CANUCKS AND THE KING

RUTH ABRAMSON August 18 1997

CANUCKS AND THE KING

RUTH ABRAMSON August 18 1997

CANUCKS AND THE KING

Black Sabbath. Mötley Crüe. It was “that Satanic stuff” the Thunder Bay kids were listening to that drove Rev. Dorian Arthur Baxter to begin impersonating Elvis publicly in the early 1980s. And over the years, the Anglican minister’s inspiration to lead teenagers to the lord through The King’s music has evolved into another calling. Now pastor of a conventional congregation in Sudbury, Ont., every August and a full-time special-education teacher in the Toronto area, Baxter has developed a third persona to occupy his spare time: Elvis Priestly, an itinerant man of the cloth who looks and sounds a lot like Presley. Late last month, at the third annual Canadian Elvis Tribute and Convention in Collingwood, Ont., 168 km northwest of Toronto, 47-yearold Baxter—dressed in traditional Anglican robes but sporting Elvis-style hair and sideburns—led about 150 couples through a renewal of their marriage vows. Before some 1,500 onlookers gathered at Harbourview Park, the reverend instructed the couples to "remember the beauty and solemnity of that great day” when they were first married. Then, Baxter began to croon, in a fair imitation of The King’s Can't Help Falling in Love. Later, he explained his reverence for The King: “I first heard the message of the gospel through Elvis’s music."

The Collingwood gathering, which drew 60,000 devotees this year, is Canada’s biggest Elvis phenomenon. But ardor for The King continues across the country. Canada has at least a half-dozen fan clubs from coast to coast, as well as more than 60 amateur and professional Elvis impersonators—or “Elvi,” as they call themselves. They include middle-aged men wearing the glitzy polyester jumpsuits of Presley’s later years, and younger ones sporting Hawaiian flower garlands to evoke the young Elvis of the Blue Hawaii period. There is even a group of female Kingtribute artists, The Graceliners, in Brantford, Ont. The mission of these Elvis clones, apart from—in many cases—making a living? “To keep the legacy alive,” says Rory Allen, 36, a professional impersonator who, upon his return from Collingwood, was greeted at the Regina airport by 20 groupies bearing roses. “I think Elvis changed the world,” insists Allen, who took up his profession in part, he says, because “a lot of folks never got to see Elvis in concert.” Elvis's enduring appeal crosses linguistic boundaries. The Elvis Story, a biographical musical with songs in English and dialogue in French, has played to 150,000 people in Quebec City over the past three summers (an English version is moving to Toronto this fall). “I see people in their 50s crying all the time,” says Martin Fontaine, the 32-year-old who plays The King. “It’s obviously a real trip for them to relive something that touched them so deeply when they were young.”

The Elvis obsession also transcends age. When nine-year-old Charles Bryan heard about the Collingwood convention on the radio in his home town of Mount Hope, Ont., he started growing his hair to look like sideburns. Though his parents, who are not Presley fans, were perplexed, they agreed to bring Charles to Collingwood, where he won the hula-hoop contest. For Charles, the music of Elvis has unique powers. “When I was 5, I was sick,” he recalls. “I listened to Elvis, and in a few minutes I wasn’t sick. Every time I listen to Elvis, I don’t feel sick any more.”

RUTH ABRAMSON in Collingwood with MARK CARDWELL in Quebec City

MARK CARDWELL