Elvis Festival shakes up Civic CenterWritten by Chris Schwarzkopf | | firstname.lastname@example.org
Robert Rosencrantz started the Toledo Elvis Festival in 2001 after he realized something was amiss with the Elvis Presley tribute artist contests in which he participated.
“I used to do contests all over the country at casinos and clubs,” he said. “I don’t want to say that they were exactly rigged, but you could pretty much spot the winner as soon as they came on stage.”
Rosencrantz said he became frustrated watching genuinely talented performers lose to contestants placed by unscrupulous promoters.
“I decided I wanted to try putting on my own contest,” he said. “I’d promote it and make it fair and square.”
Sweet Sweet Spirit
Rosencrantz and his wife, Michelle, also a life-long Elvis fan, founded Elvis Presley’s Sweet Sweet Spirit Fan Club and started organizing the first festival. The club’s name is a nod to Presley’s favorite gospel song.
Now in its eighth year, the festival brings Presley’s original drummer and friend D.J. Fontana and a host of celebrity tribute artists to the Civic Center Promenade at the Erie Street Market for “Rockin’ With The Sun Legends” on April 10.
Officially recognized by Graceland, the club dedicates itself to preserving not only Presley’s musical legacy, but also his generosity.
“Elvis donated millions and millions of dollars over the course of his career,” Rosencrantz said.
The festival has raised $35,753 for organizations such as the Toledo School for the Arts, Shriners Hospitals for Children and St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital. This year’s recipient is Honor Flights, which transports World War II veterans to Washington, D.C. to see the World War II Memorial.
Getting D.J. inducted
The couple also started a petition to get Fontana inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.
“Bruce Springsteen was admitted, but not the E-Street Band; Buddy Holly, but not The Crickets; Elvis, but not Scott, Bill and D.J.,” Michelle said.
Michelle said she sent a portfolio of Fontana’s work to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame committee. She took the petition to Memphis to get more signatures. The petition was also available online and was signed by Bruce Springsteen, Keith Richards, Ringo Starr and former President Bill Clinton.
“They’re two of the nicest people I’ve ever met,” Fontana said in a recent phone interview. “They did such a great job of getting all those people on the petition.”
Fontana was inducted in April of last year.
In 1953, Fontana was a staff drummer for the “Louisiana Hayride” radio/ TV show in Shreveport, La. A year later, he met 19-year-old Elvis Presley and started playing with him regularly along with guitarist Scott Moore and bassist Bill Black. Fontana stayed with the group until 1968.
Fontana said he didn’t understand the excitement and controversy surrounding Presley early in his career.
“We were never sure exactly of what we were doing,” he said. “We were just glad to be working. We were glad that we sounded good and Elvis could sing and everyone seemed to like it.”
Fontana said he sometimes has difficulty answering questions about Presley’s life.
“It’s getting to the point where I feel there’s nothing left to say,” he said. “People think I should remember every little detail and I can’t. Not after 50 years.”
At 79, Fontana tours and records original music but said he still enjoys playing Presley’s music.
“It’s my era,” he said. “It’s what’s familiar to me. I might have to listen to the songs a couple times now to pick them up again, but I always have fun and I always want to put on a good show.”
Saving for a jumpsuit
Among the performers is 16-year-old Nick Gutierrez from Illinois, who saw an Elvis tribute artist at Six Flags when he was five and wanted to become one, too.
“I started begging my mom that I wanted a jumpsuit,” he said. “So, we started putting money aside.”
Gutierrez said he has met many people his own age who love Presley’s music as much as he does.
“One of my best friends is an Elvis tribute artist, too,” he said. “He’s been performing a bit longer than me. We’re like brothers.”
Gutierrez and his family moved to Memphis for a few months last year and stayed in the same apartment complex where Presley lived.
“We lived right next to the unit he lived in,” he said. “Sometimes I would just sit outside the door and play guitar.”
Gutierrez said Presley’s music opened him to other genres.
“I’ve branched out into all these other styles,” he said. “I learn new songs all the time on my guitar and I listen to all kinds of music now.”
Michelle’s son, Jordan Ter Doest, will perform as Jerry Lee Lewis.
“I played Buddy Holly at the festival last year and they mentioned I could probably pull off Jerry Lee Lewis,” Ter Doest said. “So, I learned some more of his songs and learned his vocals.”
Ter Doest also performs with two local bands, does DJ work and has a solo, acoustic act.
“I’d like to keep doing this for as long as I can,” he said.
Crazy for Days
Elvis tribute artist Leo Days will also perform. Raised in Michigan, Days recently moved to Las Vegas to work on perfecting his performance.
“I didn’t really know this was something people did as a job until literally at the point I was doing it as a job,” Days said.
Days said he started out doing karaoke with Elvis Presley songs at clubs.
“People went crazy,” he said. “They were asking me, ‘Do you do shows around here?’ I was like, ‘I suppose I could.’ ”
Days tours across the U.S. and Europe frequently. After the festival, he will appear on the Legends in Concert cruise from May to September.
Johnny Cash tribute artist Phillip Bauer is a newcomer to the festival. Based out of Oklahoma, Bauer spent years playing original music and imitating celebrities like Neil Diamond, Willie Nelson and Tom Jones.
“It’s a great way to make money off of a multiple personality disorder,” Bauer said. “I stop taking my medication and just go for it.”
Bauer has performed full-time as Cash for the past two years.
“I did a show in Oklahoma City as Johnny Cash and people were calling and asking, ‘Who is that guy?’” Bauer said. “I realized I was on to something and so I really started pushing it.”
Bauer said he is looking forward to playing at the festival.
“I haven’t met D.J. Fontana or any of the other performers, but I’m excited,” he said. “It should be fun.”
Michelle said she is thrilled about the lineup for the festival.
“I didn’t want just anyone,” she said. “The people doing this are amazing. Their talent is incredible.”
Robert said he hopes the festival will help bring Presley’s music to a new audience.
“Our goal is to enhance his appeal to a younger crowd,” he said. “We want people to see his contribution to American culture.”
For tickets, call (419) 727-LVIS(5847) or (419) 343-5157.