Collingwood Elvis Festival
by Festival Nomad, Gary McWilliams
Elvis Is In the House!
We’re off to ski country! It’s July and there’s no snow! But who cares, “Elvis is in the house”, or should I say “Elvises are in the house” and we are going to see them! It’s time for the annual Collingwood Elvis Festival and we are following the crowd to visit it. Judi and I have heard all about the festival from others and are excited to experience it for ourselves! It’s early Friday morning and the sun is shinning brightly in the sky! We have a long drive ahead of us and want to get to Collingwood in time for the giant "Street Party". Fortunately the traffic is steady and we made Collingwood with time to spare. We took the main Collingwood road and wound our way to the downtown area. The main street was roped off and there was only off-street parking available. We parked the car and headed for the main street. A large stage had been set up at one end of the street and was ready to host all of the Elvis tribute performers. Beyond the stage and down the main street was the most amazing sight! Elvis fans, as early as 4:30 in the morning, had set up their folding chairs in neat rows along the street. We are not talking a few chairs. We are talking hundreds of chairs, perhaps a thousand or more! The lines of chairs seemed to stretch forever! Most of the chairs were empty when we arrived, but as the time approached for the Street Party to begin, fans seemed to appeared from nowhere to take their seats! As the Master of Ceremony took the stage, a hushed murmur of anticipation filled the air! The show was about to begin!
Let The Show Begin!
The Master of Ceremony announced the first performer as he took the stage. His music was queued and then started, Elvis was in the house and Collingwood’s giant Street Party had just begun! The first performance ended to the applause of an appreciative audience. The next tribute artist was introduced and his performance began. With the Street Party started, Judi and I decided to explore some of the other activities the Elvis Festival was offering. On the street behind the main stage several booths had been set up. The first we came to was the Sirius Satellite Radio booth. Sirius is this year’s presenting sponsor. The next booth was the OLG (Ontario Lottery and Gaming Corporation) booth. OLG sponsors music at a number of festival and events throughout Ontario, including the Collingwood Elvis Festival. We know, because we've seen their presence at a many of the events we have visited. Further along the street a parking lot had been set up as the Sirius Family Entertainment Venue. This was a large open area in which booths (Elvis memorabilia and more) had been erected along its parameter. At one end of the venue their was a large stage. Several rows of chairs and tables had been placed in front of the stage. There were no scheduled performances during the Street Party, but performers could use the stage to rehearse. No-one was taking advantage when we were there. After fully investigating this area, we walked back towards the “Party”. A few more booths were located on the other side of the stage. The performances were “heating” up, so we decided to return to the stage area!
A Cavalcade of Tribute Artists…
It’s hard to describe the line-up of tribute artists. The Elvises came in all different sizes and shapes. Some wore colourful costumes, others wore… better still let me tell you what I saw! First there was “Flamboyant Elvis”. He was dressed in a very colourful gold and black pattern shirt. He was followed by "Crooner Elvis" whose deep rich voice was soft and melodic. Then there was “Young Elvis”, full of spunk and ready to “rock” the world! “Handsome Elvis” followed, making the girls swoon and then “Colourful Elvis”. He was dressed head to toe in red. On the other side of the spectrum came “All-in-white Elvis”. "Fringed Elvis” was next with his white fringes swinging to and fro as he performed! As the performances took place, I looked out over the audience. Thousands of Elvis fans sat and stood listening, all enthusiastically appreciating the efforts of each tribute artist and each performer soaked up the positive energy emitted by the large crowd. The atmosphere was electrifying! It was time to take a break, so we walked to the back area of the stage. Standing with his family was “Mini Elvis”. He was dressed with an Elvis cape and sideburns! There were several Elvises inside the waiting area barrier ready to go on stage to perform. While they waited, fans crowded around their favourite performer. Even the Elvises who had just performed stayed a while to talk with fans and sign autographs. It was great to see fans appreciating artists and artists appreciating fans! I went back to the side of the stage to watch and listen to more tribute.
Back at the side of the stage, we continued our Elvis watch. “Beaded Elvis” was there already into his performance. When he had finished, “Street Clothes Elvis” came on stage and was introduced to the audience. It was explained that he had just arrived and hadn’t had time to change into his costume. The fans didn’t mind, they knew and loved this performer, and he didn’t disappoint them! To me, he was the best tribute artist I had heard so far! Next came “Guitar Elvis". With his guitar hung around his neck, he wowed the audience with his performance. When the next performer was introduced, the audience went wild! His name is Ray Guilemette Jr. or, if you prefer, “A-Ray of Elvis” and he has won the Collinwood Elvis Festival Grand Champion Award twice and, throughout his career, has won a total of 9 International Elvis tribute awards. Ray was back in Collingwood after a 10 year absence. His performance was flawless and the audience showed their appreciation when he was through! Following Ray came “Big Elvis” and then, “Rebel Elvis”! The “Rebel” was dressed in black and an “edge” to his performance! We walked to the back of the stage for a moment. I wanted to talk with Ray Guilemette Jr. and take his picture. He was very gracious and it was easy to see why he is consider one of the all time great Elvis impersonators. On our way back to the stage, we stopped to talk to two other Elvises. I had noticed them before talking together and I had wanted to find out more about them. It turned out that they were good friends. I asked how long they had been Elvis tribute artists. One answer several years and his friend said only a few months. He told me he had decided to try it out and that his friend was mentoring him! It seemed to me that there were a lot of “Elvis” friends and that they all cared about and helped one another. Of course, they had the “King” to guide them! Back at the front of the stage we were in time to see and listen to “Colourfully Fringed Elvis”. He was dressed all in blue and lots of beaded fringes on his costume. The final tribute artist of the morning was “Boy Elvis”. The boy, about 10 years old, was dressed in a khaki army uniform. He took the stage with determined confidence and impressed the audience with one of Elvis’s songs. The fans loved him! With his performance there was now a lull in the program, the opening ceremonies were going to start shortly.
Before the opening ceremonies began, we decided to take a walk from the stage area. At the back of the stage we saw the Elvises mingling with their fans, signing autographs and posing for pictures. As we wandered through the crowds, we listened to the excited chatter of people discussing the performances that they had just heard. The number of people filling the street and sidewalks was overwhelming! Festival volunteers tried to clear pathways, but it was an impossible task. Finally the MC came back on the stage to introduce the Collingwood Town Crier. The Crier read the proclamation and then officially declared the festival open. He was followed by Collingwood’s Mayor, Chris Carrier, who welcomed everyone to the festivities. The festival’s manager then came forward and told us about other festival events. The United States and Canadian National Anthems were then sung. Each National Anthem was performed by a different well know Elvis impersonator. With the formalities over, the Casino Brothers were introduced. This was there 4th year performing at the Elvis Festival. They “rocked” on their own for a few songs and then one of the tribute artists joined them on stage. Rather then performing one of the “King’s” songs, it was Del Shannon’s “Runaway” that had the crowds “dancing in the streets”! The Street Party continued with other performers joining the Casino Brothers, each presenting their own brand of tribute. It had been a long day for us and as much as we would have liked to stay, we decided to make our way home! I am sure the Street Party carried on long after we had left!
The Festival is an internationally recognized tribute to the late “King”, Elvis Presley. Thousands of Elvis fans converge on the beautiful town of Collingwood each July. The festival runs for 4 event packed days. Judi’s and my story only covers a few wonderful hours. For anyone, young or old, who loves Elvis and “Rock and Rolls” this is a MUST visit. Whether you can only spend a few hours, like Judi and me, or you can take in the whole Collingwood Elvis Festival, do it, you’ll be glad you did! A word of caution, get there early, bring your folding chairs and lots of sun screen… and your love of great music!