Elvis Presley died 40 years ago on a hot August night in Memphis at the age of 42. The entertainer hailed worldwide as "the king of rock 'n roll" is as popular today as ever with fans often debating what the kid with sideburns might have done had he lived.
"I think Elvis would still be doing what he always did, singing and helping people," said Kay Lipps of Carmel, Indiana who loved Elvis so much that a quarter century ago she co-founded the Elvis FANtasy Fest. This weekend, the fest celebrates its milestone 25th anniversary at Woodland Park Plaza in Portage.
"We are very excited to be returning to Portage again," added Lipps, who was gifted with scarves by Elvis himself at some of his 1970s performances. "For the past 25 years the Northwest Indiana community has welcomed us with hospitality and has helped this continue each year. This event has always been to honor Elvis' generosity and giving nature."
Lipps co-founded the event with her late husband Paul Lipps. They also co-founded the Indianapolis-based Presley fan club called "Takin' Care of Elvis."
"Did I ever think this event would still be happening 25 years later and that every October I would be in Portage celebrating Elvis' life and music with other fans? YES! Yes I did. Because Elvis' popularity will never fade away because there are new generations growing up loving him and his music," said Lipps. "Some things have changed over the years though."
The classic car show that was once part of the first few years of FANtasy events no longer happens and the roster of special guests who personally knew and worked with Elvis has been greatly impacted by the passing of time as many have died.
"Over the years, we have had some wonderful guests who shared a lot of great stories about Elvis," she said. "Some of our past guests have included Joe Esposito, DJ Fontana, The Sweet Inspirations with Myrna Smith and Estelle Brown, Jerry Shilling, Al Dvorin, some of Elvis' film co-stars, and some of the musicians who played live with Elvis in the 1970s."
Although Elvis has been gone for four decades, his songs are still being sung and people are still being helped in his memory across the globe by various fan clubs and special Elvis-themed events such as Northwest Indiana's annual gathering in Portage.
“Elvis FANtasy Fest started when the director of the Porter County Tourism Board contacted Graceland to find Elvis Presley Fan Clubs in Indiana and inquired if there was any interest in starting an annual city event tied to Elvis. They contacted me and we did the first one,” explained Lipps. "Since then, we have raised about $350,000 for the Porter County Special Olympics."
Statistics reveal that the public’s love of Presley continues to generate millions of dollars each year making Elvis second only to Mickey Mouse as the world’s most recognizable pop culture figure of all time. He's followed by Michael Jackson, Marilyn Monroe and James Dean. Lipps and others believe some of that tremendous revenue being generated should help people, just as Elvis did in so many ways during his lifetime.
“Elvis did a lot of good things for a lot of people,” Lipps said. “He was very much a humanitarian. Elvis fan clubs all over the world do charity work year round in his name. We average over a thousand people throughout the weekend.”
This weekend's silver anniversary FANtasy Fest begins at 5 p.m. on Friday with a welcome party hosted by local tribute artist Quentin Flagg. He'll serve as emcee for a 6 p.m. youth talent show featuring several Porter County Special Olympic athletes.
"I know two of them in the contest are doing Elvis performances, but this talent show does not have to be Elvis-related," said Lipps. "This is about giving them a chance to share whatever talents they have, and to have the experience to go on a stage and perform."
Following the talent show on Friday will be "Raised on Rock," a musical rock 'n' roll greatest hits revue featuring live performances by special guests.
At 11:30 a.m. on Saturday begins the first of three elimination rounds of the Ultimate Tribute Artist Contest, which runs through 6 p.m. The contest finals then take place on Sunday, following with a special 10 a.m. to noon Sunday Brunch and an 11 a.m. Gospel Show. "We have 22 tribute artists competing this year and they travel from all across the county to be here for this," Lipps said. Veteran Elvis performer Irv Cass will serve as emcee of Saturday's and Sunday's tribute artist competitions.
Another Saturday event is the “That's The Way It Was," a headline concert event which features performances by last year's Portage champion Matt King, Ted Torres, and two former "Ultimate..." competitors, Cote Deonath and Diego "Di" Light as well as other past winners. This is the first time for Light, who is from Brazil, to attend the Portage event. All artists over the weekend are backed instrumentally by The Change of Habit Band.
Special guest this year is Charlie Smith, a 1961 graduate of Merrillville High School, who was crowned Miss Indiana in 1965 and went to Hollywood, where she worked professionally as Arlene Charles in such hit TV series like "Wild, Wild West", "The Monkees," and "The Flying Nun." The Hoosier model/actress also appeared in several pop culture films of the 1960s -- "Dr. Goldfoot & The Bikini Machine," "I Sailed to Tahiti With An All Girl Crew, " and in such Elvis Presley films as "Clambake," "Spinout," and "Paradise, Hawaiian Style."
"This event is a lot of fun," said Smith. "This is my second year doing 'FANtasy Fest' with Kay (Lipps) and I'm very happy to be a part of it. Elvis was a really wonderful person. So charismatic and so kind." Expect Smith to share some great Elvis memories from the stage on Saturday. She'll also sign copies of the books "Talking Sixties Drive-In Movies" and "Glamour Girls of Sixties Hollywood" by author Tom Lisanti, in which Smith is prominently featured.
Smith will not only meet with fans at this weekend's event, but will also serve as a celebrity judge on a panel for the Ultimate Tribute Artist Contest, a qualifying regional contest to choose a champion to compete at the international competition produced by Elvis Presley Enterprises in Memphis in August. This part is of the fest is produced by license agreement with Elvis Presley Enterprises (EPE).
"The 'Ultimate Elvis Contest' has been going for 10 years now," Lipps said. "We haven't had any of our Portage champions win in Memphis yet, but we send one down every summer to compete. One of ours, Tim E. Henry from Canada, represented us a few years ago when he made the Top 10."
Spending 25 years of her life raising money for the Porter County Special Olympics in Elvis' name has been hard work but Lipps said the hugs she gets, the tears of joy from the athletes and their families, and the common bond of love for Elvis make it all well worth it.
"There are many people who work very hard to make the Elvis FANtasy Fest happen each year," she said. "This has always been a team effort, and once the event ends each year, we all start focusing on next year!"