Pictured in thumbnail: Jay Zanier, King of Saginaw; above: Zanier and James Gibb perform "Love Me Tender" duet.
Article by Kelly O'Toole
Photos ©  Lisa Gibb, 2010

Held the second weekend in January, this year's King Fest opened in the Temple Ballroom on Friday, January 14th with 17 ElvisTribute Artists (ETAs) from Michigan and Ontario competing in the first round for the title, King of Saginaw. It closed in the Temple Theatre on Saturday, January 15th with the contest finals and The King Returns to Saginaw, a showcase of Elvis songs featuring last year's winners, Kevin Bezaire and Jake Slater, along with headliner GaryElvis Britt.

This is the event's second year, and while the first King Fest was considered by all involved to be a success, those same people agree that this year's show was an even greater success. According to Richard Rosenthal, the show's producer, one of the reasons the 2010 event improved from last year is that the contest finals took place in the Temple Theatre this year instead of in the Temple Ballroom, "making it far more dynamic and a better experience for the ETAs and the audience."

Rosenthal and the King Fest team are already looking ahead to King Fest 2011. "Next year we plan to hold the preliminary competition in the theatre as we ran out of tickets 10 days before the weekend due to limited space in the ballroom," he said. "I would also like to add a gospel show on Sunday, perhaps in conjunction with a local church choir." The team is also considering adding some less expensive seats for The King Returns to Saginaw, making the event more affordable in a troubled economy.

"Our audience came from Florida, Southern Ontario, New York, Indiana and the Windsor area, as well as all over Michigan," Rosenthal said. "I believe we will continue to expand this base as more people hear about the great time to be had in Saginaw."

All in attendance, including the performers, expressed their appreciation of the Shaheen family and the staff at the Temple and at the Ramada Inn on Davenport Road for making the event a pleasurable experience. 

Friday:  Elvis Tribute Artist Contest, Round 1, Friday, 7:00 p.m.

Saginaw resident Bob Greif (rhymes with "life"), 50, competed for the first time ever on Friday night. Greif dedicated his performance to his mother and remarked that he was inspired to compete after watching last year's King Fest. "Fifteen hundred dollars later, here I am," he said, referring to the price of his costume, a replica of the famous Aloha Eagle jumpsuit Elvis Presley wore in his live concert TV special, Aloha From Hawaii.

Greif was told by some of the other ETAs that the judges would take points off his performance because his jumpsuit was too white. "Elvis's suit was really more of a cream color," he said. "It looked white on TV."

The costume flaw wasn't his only worry. Greif was suffering from a sinus infection and was "reaching through it for the notes. I got through it." And then some. He placed in the top three in the Vegas Years category for his performance of "You Gave Me a Mountain," "You Don't Have to Say You Love Me" and "Fever." The audience loved him, too.  Though he is experienced at singing in clubs, he says he has never given away so many autographs, handshakes and kisses as he did on Friday night.  

Carla Gill was another first-time competitor from Saginaw, and the only female ETA at King Fest. Though she didn't place in the competition, she says she loved everything about the weekend, especially the way the other ETAs embraced her as one of their own. "Now I have 16 adopted brothers," she said. "They're really like a family. Once the weekend was over and they were gone, I felt like a part of me was gone. I miss those guys!"

When MC GaryElvis Britt introduced Gill as a five-year breast cancer survivor, there were tears as well as applause. The hometown crowd rose to its feet at the end of Gill's "American Trilogy," one of the most cherished—and difficult—songs from the Presley canon, and afterward, women flocked to her to express their appreciation for her courage. "I'm just so proud of her," said one fan. "I'm a breast cancer survivor, too—15 years."

All 17 competitors gave energetic performances worthy of the King. The only drawback was that the contest lasted nearly four hours. Even with an intermission, the audience got restless, and Britt admonished the crowd to be quiet while the ETAs sang.

Let's face it:  four hours is a bit much, even for the most devoted Elvis fan. The problem? While contestants were judged on only two songs, they had the option of singing a third, which didn't even have to be an Elvis song. Greif told me there was discussion about this option backstage, and most ETAs chose to take it, because even if they weren't technically being judged for it, the effort of singing a third song would make them "shine a little brighter in the judges' eyes." Multiply three minutes for an additional song by 17 performers, and what do you get? A long freakin' time to sit still, that's what you get.

Saturday:  ETA Contest, Round 2, 1:00 p.m.

King Fest producer Richard Rosenthal made the disappointing announcement that Greif had gone home with the flu and would be replaced in the second round of competition by Frank Cross. GaryElvis Britt strutted onto the stage to seduce the crowd with a heartfelt "I'm Never Gonna Fall in Love Again," and then went on to praise the EAS band, who would be backing the contestants. "They’re like UPS . . . they deliver," he quipped. Then the competition officially began.

Some of the highlights included Jay Zanier belting out "My Boy" to a standing ovation, and Ann Arbor's Chris Solano shakin' things up with "Jailhouse Rock." Looking startlingly like Elvis at his most fit, Bellaire's Jake Slater had the crowd swooning and squealing for his "Suspicious Minds," which also received a standing ovation. James Gibb and Darren Hagel both gave high-energy performances of some of the King's early music, and Cross did a fine job filling in for Greif by singing the favorites "Big Hunk 'O Love," "You Gave Me a Mountain" and "American Trilogy."

The way the winners were announced was very confusing. Winners for each of the two categories, Early Years and Vegas Years, were announced at the same time, instead of separately. The end result was that Zanier took first place in Vegas Years and James Gibb took first in Early Years. The two would go head-to-head for the King of Saginaw crown at 8:00 p.m., before The King Returns to Saginaw.

ETA Contest Round 3 and The King Returns to Saginaw, 8:00 p.m.

Next to the Temple Theatre stage, a woman wearing a glittering jacket sat at the only Barton Butterfield Special organ still in its original condition and played "Love Me Tender" and "Heartbreak Hotel."  People gradually made their way to the plush seats and chattered excitedly with their neighbors. But as the organist began the familiar opening notes of 2001:  A Space Odyssey, the song that opened most of Elvis's concerts in the '70s, the chatter quickly faded to silence, and all eyes turned to the stage. The EAS band, Graceland's official band in the Ultimate Elvis Tribute Artist Contest for four years running, quietly took their places behind their instruments and mics. The backup singers wore black sequined dresses that shimmered under the stagelights while the instrumentalists wore black jackets and slacks with purple shirts. Ah, purple:  the color of royalty.

First on the program:  to crown the King of Saginaw. Zanier belted out the ballads in a rich, full voice much like Elvis's, and Gibb rattled the stage with uptempo numbers. While Zanier had charm and a great voice, Gibb's Elvis with his blue eyes and electrically-charged moves recalled Elvis more completely. There was sheer joy in his performance, the same joy Elvis had. The winner would be determined by a sound meter, monitored on stage by two volunteers from the audience.

Zanier took the crown to tremendous applause. He graciously invited Gibb to join him in an encore, and the two seemed much more like pals than competitors as they passed the microphone back and forth. Zanier even draped his red scarf around Gibb's neck. That was what it was all about right there: coming together to celebrate the magic of Elvis. The audience was on its feet.

Thus ended the competition, and the showcase began. Last year's King of Saginaw, Kevin Bezaire, sang three songs from the '70s, followed by last year's runner-up Jake Slater singing three songs from the '50s and '60s. Then Britt took the stage to perform several songs from the '70s. He strolled off the stage to pass out scarves and kiss the ladies. Britt sang well enough, but after the show some people grumbled that they would’ve liked to hear more from Bezaire and Slater. The show drew too heavily on '70s ballads, they said. It would have been fun to hear more of the rockabilly and movie songs.

These are minor complaints. For two days, Elvis was back in the building. His spirit could be imagined, leaning against a wall smoking a cigarillo and drumming his restless fingers on his pant leg, his head slightly bowed and his grin both humble and proud. Yes, the king returned to Saginaw, and he'll be back again next year.

Kelly O’Toole fell in love with Elvis when she first heard Blue Hawaii at the age of three. She teaches at Delta College.

© Kelly O'Toole, 2010