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PHOTO: John Brodeur

The King Is Half Undead

The Lake George Elvis Festival treads the thin line between illusion and delusion


By John Brodeur

Old-timey Lake George Village is a tourist hell this time of year. The place bustles with roadside amusement parks and arcades, T-shirt and souvenir shops line the streets, and motels seem to outnumber restaurants and bars three times over. This weekend, a tow-truck show has set up shop along Route 9 (A tow-truck show? Seriously?), and bikers have begun rolling into town for Americade, which begins a few days from now. In the distance, the sound of a steamboat permeates the relative silence as it sets out for a tour of the Queen of American Lakes.

But pull into the parking lot adjacent to the long-defunct Action Park (abandoned, it looks like a ghost town), and things seem a little different. A middle-aged man crosses the street in a white cape and sneakers. A station wagon is covered in colorful magnets that bear the logo for the Web site Meanwhile, the faux license plate on a nearby black Lincoln Continental (suicide doors, baby!) states its purpose very simply: ELVIS.

Welcome to the Lake George Elvis Festival. This is the festival’s third year, and a fourth festival has already been announced for summer 2007. Spread out among several locations through the village, events include an open-mic night, cruises on the lake, an Elvis-themed Sunday-morning gospel service, appearances by Elvis colleagues like DJ Fontana, and the daily Hunka’ Hunka’ Pancake Breakfast; practically all of the events include live entertainment by one of 60 or so Elvis impersonators (more commonly referred to here as “imitators” or “tribute acts”).

Under the pavilion at the Beach Road stage on Sunday afternoon, food vendors hawk “Elvis’ Favorites” (menus include grilled peanut-butter-and-banana sandwiches, Memphis-style ribs, potato-cheese soup, and moon pies), while other vendors sell tapestries, T-shirts, posters, CDs, DVDs, and about every other manner of Elvis-related memorabilia one could imagine.

While one act is setting up, a man in his 60s shimmies his way up and down the aisles, lip-synching (badly) to the spoken section of “Are You Lonesome Tonight?” on the P.A., waving his hands around to psych up those seated in the first few rows of folding chairs.

A man in a blue, heavily adorned jumpsuit—presumably an imitator, although his close-cropped grey hair and lack of sideburns suggests he may be out of costume right now—tells an admirer about the flower lei he wears around his neck. “I wear it every year,” he says. “It’s like a good-luck charm.”

An imitator in black leather takes the stage with two young boys in white, sequined jumpsuits and paste-on sideburns. (Come to think of it, all three may have fake sideburns.) “These are my boys, Presley and Thomas,” he says. One boy holds a toy guitar and mouths into a toy microphone; the other apes his father’s gestures as he lip-synchs into a hand-held mic. The kids are more convincing at the Elvis routine than their dad.

The “real show,” as one ticket-seller calls it, is taking place at the Lake George Forum, up the hill on Route 9. This is where the aforementioned imitators have been duking it out all weekend for the prestigious honor of being named the best fake Elvis. Between 600 and 700 fans have assembled for the competition finals inside the Forum’s auditorium, which looks like an upside-down Mr. Bouncy Bounce, its ceiling lined with puffy, silver tiles.

All types of folks are represented here: A middle-age man in a suit and T-shirt relaxes by himself; a pair of ladies in their 50s dance in their seats; a group of boys play air drums and bob their heads; an elderly couple adjust the cotton in their ears.

“This is something else. It’s like a Star Trek convention,” says one first-time festival attendee.

The 10-piece ExSpence Account Showband backs up all of the contestants. The drummer wears a perfectly shaped mullet; it barely moves as he rolls through the fills on “Polk Salad Annie.”

There’s clearly a lot of love and respect for Elvis’ legend, but there also seems to be appreciation for the absurdity of that legend—in fact, two different performers take on “Suspicious Minds,” and both mimic the famous “I hope this suit don’t tear up on me” line from Elvis’ Vegas days.

“There might not be anything cuter than a child dressed as Elvis, not on Halloween,” remarks one fan. She’s part right—Demi Downing, a 9-year-old female Elvis imitator (Shelvis? Felvis?) in a red jumpsuit, does play cute on “Burnin’ Love,” but her performance on “Don’t Cry Daddy” is almost heartbreaking. (She also happens to be the best singer of the afternoon, although that only gets her as far as second place in the youth competition.)

In the Forum lobby, between sets, a sister and brother compete for autographs.

“I’ve got four Elvises,” the boy says.

I’ve got six!” his sister counters.

Clusters of Elvises are seen chatting —short, tall, fat, fit, young and old, shades or no, capes and jumpsuits, pork-chop sideburns and slicked-back hairdos. There’s enough gold lame here to line Madison Square Garden.

Back onstage, the pros battle for the big prize. Robert Washington is a bit dark-skinned to win high points for appearance, perhaps too fit as well, but his take on “You’ve Lost That Lovin’ Feeling” is a high point, punctuated by a quick “thankyouverymuch.” Dwight Icenhower follows with a medley of hits; vocally—and visually, from 50 yards—he’s a dead ringer for the King. Next, Kavan, a youthful, almost feminine-looking imitator from Ohio, does “Jailhouse Rock” to the letter, complete with perfect voice, outfit, and dance moves. It’s the performance that eventually will win him the grand prize.

Terry Collins, the Tribute Artist Advisor (something like a guidance counselor, perhaps), addresses the crowd:

“A lot of people outside of the Elvis world think we’re nutcases. . . . To walk around with the sideburns all year can be weird. . . . But to those people, all I have to say is, ‘Welcome to our world.’”

And what a world it is.

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