Small Town, Big Noise

an elvis impersonator doing a knee slide
The Elvis Knee Slide

Every year in late July, unless you keep away from the center of town shutters drawn and silicone earplugs firmly in place, you’re bound to see Elvis Presley getting takeout from The Olde Red Hen restaurant; tinkering on a Cadillac Eldorado in the library parking lot; practicing capoeira kicks outside Eddie Bush Arena; executing his signature knee slide move on stage in the Loblaws parking lot.

How did Collingwood, Ontario become the site of the World’s Largest Elvis Festival surpassing even Memphis, Tennessee? Collingwood has been hardwired for fun since the 1940s when two entrepreneurs began developing the ski hills in the snowbelt north of Toronto. The first customers took a “ski train” from Craigleith Station where a horse drawn sleigh transported them to Blue Mountain Resort.

elvis impersonators at an event
The annual street party

As the ski industry took off, so did Collingwood’s reputation as Ontario’s playground offering four seasons of fun. From the 1850s to the 1980s, Collingwood thrived as one of Canada’s major shipbuilders. In the boom years, skilled locals built more than two hundred vessels including lake freighters and warships. Demand peaked during the Second World War followed by a devastating shutdown. Today, local merchants routinely display “marine legacy” photos. Native Collingwoodians reminisce about the community celebration that accompanied every boat launch. The 1986 loss of nearly 1,200 shipbuilding jobs is a phantom limb…anxiety about economic stimulus ever-present.

Elvis impersonators talking to civilians in the crowd
Elvis Meet and Greet

When a tribute artist named Billy Cann put together a modest 1995 talent contest featuring 35 tribute artists, Collingwood Chamber of Commerce saw the potential for a much larger community festival. They began marketing Collingwood as a family-friendly tourist town, an ideal location for the worldwide “Elvis Family” to come together. Over time, the Collingwood Elvis Festival has ballooned into a 5-day-carnivalesque “chance to learn about the man, his music, his attitude and his iconic image”. In an average year, more than 18,000 visitors converge on a town of 22,000.

To ensure the best viewing spot at the free Street Party, savvy Elvis fans (aka “Elvi”) set up their lawn chairs at midnight. Hurontario Street is awash in vendors selling rockabilly wigs, giant belt buckles, license plates, henna tattoos, aviator glasses with attached sideburns. Of the 142 registered ETAs (Elvis Tribute Artists), maybe five bear a passing resemblance to the King of Rock and Roll in a sequin jumpsuit with attached cape. No matter how amateurish the music, how farfetched the wigs, the Elvi greet every musical tribute with blind adoration.

A sign inviting attendees to an elvis impersonator competition
Grand Champion Smackdown

The bigger-ticket showcases (Average price: $50 – $70) have included ‘Inspirational Elvis’ (a Gospel singing competition); ‘Elvis Lives’ (his legacy and impact on other recording stars); ‘Welcome Home Elvis’ (honouring the year he completed his military service); ‘Essential Elvis’ (career highlights); ‘Elvis Signature Moments’ (a recreation of Elvis’ 1973 Aloha from Hawaii concert), ‘The Evolution of Elvis’ (Collingwood Festival’s 20th anniversary show).

In 2018, Collingwood hosted 142 registered Elvis Tribute Artists. Last year’s Grand Champion smackdown saw 24 international artists defend their championship title in a big green tent beside the local curling club.

Hardcore fans traveled from Hawaii, Australia, and Japan in search of an emotional charge that’s hard to pinpoint … except that after they’ve seen one hundred-plus iterations of Elvis Recreated Live On Stage (“I close my eyes and it’s him!”), they feel satiated.

a poster advertising an elvis impersonator
Elvis Tribute Artist from Japan; “Release Your Inner Elvis”

Witness the online tributes: “Elvis’ battery was completely full with an overcharge, ready to change the world.” “Elvis was, is, and will always be the greatest, most talented, best looking, most charismatic entertainer of this world.” Collingwood Festival Fans’ Facebook page includes updates on the auctioning off of Elvis’ luxurious private jet and promos for ‘Elvis Week’ bus tours in Memphis.

If you deliberately intensify an emotional state to understand how irrational that emotional reaction really is, that’s called “paradoxical intention”. Two years ago, I attended the BEST OF THE FEST Dinner and Show at The Olde Town Terrace. When the lounge singer warmup act overstayed his welcome, the vodka shot-swilling audience grew edgy. Then 2016’s Ultimate Elvis Champion Oliver Steinhoff from Germany vaulted onstage swiveling his hips in a tight, fringed jumpsuit. When Steinhoff draped his white scarf over a woman in the front row, she clung to his leg sobbing until security forcibly removed her. I had to look away.

Festival organizers claim the event generates good will and provides affordable entertainment but the Collingwood Elvis Festival hasn’t met its budget objectives in years. Many local businesses report a significant drop in sales because their regular customers avoid the downtown core during the festival and the Elvi don’t frequent Collingwood’s better boutiques and restaurants. Many local residents head out of town in late July and return when the street dance, classic car parade, roaming street artists, and Vegas-style shows have wound down “until next year”.

an elvis impersonator dancing with an audience memberIn response to pressure from Collingwood Town Council to “downsize the moving parts and grow local economic impact,” Festival organizers radically streamlined last year’s event: three days instead of six; two stages instead of four. As the 25th anniversary approaches, Town Council is debating how to “reposition or retire” The World’s Largest Elvis Festival. Summer 2019 could be the last chance to “release your inner Elvis”.

International fans still organize their calendars around the “Collingwood Elvis Family Reunion”. Local Elvi have launched an online petition calling on the town to continue the event. Whether they know it or not, the world famous festival and the community of fans that have grown together over the years are preparing to say goodbye. Elvis’ 1960 hit ‘Suspicious Minds’ sums up their predicament: “Don’t you know I’m caught in a trap/I can’t walk out/Because I love you too much, baby.”

An elvis impersonator walking away from the camera

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Anne McGouran

Toronto-born Anne McGouran resides in Collingwood, Ontario where she has developed a fascination with ice huts and orchard ladders. Her nonfiction appears in Cutbank, Queen’s Quarterly, Smart Set, Coachella Review, Wild Culture Journal, and Northern Terminusl. Her fiction appears in Understorey Magazine and Emrys Journal.

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