow from Erector-set stages that block intersections—and then there are the nameless scrappers, the small-time wig jockeys who gig in dingy bars just hoping to get their drinks comped. If a choice must be made, the choice is obvious: the real story is always about the anonymous amateurs who come to drop joy-bombs in dank beer halls.
Outside the rain begins to come down apocalyptically, the blue Ontario sky blanketed suddenly gray. A crush of wet Elvis-heads packs the bar. Perched comfortably on our stools, we look around and feel wise in our decision to shun the main stages, we stretch our legs in contentment, we grow drunk on our perspicacity and our tequila shooters. The rain has not ruined the festival, just concentrated things along the periphery, which—journalistically speaking—is the only place to be.
The place is getting rowdy, people soaked and jostling and starting to drink. Now the first ETA of the afternoon takes the stage, steps onto a low-carpeted riser. This first ETA (for the uninitiated, that’s Elvis Tribute Artist; no impersonators here, just homage) looks nervous, a very un-Elvis state of mind. He is in his fifties, fastidiously smoothing back the sides of his jet black pompadour.
Then the cornball karaoke backing track starts up and Elvis dives into “Hound Dog,” a theoretically invigorating opener that isn’t working at all. The vocals are too low—first act of the day, sound guy hasn’t dialed in—and the backing track is overwhelming. Elvis is rigid and hesitant, rooted as he sings, and he knows it’s wrong and we know it’s wrong and things are quickly going sideways. You ain’t never caught a rabbit and you ain’t no friend of mine. Elvis takes a step off the riser, tries to engage the crowd, but the mic moans loudly and he retreats, pinned up there.
I am feeling particularly uncomfortable because Elvis is a truly nice dude. When he is not Elvis he is a steel salesman out of Michigan—”Slinging steel!” I say to him pre-set, and he looks at me cockeyed, this nomenclature apparently not in wide circulation outside my brain—and his work-related travels often take him through my hometown, Chicago. Elvis tells me his name is Fab and I choose to take him at his word. Fab and I talk Chicago, we talk Gary, Indiana, we talk Michigan, we are simpatico. So it is painful to see him up there, not dying exactly, but certainly not living.
Then—mid-song, mid-lyric—Fab sees me in the crowd, shoots his finger-gun at me, winks, and says “Hey there, Chicago.”
That’s all it takes: a familiar face. Fab is back in it, posing and vamping as he sings, mimicking those iconic Elvis stances, hip-sprung, lunging and beckoning. He does a wizardly spell-conjuring gesture toward the crowd and they love it—this is a friendly crowd after all, no one wants a train wreck. He moves into some light dance steps, some bobbing and ducking of the head.
Now that he’s going I take a moment to appreciate the grandeur of his costume: Fab is doing the 1970s Vegas Elvis thing, wearing a white polyester jumpsuit, thoroughly rhinestoned and hugging thickly to his midsection. His plunging neckline introduces vigorous tufts of chest hair. This is all expected. It is Fab’s edge-game, though, that sets him apart: everything is tasseled and fringed and braided, fringed tassels and tasseled braids, the whole get-up in liquid motion around him. He wears a belt of woven green, with long plaits that hula dance around his knees. The cumulative effect is that of dissolved borders.
Fab’s mic is popping and his vocals still aren’t loud enough but this doesn’t seem to matter anymore. I give a hard stare at the sound guy, a young 1950s Elvis in a red plaid blazer, with hair pomaded into a high quiff that resolves in ducktail. I wonder if he considers Fab a rival—there must be ETA rivalries, annual clashes, narrowed eyes, the Elvis-curled lip done with just a touch of real sneer—but it is possible that he is simply an inept soundman.
By the time the Karate Elvises strut into the bar it feels inevitable, like they’ve come looking for us.
Fab has been doing this for nine years now. He’d sung in country bands all his life, a passive Elvis fan but no aficionado, the kind of guy who toetaps to “Jailhouse Rock” but doesn’t know the deep cuts. Then a relative dragged him to one of these festivals—Fab had been feeling restless, in a down period between bands—and something connected. He went directly out and bought the costume, dyed the hair. Now he hits five or six festivals a year. The wife even comes sometimes.
“When it’s someplace nice,” Fab tells me. “She came to the one in Myrtle Beach.”
Fab’s set is done. I go to buy him a drink but I have to wait—some other stranger has beaten me to it. Fab bearhugs me when I reach him and thanks me for sticking around, but other fans want a piece of his time and he moves briskly along, doling out high fives, receiving back slaps.
Fab is radiant and sweaty. He is here in this bar but he is off somewhere else as well. Fab is glowing.
The storm clouds have blown off for a moment so we take to the streets, pillaging the food stands of Simcoe County: hot dogs, pulled pork, lemonade, ice cream, fried dough in various contortions. There is region-specific fare as well, and some of the geniuses among us opt for a Canadian three-piece: peameal bacon sandwich up front, poutine on support, beavertail chaser, then forthwith to the cardiac ward.
We return to the bar just in time to catch Elvis come bolting onto the low carpeted riser, fist-pumping to the game-showy opening brass of “See See Rider.” This Elvis is a dense and stocky Native American man—First Nations, they would say up here—with a thick watermelon gut, thick gold sunglasses, thick black pomp. Very quickly he is sweating hard, aiming for verisimilitude that would make the King proud. His pipes are rich baritone and immensely pleasing. Listening to him is an experience not unlike being rubbed in butter. I said see…see see rider!
I am feeling particularly uncomfortable because Elvis is a truly nice dude.
Elvis stalks around the room belting Vegas-era tunes and begins draping sweaty gossamer scarves around the shoulders of swooning women. The Turkish bathish nature of the bar has begun to overwhelm us, and everyone is slicked with sweat or rain or tears or all three. As he works the crowd, Elvis’s wife is discreetly restocking him with scarves. She’s a pro: she has a large duffle of scarves slung over her shoulder, yet she remains out of the spotlight as she feeds him, for no swooner wants the performance marred by the reality of a happily-married Elvis. Many ETAs here have a handler like this. Fab had his brother-in-law with him, snapping fan-requested pictures and grabbing drinks. Back when they pulled up, I watched the brother-in-law jump out into the rain and umbrella-escort Fab inside.
Elvis mops his face with each new scarf before giving it away and each one comes off looking like the Shroud of Turin. He is currently killing us with “In the Ghetto,” his finale—we are bawling like babies out here, he can do with us as he wishes.
As the snow flies…on a cold and gray Chicago mornin’…a poor little baby child is born…in the ghetto…and his mama cries.
And like that Elvis is done. While we in the crowd are still basking in post-coital glow, his entourage has hustled him out the door. I run out into the street, push through the crowds, but it is too late. Elvis has left the building.
A scrum of middle-aged ETA groupies comes down the street, wearing autographed white T-shirts, proffering indelible markers, begging signatures from the performers. Now they stop to pose for pictures with a young Elvis, somewhere in his early twenties, who has Down Syndrome.
This Elvis is dressed in all black: black pants, black blazer, black T-shirt, black hair gelled into a tower. He is laughing as the groupies squeeze in close around him. Off to the side Elvis’s mother and his two aunts are watching the scene unfold. Everyone is beaming.
By the time the Karate Elvises strut into the bar it feels inevitable, like they’ve come looking for us. They appear to have a bit of drink in them already.
“We’re stunt Elvises!” one of the three yells at me. “We do karate kicks and ride our dirt bikes over cliffs!”
He pronounces it KAH-RAH-TAY, corrects me when I say otherwise.
They are dressed in familiar motif—the white rhinestoned jumpsuits, the chunky gold sunglasses—but two of them have nunchaku tucked beneath knotted yellow belts that perhaps have been stolen from a child’s martial arts class.
“Cool nunchucks,” I say.
They begin whirling their nunchaku in the air, flipping them under their arms and around their backs, and it feels like a victory when no one is injured in any significant way. The Karate Elvises are pushing thirty, potbellied and scruffy. One has a full beard. Another is sporting a bushy Fu Manchu mustache and has his head Bic’d up the sides, with his long hair greased straight back. All three are wearing plastic leis and plastic sheriff’s badges. At their request we join them in some Jägermeister, which feels both unseemly and also like the only appropriate choice.
As we wander through town, we begin to speculate about the central mysteries of this festival, the Jägermeister being a surefire lubricant for bargain-basement philosophy.
They do this often, they tell me, hit up the various festivals—but they never perform. They’re just here to party and see some Elvises they know from the scene. One Karate Elvis is a middle school teacher, another works for a company that makes industrial plastic molds. I briefly consider connecting him with Fab, the steel salesman, but I don’t know if the steel crowd and the plastics crowd run together.
Then, when I ask them how they first got involved with Elvis fest, this happens:
Fu Manchu takes a step back from the group, turns his back, spreads his wings. He stands before us with a heavy satin cape that spans arm to arm, falls down past his waistline, a perfect semicircle. I reach out to touch it—the fabric is creamy and expensive, a dream on the fingertips. While Fu Manchu presents his cape, Bearded Elvis goes into a low boxer’s crouch beside the cape, fists up, rings sparkling. This is their answer to my question.
They seem vaguely disappointed by our collective silence.
“It’s his wife’s wedding dress!” Bearded Elvis yells, still in his protective bodyguard stance.
“My fucking EX-wife, man,” Fu Manchu corrects over his shoulder, still spread wide.
I examine the artifact closely. It is indeed part of a wedding dress—hacked off from the rest of the gown, now heavily bejeweled, little constellations of plastic gemstones glued everywhere—and it has been professionally re-hemmed.
Fu Manchu’s wife was cheating on him, he tells me, and when they split up he fell into a bad hard time. The other Karate Elvises—pre-Elvises at the time—came by one day to help pack up the house. They found the wedding dress hanging in an empty closet. Toss that thing! Fu Manchu said, but Bearded Elvis stayed his hand. The three of them stood looking at it, shifting weight, awaiting inspiration. Looks like something Liberace woulda worn, they said.
Yeah, or fucking Elvis.
This is how healing begins.
Someone has ordered more Jägermeister, heaping sin upon sin. A new Elvis is crooning softly from the riser: Little things I should have said and done…I just never took the time…You were always on my mind. Somehow a team of tween boys has infiltrated the bar, in full soccer regalia, selling raffle tickets for a local charity. One boy’s mom stands guard against the wall—a canny operator separating a roomful of drunks from their money—but just out of her view the Karate Elvises are showing the goalie and a midfielder how to play touchscreen bar games.
“If you win, you get to see naked chicks,” they tell the boys.
Now the Karate Elvises lead us out into the streets of this small town, strolling diagonally through an intersection, holding up traffic. Things are getting lawless. It is dark but the crowds are still afoot and the clouds have blown off for good. They’re taking us to see their buddy Norm and his kid.
As we wander through town, we begin to speculate about the central mysteries of this festival, the Jägermeister being a surefire lubricant for bargain-basement philosophy. What drives someone to be-wig himself and sing karaoke before thousands of strangers? we wonder aloud. And why do those strangers come to watch?
It has to begin with Elvis Aaron Presley himself, whose life hewed so closely to an Aristotelian tragic arc as to seem a parody of it: Poor hick mama’s boy, born in a shotgun shack in Tupelo, Mississippi, emerges as the best-selling solo artist in the history of recorded music, then falls under the spell of panderers, Svengalis, and speed-freaks, before dying on his bathroom floor, a drug-addled paranoiac shut-in. Yet while the arc is familiar, there is something ineffable that situates Elvis in another realm. Compare him with a proxy like Mick Jagger. Jagger has the same outsized sexuality, the swagger, the legendary pharmaceutical abuse, the international fame, the deep catalog of revered music—but there are no Mick Jagger-impersonating festivals worldwide, never will be. And you can’t pin it to death-mystique either. Elvis was neither the first nor the last pop icon to exit in lurid circumstances—Jimi, Janis, Marilyn, Jim Morrison, Robert Johnson, Patsy Cline, Sid Vicious, Kurt Cobain, Marvin Gaye, John Lennon, Biggie Smalls, the list unspools in both temporal directions—but none of those famously departed have engendered the same zombie cult. No one claims that Jimi Hendrix is secretly living out his days as an accountant in Boca Raton. The only American figure to approach anything similar in terms of death-denial is Tupac Shakur, but the difference in scale is exponential.
Into the uniquely fertile soil of Elvis Aaron Presley, then, introduce the inborn drive for public hamming, the insatiable desire to perform (cf. all reality television ever, specifically the myriad talent show-style programs that dominate the airwaves). Cross-pollinate this with another human need, the societally-approved id-unburdening event: Carnival, Halloween, Saturnalia, Mardi Gras, Holi, Burning Man—those public release valves that give license to play dress-up, swap genders, step into different lives. Let all of the above germinate under the warm sun of the late 20th century and fairly quickly you arrive at Elvis fest, at Elvis Tribute Artists, at pilgrims who trek from Waxahachie, Texas to rural Ontario to watch people in costume pantomime a ghost.
Nearly 40 years out from his death, the whole enterprise has become decoupled from Elvis Presley the human being, is now more about “Elvis Presley” the meme. The “Elvis meme” is especially accommodating in terms of age, body type, and worldview: you can be old Elvis, young Elvis, fat Elvis, skinny Elvis, Hawaiian Elvis, rockabilly Elvis, army Elvis, jailhouse Elvis, Vegas Elvis, greaser Elvis, country Elvis, Elvis the sexual rock rebel, Elvis the spiritual gospel crooner—so many personae linked in one man that anyone can play. And not just men: Elvis Herselvis, the famous lesbian ETA, has long noted the King’s “queeny” side, a femininity that goes deeper than the mascara and the pink outfits.
And maybe that is what “Elvis” is really all about: the grand human potential to make and remake one’s identity, the mutability of—
But the Karate Elvises interrupt us to call bullshit.
“It’s more about getting strangers to buy you drinks,” Bearded Elvis says.
“Yeah,” says Fu Manchu, “You guys are doing it wrong.”
The Karate Elvises have led us through the underworld, have led us finally to Norm.
Norm is crushing one monster ballad after another, the room hanging on his every gesture. But Norm doesn’t do big gestures. Everything about him is calm, controlled, confident. His face is glossed with sweat and his mascara is raccooning under his eyes, casting his face with the mournful determined look of a martyr. He’s in a dark green silk shirt and dark green pants, a thin white belt delineating the two. When the storms of life are raging…stand by me. His voice eases from the higher angelic registers down into sweet low dissolution, quavering briefly, the delicate vibrato of a reed instrument—then he pulls back, perfect control, just working us.
The crowd howls in the spaces between phrases, then falls back into reverential silence. Norm is keeping everyone in check with subtle motions of his hand, first pointing loosely upward with extended index finger, then pressing gently down toward the earth, as if calming a spooked animal. Up goes the finger, down goes the palm. It takes me a moment to recognize it: he’s doing Plato and Aristotle from the 16th century Vatican fresco “The School of Athens”—and, really, if you’re going to crib some material, Raffaello Sanzio is not a bad place to start.
He finishes “Stand by Me” and goes immediately into a mid-tempo triumphal rendition of “How Great Thou Art,” the song that won Elvis a Grammy in 1974 when he was deep into pharmaceutical dependency and heading toward the final spiral. I see the stars…I hear the rolling thunder. The crowd sways, waves hands side-to-side, praising.
Mick Jagger has the same outsized sexuality, the swagger, the legendary pharmaceutical abuse, the international fame, the deep catalog of revered music—but there are no Mick Jagger-impersonating festivals worldwide, never will be.
The Karate Elvises tell me they first partied with Norm and his dad—another well-known ETA—at an Elvis fest in Windsor a few years back. They’ve kept in touch since. I ask if they see that often: two generations of performers, father-son duos.
This is when Norm brings his six-year-old kid out.
“Three generations,” Fu Manchu says.
The kid comes out to huge roars. The crowd has been waiting, knew this was coming. Sweet small boy in a striped polo shirt. He looks terrified. The crowd is fully behind him but it’s hard not to read a little Roman Colosseum into this moment, hard not to notice how loud and drunk everyone is, hard not to see how exposed the kid looks up there. His eyes are down, hands shoved as far into his pockets as they will go. Norm introduces him, says his son is going to do a number or two for us. The kid keeps looking up at his dad, then back down at the floor.
But there is a problem cueing up the right track and we’re drowning in dead air. It feels like the kid’s been standing up there for ages now. In an attempt to cut the tension, Norm conducts a mock-interview with his son, asks him to tell the crowd why he wanted to become an Elvis Tribute Artist.
The kid exhales loudly into the mic. “Well, I just saw you and grandpa doing it,” he says quietly, halting and um-ing. “And I really wanted to do it.”
The kid’s voice is earnest, he means it, but it sounds rehearsed: a line practiced ahead of time and fumbled in an attempt to say the words just right.
His eyes keep cutting over to his dad, desperate to see how he’s doing, and I’m starting to feel queasy. It is impossible not to imagine my own small boy alone up there.
Then the music starts. The song is “Rubberneckin” from the 1969 film Change of Habit, in which a benevolent young doctor at a ghetto clinic—Elvis Aaron Presley—falls in love with a wholesome and spirited volunteer—Mary Tyler Moore—who is also secretly a nun.
The transformation has happened before I can process it. It’s called rubberneckin baby…well that’s all right with me. Norm’s kid is hip-snapping on the downbeats, punching on the cymbal crashes. He is transported, finger-pointing and lip-curling, up on tiptoes doing the classic pelvic swivel. Kid’s a born mimic. Halfway through the song the mic goes out but Norm is there with a replacement, passes it seamlessly, the kid doesn’t miss a beat. Now Norm is directing the crowd, prepping them for the soul clap, gets them going just in time, and the kid does a little soft shoe routine during the breakdown. For a moment I reconsider the miscued backing track, the dead air, the awkward small talk, wonder if it could somehow be part of the act—the magician who deliberately fumbles a trick before going in for the kill—but I saw the kid’s eyes. Some things can’t be faked.
When they close out the show with a father-son duet, a rambunctious “Viva Las Vegas,” it feels like the roof might lift off this joint. All of us out in the crowd are pressed close together now—house painters and middle school teachers, salesmen and grandmothers and lawyers, music junkies and bro-bonding divorcees alike—all of us drunks and weirdos in masquerade. Up on stage, Norm and his kid are in perfect sync.