Excursions: All Shook Up for Elvis

Annual festival honoring the King lures fans of all kinds this month.
Photograph Courtesy of the Elvis Festival

Orange County is an Elvis hotbed—I’ll leave you to ponder why—with a dense Elvis Presley fan club. So it’s no surprise that Elvis fans from throughout the area will turn out by the thousands Oct. 9 for the 22nd annual Elvis Festival in Garden Grove. 

Garden Grove’s Main Street has always felt to me like Smalltown, USA, and it seems perfect for Elvis. Entering the street last year, I passed a fan club booth, The Jailhouse Rockers of California, which was stuffed with old knickknacks depicting the King: a watercolor, movie posters, single records, and more. I talked to an Elvis impersonator, totally decked out: jumpsuit, pompadour, belt, all of it. I passed an Elvis statue, sky high and made entirely of balloons, down to the gold sunglasses. I narrowly missed an Elvis on stilts. OK, I thought, this is fun. I poked into the Azteca Mexican restaurant, which has become known locally as “The Elvis Bar.” Elvis has not left that building. I was completely surrounded by Elvis karaoke and wax-museum-style Elvis statues. Action figures. Framed vinyl records. Elvis posters and Elvis wine bottles. 

Back out in the sunshine, I stopped to appreciate a take-your-breath-away lineup of Cadillacs—a 1962 gold Coupe de Ville, a 1956 pink sedan, a 1960 red Eldorado—all from 1977 and earlier. All of them babied better than a firstborn.

 

But this Elvis flotsam could not keep me from the music. “You ain’t nothing but a hound dog”  beckoned. Under the music tent, I was surrounded by diehard fans. In front of me, Janine Gordon and Victoria Rogers, two Orange County Elvis enthusiasts who hadn’t seen each other since high school, suddenly found they were sitting side by side. (“Vicki. I think that’s her. I think that’s her. I’m going for it; I really think it’s her. Vicki! You look so good!”) Crying all the time … and you ain’t no friend of mine.

On stage, various musicians played the songs Mike Stoller and Jerry Leiber wrote for Elvis. Because Stoller was the center of attention, I found him immediately in the front row, looking unbelievably young (then 88), freckled, and hip in a black-and-white blurred plaid shirt, matching white cap with a tiny, embroidered crown, and yellow-tinted aviators. I’m a little intimidated by Stoller. I mean, is “Stand by Me” not one of the best songs ever written?

But I steeled myself to ask him: “Why is Elvis still such a thing?”

“It’s not a question of why he matters,” Stoller told me. “It’s something he elicited, something he brought to the world. Go figure. But after all these years, people still love Elvis Presley.”

People were dancing in the aisles. Don’t write off the baby boomers, who, predictably, represented most of the crowd. The energy was fevered. Two guests were rocking out in wheelchairs. My 20-year-old son went nuts and started dancing, too. (His generation likes the same rock we liked, so it makes road trips easy.)

And while the event is definitely California casual, there were high pompadours in the group that I thought were probably authentic, not costume.

“It’s because this is the gospel, and we love the gospel,” said Beverly Leech, who wore a red flowered dress. She feels a special connection with Elvis.

“I cried the whole time I was at Graceland,” said Marilyn Leos of Tustin, who attends the festival with her cousin, Eric Leos, every year. “I felt like he was there with us.” The Leos cousins visit every Elvis location they can: “It’s just something we have to do,” Marilyn said.

I met people in the audience who said they hadn’t missed a year in the two-decades-plus since the festival started, as a small-time promotion for a car exhibit at the Orange County Fair. 

 

The brain trust behind the Elvis Festival is a woman you might know if you’ve been around here a few decades like I have. Or at least you’ll recall her publicity stunts.

There was most famously a cattle drive all the way down Fairview Road in Costa Mesa just to let the locals know fair week was on. There was the giant chia pickup truck, blooming with sprouted chia seeds at the fair entrance. There was a corn derby, where every state in the nation sent in its local corn seed, and the tallest won. There was one wacky professor who played a clarinet while covered in 200,000 bees. And there was a custodian who rode the Ferris wheel for 38 days, only earning a few minutes off each hour. All of this, I remind you, was before anything “went viral.”

Photograph Courtesy of the Elvis Festiva

Jill Lloyd is a true local who grew up in Fullerton, went to Sunny Hills High, and started with the fair when she was a little kid 60 years ago, and when kids in Orange County still raised animals.

“I started with nine rabbits. I worked my way up to pigs and cattle.” She was hired by the fair soon after: “They kept me because I knew about animals.”

“It’s not a question of why he matters. It’s something he elicited, something he brought to the world. Go figure. But after all these years, people still love Elvis Presley.”

– Mike Stoller

Eventually, she became communications guru, and former swap meet operator Bob Teller asked her if she’d concoct something to get people into his new car exhibit on the fairgrounds. She started doing monthly events—red cars for strawberry month, that sort of thing. One of the car shows was Elvis-themed, to honor his death.

Lloyd, who had no special interest in Elvis, collects no salary from the event, only funds to keep it going. And keep it going is exactly what fans begged her to do, after the car collection disappeared from the fairgrounds. “When Bob Teller sold his lease in 2016, I decided that since we had been going for 16 years, I’d relocate the festival to Garden Grove.” Lloyd chose Main Street in Garden Grove as the new venue in part because Azteca the “Elvis Bar” is located there. 

Lloyd has come up with various Elvis-related contests over the years: the Piled-high Elvis and Priscilla hair contest, the Crème de la King karaoke contest. 

“We try to keep it fresh,” says the energetic blonde (her brother is local tennis great and store owner Hank Lloyd). “Rather than just have look-alike Elvises in jumpsuits singing traditional Elvis songs, we’re more than that. We try to keep it different.”

Seeing her audience potentially age out is a concern. She’s attracted younger audiences by tapping the rockabilly crowd, featuring female Elvis singers, staging an Elvis flash mob at Main Place in Santa Ana. There have been Elvis tributes by ukulele, harmonica, and harp players. This year, there will be a beer stand featuring local breweries, and the theme is “Follow That Dream.”  

I’m a little too young for Elvis (my mom loves him and thought him revolutionary), but who’s really too young for Elvis? He is so ageless and iconic that it was worth making a movie about him this year. I know people who make an annual pilgrimage to Graceland about as frequently as they go to church. My best friend was married by a blind Elvis in Vegas. My brother’s new family in Japan insisted on Elvis songs throughout the wedding. Elvis is not only iconic, he is international. It’s very cool that the King is among us in Orange County like this every year.

There’s a lot of kitsch around Elvis, but after I spent some time with the local fans, I felt something else: authenticity. Even without it, I would go again to the county Elvis Festival. It felt sooooooo good to dance again. 


Check it Out!

Oct. 9, 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. Free.
facebook.com/elvisfestival and elvisfestival@yahoo.com

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