The king of tribute festivals

Every July, thousands of devotees flock to the otherwise sleepy Canadian town of Collingwood, north of Toronto, to celebrate all things Elvis.

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Every July, thousands of devotees flock to the otherwise sleepy Canadian town of Collingwood, north of Toronto, to celebrate all things Elvis and cheer on their favourite lookalikes in the biggest competition of its kind in the world. John Mather gets all shook up.
On the final day of the 2009 Collingwood Elvis Festival - the largest celebration of its kind in the world - the Eddie Bush Memorial Arena is nearly full by 9.30am. The familiar arena smell of sweaty hockey equipment and pizza fills the halls, but the spectators inside are not here to watch a game. Instead, the crowd is listening to Rev Heather Stacey, a local Anglican minister, as she delivers a sermon on God, Elvis and his love of gospel music.

"God reminds us of Elvis's legacy," says Stacey, who has been performing the Sunday gospel service at the festival for three years. Her voice is amplified by microphone to reach those sitting on white folding chairs in the back. "And Elvis used his incredible gifts to remind us of God's love for us." She continues for a few minutes, before finishing. "I am just about to say Amen, but I think you know in Churchland it means thank you, thank you very much."

The crowd laughs as four men stroll on stage, dressed in their Sunday best: suits with 1950s cuts and accented with red lapels and cummerbunds. Their hair is jet-black with long sideburns. The four Elvis tribute artists - impersonators to the uninitiated - sing How Great Thou Art, Rock My Soul and other gospel classics. As the crowd sings along, it isn't hard to imagine that Elvis might be performing at gospel services like this, albeit for much larger crowds, if he were still alive. But Elvis is dead - a fact no one in this arena denies. And yet, despite this - or because of it - old and new fans, impersonators and celebrities have honoured his spirit through music, merchandise and pompadours in the Canadian town of Collingwood every July for 15 years. And while they often blur the line between tribute and parody, it's this cast of characters that has helped turn Elvis's legacy into something bigger than the King himself.

Elvis look-alikes can be spotted everywhere around downtown during the four-day festival. "A little less conversation, a little more coffee," one croons as he strolls into Rosemarie O'Brien's office in the town hall as the gospel service finishes. O'Brien thanks the leather-clad singer for the drinks; it has been a long three days, and Sunday is set to be the toughest. On top of the regular street performances (in two different parking lots), the vendors (some trying to sell non-licensed merchandise) and the hospital visits (tribute artists perform for free), she has to organise the grand finals of the tribute artist competition, which sells out the arena year after year.

Nevertheless, O'Brien maintains a sense of humour. The festival is celebrating its 15th anniversary and she has been running it for 11 years. The first Collingwood festival in 1994 was a small conference held at a hotel in the town: a casual gathering with a handful of fans. Slowly, with the help of an Elvis-loving mayor and people like O'Brien, more and more enthusiasts showed up July after July, until the southern Ontario town became an unlikely Elvis destination.

The festival is one of a few events outside Memphis sanctioned by Elvis Presley Enterprises (EPE), the corporation that handles the singer's posthumous brand. O'Brien says that in order to convince EPE of Collingwood's worthiness, she flew three representatives to the town so they could see what they had previously been dismissing. She boasts that after four days of watching acts and talking to fans, they were "blown away".

O'Brien says that Carol Butler, the vice-president of licensing, stopped one fan on the street and asked if she would visit Memphis for the festival there. "The fan said, 'Why would we go there when we have everything we want in Collingwood.'" Everything includes Elvis pub nights, Elvis concerts, Elvis T-shirts, Elvis oven mitts, Elvis window displays and thousands of like-minded Elvis fans. But by far the biggest draw is the tribute artists. There are an estimated 50,000 Elvis impersonators in the world, and Collingwood has become known as a place to launch a career. In 2007, the festival set a world record with more than 140 tribute acts competing in the festival's marquee competition. (The number is down to 119 this year, O'Brien says, because even Elvis couldn't avoid the recession.)

The VIP guests - people who have worked with and, in some cases, kissed Elvis - are another big draw. Dangling from the collar of Charles Stone's red golf shirt, right above wisps of white chest hair, is a gold necklace. Its pendant - the letters TCB with lightning bolts on both sides - was a gift from Elvis. Starting in the early 1970s, Stone helped organise Elvis's concerts, arranging venues, security and equipment. Elvis gave the "Taking Care of Business" necklace to the closest members of his entourage.

A polite southerner with a Texas drawl, he is in Collingwood for the first time to sell a new book, and says he's been bowled over by the people he's met. At first, he had been wary of tribute artists, but has now embraced them. Smiling, he says Elvis would approve of the festival. "I think if Elvis saw this, he'd say 'Gee, who would have ever thought...' We have his blessing." Then there is 69-year-old actress Cynthia Pepper, who co-starred with Elvis in the 1964 film Kissin' Cousins, one of the King's 31 movies. She lives in Las Vegas, and this is her third time at the festival. As fans queue to speak to her and get her autograph, they often ask, "What was it like to kiss Elvis?"

"It was wonderful," Pepper responds, adding that she kept sabotaging the take so they could do the scene over and over. She also shares stories about how Elvis was a practical joker. In one scene, she and Elvis squared off in a karate match. As they rehearsed the scene, Pepper practised throwing her co-star. On one occasion Elvis hit his head and didn't get up. "I thought, 'Oh my goodness, I have killed Elvis,'" she says, her eyes growing wide. "He was lying there, not moving. But minutes later - though it felt like days to me - he opened he eyes and said, 'Gotcha!'"

These stories, she explains, are more important than the autographs for the fans. "They want to know or touch someone who knew Elvis. I understand that - those who did aren't getting younger." "Have you been asking people if they are worried that Elvis's fan base is dying off?" another journalist jokes while surveying the crowd around Stone's and Pepper's tables. The demographics around town are undeniable: it's almost all women (tribute artists excluded) aged over 50. For many, Elvis was a catalyst for youthful rebellion and their first sex icon. His music and films became a part of their identity, and without that personal connection, many assume the cult of Elvis will die out.

However, a survey of fans reveals they aren't worried about interest waning in 10, 25, 50 or even 1,000 years (as one person put it). They say his music and generous spirit are timeless. They point to young children - such as six-year-old Dalton Lavalle, and four-year-old Ty Sabino - wandering around in jumpsuits and competing like Elvis. "The wife is a big Elvis fan," says Sabino's father Mike. "I leave it up to Ty and her to make the costumes."

In fact, most of the youngsters are here with their parents, who introduced them to Elvis and his hits. "Watch the shows," Stone says. "You're going to see grandmothers, their daughters and their daughters mouthing the words to every song." There is also a new generation of tribute artists. The Katolinsky brothers from St Catharines in Canada - Brycen, 15, and Brennan, 11 - have competed for years, though only Brycen made it to the finals this year. At the festival, the two boys and their parents are wearing homemade T-shirts sporting a picture of Brycen dressed up as early Elvis.

Terry, their mother, says that she entered the boys in a competition when Brycen was nine because her husband Dan loves Elvis. Brycen has won 15 youth championships and Brennan has 17 titles. "It's amazing," Terry says. "Both these boys are normally so shy." Now they want to be full-time tribute artists - and they are off to a good start, says Kathleen DeNike, the president of the local fan club. She points out they get all the details right. For instance, Brycen wears his belt slightly to the side, exactly as Elvis did in his early years to avoid it scratching the back of his guitar. It's like they are studying Elvis in school."

Bruno Nesci, 17, is another Elvis prodigy. He was inspired to imitate Elvis after seeing a tribute artist when he was seven - "the movement, the voice, the charisma". He made his first jumpsuit by glueing rhinestones to an old karate uniform. He has been a champion of the youth category at various festivals, but Collingwood (he won senior youth in 2002) is his favourite. "No one could ever beat it."

He says exposure at the festival has helped him get gigs in Memphis and Las Vegas next year. "I want to be the next best King," he says. "But I guess that's what every Elvis dreams of." As we speak, he frequently breaks off to say hello to other artists passing by. "Where'd you get that suit?" he asks one. (Nesci also sells homemade Elvis jumpsuits for extra income.) He says there is a strong community among tribute artists. "Ninety per cent of the Elvises are not people you just see briefly and then leave. We're like a brotherhood."

The Brotherhood of the Travelling Jumpsuit, though, also has its tensions. Dean Vegas, a veteran tribute artist from Australia, says when he won the championship at in 2000, he had a run-in with the second runner-up. The other Elvis began crushing Vegas's palm as he shook his hand, and muttered "congratulations" while glaring at him. Later Vegas discovered his competitor had formally complained to organisers, claiming Vegas should not have won because he wasn't wearing the proper suit for his song.

Looking back, Vegas laughs and admits that some artists take it all too seriously. "I mean, some people are way over the top. They believe they are Elvis and that is kind of scary." He says it's crucial for impersonators to maintain individuality, and one way to do this is by branding. Vegas, for instance, bills himself as the Aussie Elvis. There is also the Jewish Elvis, the Lady Elvis and so on. TJ Jackson is known as the Native Elvis. Jackson grew up on the Akwesasne Mohawk reservation that straddles the Quebec and Ontario border. After more than 30 years working as a musician he decided to become a tribute artists four years ago. Today his jumpsuit is decorated with bear claws and painted in traditional Mohawk colours.

Like Jackson, many tribute artists have previously tried to make it as musicians. Thor Bonfig, for instance, a tribute act from Elliot Lake, Ontario, made it through the first round of Canadian Idol, a spin-off of American Idol. But it isn't an easy way to make a living. When Vegas started full time 13 years ago, he earned only US$400 (Dh1,470) in his first 12 months. A pavement installer by trade, he put in a path in a local seamstress's back garden in exchange for his first jumpsuit.

Today, Vegas, whose parents are Lebanese, has made it in the Elvis world. He commands US$2,500 (Dh9,200) for a half-hour performance and drives a Jaguar. He insists, though, that he doesn't to it for the money, but for his icon - "plus Elvis gets all the chicks". The women fans love Vegas. They give him phone numbers and some, including women over 60, have thrown their underwear on stage at him. He admits some fans get carried away and behave like stalkers. For the most part, though, he thinks the fans are great. "People are so generous, it's amazing. They give suits, gold rings and all kinds of things. In return I just love making people happy and forget about life for a couple of minutes."

DeNike agrees Elvis fans are the best. "Wayne Newton, Sinatra - they don't do this for anyone else," she says. "These people aren't freaks. It's class." She introduces me to her friend and fellow fan Correen DiFlorio. DiFlorio, from Whitby, Ontario, has insured her basement for $30,000 because it is filled with Elvis memorabilia, including unopened Elvis bubblegum from 1976, magazines from the time of his death - tomorrow is the 32nd anniversary - 185 vinyl albums and more. At this year's festival, she bought a road sign that reads Heartbreak Hotel to add to the collection.

DiFlorio was married in the Graceland chapel near Elvis's famous estate in Memphis, Tennessee. And she has become a devoted follower of Stephen Kabakos, a tribute artist once managed by DeNike and one of the best-known on the circuit. She once made a portrait of him using a photo of the real Elvis. She had it framed for $60 and placed it over the fireplace. Later, she gave it to Kabakos as a Christmas gift. Like many here, she has come to be defined by her love of Elvis. As Dean Vegas says, "I've travelled all around the world because of Elvis. Everything I have I owe to him."