King Is Half Undead
Lake George Elvis Festival treads the thin line between illusion
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 garyelvis.com.
Meanwhile, the faux license plate on a nearby black Lincoln
Continental (suicide doors, baby!) states its purpose very
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
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
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.
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
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.
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
In the Forum lobby, between sets, a sister and brother compete
got four Elvises,” the boy says.
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:
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.