PLANT CITY There were kings with blue suede shoes, cryin' hound dogs, shaky hands and weak knees, true hearts avoiding cruelty and check-ins at the Heartbreak Hotel.
The inside of the expo hall on the Florida Strawberry Festival grounds, 2301 W. Oak Ave., became an insta-mecca for Elvis Presley sightings and sounds July 20, when The 11th Annual Tampa Elvis Festival/Contest was held bringing fans, impersonators, singers and the curious together for eight hours of everything Elvis.
Sponsored by the Elvis Tampa Bay Taking Care of Business (TCB) Fan Club, the day was filled with 15 performances by professionals who look and sound like Presley during different stages of his career and about 10 vendors selling Presley memorabilia, everything from mugs, to pictures and magazines, imitation wardrobe, glasses, jewelry and of course, infamous "Velvet Elvis" framed prints.
Although Presley died Aug. 16, 1977, it didn't stop the 10 a.m. to 8 p.m. event from highlighting a parade of Elvises prior to the "Ultimate Elvis Tribute Artist Contest" on the expo hall stage. From there, each Elvis contestant, dressed in Elvis wardrobe from different career periods, belted renditions of their favorite Presley tunes.
Vickie May, president of the Elvis fan club, said the contest winner, 47-year-old Irv Cass of Fenton, Mich., is now the "Tampa Bay Ultimate Elvis Tribute Artist" and in August will represent Florida in "The Ultimate Elvis Tribute Artist" contest in Memphis, Tenn. She said this year's performers were all strong and the competition was close.
Contestants came from as close as Plant City and as far as the Midwest, Louisiana, Georgia, Virginia and Alabama to mingle with between 400 and 500 fans from around the state who made trips to take part in the rockin' and a-rollin' festivities.
"There's a lot of camaraderie among fans in Florida and there are a lot of impersonators in Florida," said May, who took over as president from festival co-founder Nilo Menendez in 2007. "A lot of people love Elvis' music, but they don't know a lot about him. They can come to this and learn more."
This year's festival was themed "Aloha from Hawaii," the name of one of Presley's most famous concerts which was held in 1973. The festival featured a recreation of portions of the internationally broadcast concert, complete with a hula dancer and swooning, adoring fans.
As 16-year-old Elvis impersonator and tribute artist Cote Deonath of Dunnellon belted out "Blue Suede Shoes" and "Shake, Rattle and Roll" from the stage, tribute artist Cody Wise of Franklinton, La., adjusted his jacket backstage near the dressing room. Wise, 28, who works as a loan officer, has been doing Elvis for about two years and said Plant City has one of the best festivals in the United States due to enthusiasm.
"We're all doing this for the same thing: we're trying to keep the memory alive for Elvis and for the newer generations to see what his music was about and what he meant to the world," he said.
May thinks Elvis continues to be popular due to his music, showmanship, talent and in some instances, kitsch. Last year's Elvis festival drew 21 tribute artists, but there were fewer this year due to last-minute cancellations.
That, however, didn't dampen the spirits of the fans, performers and vendors and those who bid in an Elvis memorabilia silent auction, which generates funds for The Children's Home of Tampa Bay. May said proceeds from the $10 and $25 festival tickets go to the club to help finance the next year's festival.
"I think it's been really good," said attendee Marie Jones of The Villages in Sumter County. "I think some of the younger impersonators are better and it's been a good daytrip for me."