Elvis Presley lookalikes are smattered in the crowd donned in leather jackets, Hawaiian shirts and “I love the King” T-shirts as we enter the Bendigo Art Gallery.
It’s home of the new Elvis: Direct from Graceland exhibition which has kicked off a four-month Viva Bendigo campaign where everything is a little “Elvis” – think dining, cocktails, art classes and tram rides.
There are more than 30 Elvis-inspired experiences across the Bendigo region until the exhibition finishes on July 17, 2022.
Wander through the gallery to the tune of “Heartbreak Hotel” and “Jail House Rock” plus many other hits and I guarantee you will be singing along in no time – in tune or out, regardless.
Just seeing Presley’s personal items, including his library card, childhood crayon box and first job application, prompts you to discover more about this icon’s turbulent life.
It’s exactly how the gallery’s curatorial manager, Lauren Ellis, felt: “The more I discovered about his life – the more I wanted to know.
“It’s the little things that impact and make you think about his life and music – he was the perfect talent for the perfect moment in time. In 1956 he seemed to suddenly emerge as the ultimate embodiment of modern America’s desires and anxieties.
“He intoxicated the nation’s youth and provoked vicious backlash from conservative personalities – in a time before celebrities had teams of personal stylists, Elvis Presley invented himself piece by piece.”
It is nearly 45 years since his passing in 1977 at Graceland, the home he purchased in 1957 that has become a shrine to his memory filled with 1.5 million artefacts – 300 of those are featured in the exhibition.
Each piece tells a story about the singer whose music transcends time and still has a legion of devotees, many of whom head to Parkes for the annual festival.
Wander through and you’ll see his military uniforms, his vast wardrobe of iconic rhinestone-trimmed jumpsuits, vintage memorabilia and even his wedding suit and Priscilla’s wedding dress and veil as well as a film clip of the wedding.
His daughter Lisa Marie’s tiny baby clothes are displayed with photos of the doting parents.
A mock-up of Graceland’s entrance is the backdrop to his red convertible 1960 MG that featured in his 1961 movie Blue Hawaii and was shipped out under strict security.
“I want to throw myself over the bonnet of his convertible and hop on his motorbike,” says one die-hard Elvis fan, who has visited Graceland four times and is set to return next year.
“You just feel he’s there looking down at you and you can feel his presence and love,” she confided.
His 1976 red Bicentennial custom Harley-Davidson has men and women swooning as they are immersed in a glimpse into Elvis’s life.
The room that brings the most oohs and aahs is the costume gallery where you can see his fashion evolution from the soft trousers and argyle socks of his youth to the leather rocker of 1968 and the flamboyant bling of the 1970s.
Presley maintained long-term partnerships with designers such as Bill Belew – creator of the karate-inspired stage suits that rapidly evolved into the bejewelled jumpsuits of Las Vegas.
Check out the repurposed 1968 special costume he wore to meet President Nixon, the diamond-encrusted Maltese cross necklace designed by Linda Thompson and a dazzling array of Vegas jumpsuits.
When it’s all over, don’t be disappointed because the Elvis spirit lives on in the many experiences currently on offer in Bendigo and beyond.
For afternoon tea, we drop into the Bluebird Patisserie for a Blue Suede Shoe pastry and later at the delightful Ms Batterhams have a delicious Blueberry Shoe cocktail and tasty canapes.
Then we make a quick dash to the Shake Rattle and Roll tram that leaves from the city centre on Saturday evenings with Elvis songs blaring.
To the tune of “Wise Men Say”, we sip a Love Me Tender cocktail as the tram shakes and rattles along the Bendigo streetscape encouraging as little or as much conversation as you’d like.
Even the tram driver joins in the Elvis singalong when the tram stops. It’s a fun experience but book well ahead.
If you love hamburgers, head to the Hustler, a modern American diner where there’s a Burning Love burger on the menu, but it’s the Fool’s Burgers complete with a jam donut bun, peanut butter, raspberry jelly, potato crisps, maple bacon, 150-gram patty served with fries, of course, that’s got a following.
Top it off with a peanut butter and jelly gateaux and a Hound Dog cocktail with peanut butter fat washed bourbon, brulee banana syrup, raspberry liqueur and bacon – paying homage to the King’s midnight snacks.
There are even events to channel your creative side – All Shook Up Pinot and Picasso Bendigo will help you paint your interpretation of the King. It’s a fun session and you are helped by a talented artist, accompanied by Presley’s hits.
You can sip as you paint, then stand back and admire your Presley masterpiece which is yours to take home.
Indulge Fine Belgium Chocolates in the heart of Bendigo Central has created an Elvis-inspired peanut butter and jelly chocolate bon bon that’s hard to resist.
The fabulous Dispensary restaurant in Chancery Lane has a special cocktail and snack menu inspired by the King of rock and roll and his time in the tropics titled the Aloha menu.
Taking centre stage in Bendigo is the Bright Light City activation that glows from 7pm in the piazza when the 2.5-metre-high letters light up – it’s a take on Presley’s iconic Viva Las Vegas movie and great for Insta snaps. His most famous lyrics are written on the letters and his tunes pump out from 10am daily.
There’s rock and roll trivia at Castlemaine’s Shedshaker brewery, while Cornella Brewery makes a special release Pacific ale with that tropical Elvis in Hawaii inspired flavour. It’s on tap at Shiraz Republic, which also features live music on weekends.
Rock n Roll Pizza Sundays are held at the pretty St Anne’s Winery, Bendigo with a selection of house-made pizzas, award-winning wines and live music – playing Elvis hits of course.
Burning Love, a live music tribute to the King, will be staged in the Engine Room in the historic fire station on May 7 – expect Elvis hits and rock and roll classics performed by Melbourne’s contemporary music scene and the Burning Love band.
Bendigo even has its very own Jungle Room inspired by Presley’s famous Graceland recording studio. Set in Bendigo’s historic 19th century conservatory, the playful interactive display features tropical plants, iconic props and a special musical soundtrack to honour the King. It’s in the Conservatory Gardens in Rosalind Park.
Even though I have never been a devoted Elvis fan, after a weekend in Bendigo I must admit – “I can’t help falling in love with you” – resounds and you were definitely always on my mind.
Take me there
Fly: Return fares from Sydney to Bendigo on Qantas are $420.
Drive: Bendigo is a about 2.5 hours’ drive northwest of Melbourne or 6.5 hours from Canberra.
Stay: Try the heritage Bendigo Ernest Hotel (from $269), the modern Mercure Bendigo Schaller (from $159) or the family-friendly Quality Hotel Lakeside (from $135). All rates are per night for two people.
Date: Elvis: Direct from Graceland exhibition finishes on July 17, 2022.
Explore more: bendigoregion.com.au