Growing up, Elvis style
By Kelly Anderson
Most people who’ve been through adolescence know what it’s like to be embarrassed by their parents when friends come over. Sometimes the shame involves lame jokes and stories, and, if you’re particularly unlucky, the naked baby pictures come out. But visual artist and director Stephanie Comilang has the edge on this one — her father is an Elvis impersonator.
Growing up in Toronto, Comilang remembers regularly enduring embarrassment when her father, Steve, would burst into ‘Love Me Tender’ and the like in front of her friends. To deal with the shame, Comilang would hide behind the couch. But as she got older, she started feeling differently — her friends loved it when her dad hammed it up in front of them, and Comilang started to feel… well… a kind of pride.
About 10 years ago, at the tender age of 18, Comilang decided that in order to deal with her conflicting feelings she’d create a sort of improvised support group via a zine to be titled Children of the King. “There’s equal parts love and equal parts ‘Oh Dad,’ and it’s always been like that,” she says. “I had these feelings of complete embarrassment, especially when I was younger. The zine was this really cheap way of reaching out to other people.”
Children of the King was a perzine made up of photocopied pictures of Comilang with her dad dressed in Elvis-style jumpsuits and short reports of her experiences as a child of an Elvis impersonator. Some of her writings in the short-lived zine (it only had two issues) include anecdotes like: “For Christmas last year I bought daddy a gorgeous pair of shiny silver Elvis glasses. I thought his gold ones were getting played out.”
She tried to get her zine into sympathetic hands by taking copies to sell at her dad’s gigs and at film festivals. But her target audience — the children of other Elvis impersonators — proved elusive.
Fast forward 10 years. With music videos for Final Fantasy and Junior Boys under her directorial belt, Comilang has now found herself returning to the idea behind Children of the King. She is currently working on a documentary of the same name, looking once again for the support group that she tried to find years ago.
“The zine was trying to reach out to other children of Elvis impersonators, to try to create this support group, and I wanted to see it through [with the film] and actually do it. Meet these people and make it more substantial by jumping into more layered issues,” she says.
For the still in-progress film version, Comilang, who is of Filipino heritage, journeyed to Manila, Bangkok and Tokyo, cities improbably rife with Elvis wannabes. She didn’t know what to expect from her meetings with the sons and daughters of these various Elvis impersonators. “The Elvis impersonators were like: ‘That’s great, you’re here! Let’s talk about what I do,'” she says. Meanwhile, the Elvis impersonators’ offspring were a bit more taken aback. “They thought it really hilarious that I came all the way from Canada, to their houses,” she says. But once Comilang had a chance to sit down and talk to the people she met, the bond was immediately obvious: “They had the exact same feeling that I did about my father,” she explains. At last, Comilang had found kindred spirits, right down to the way every home of every tribute artist she visited included a collection of Elvis memorabilia. Growing up, her own home had a collection displayed in the basement. And while her father has visited Graceland, some of her film subjects took it to the next level with replicas of the gates at Graceland made especially for their homes.
The documentary not only chronicles Comilang’s quest to connect with the like-minded long suffering offspring of Elvis, it also, like its predecessor zine, explores the relationship between daughter and dad. For those segments, Comilang turned to animation. “I was working on these vignettes that echo the sentiment of the zine, that it’s kind of handmade, and has this cheap, funny and personal style,” she says.
She animated one story that took place at her aunt’s house on Easter weekend, shortly after her father had been in a New York Fries advertisement dressed in full Elvis garb, with the tagline: “Real fries in a fake world.” Upon entering her aunt’s house, they found all of her cousins with the fast food tray liners of the ad, asking for his autograph. “He was in heaven, totally in love with it,” she remembers, painting a picture of an absurd scene: a lineup of 10 Filipino children in Scarborough holding New York Fries tray covers, waiting for her father’s autograph.
Bringing the idea she first started as a teen on photocopied chunks of paper to a documentary feels a bit like completing a circle to Comilang. “But I’m not done yet, so it’s only a 70% completed circle.” There’s no release date set for the film, but the rough cut is almost complete and she plans to look for finishing funds at film markets in November. While the film may complete the circle and finally help reconcile Comilang to the mixed feelings she’s always had when it comes to her father, Comilang doesn’t see this as any kind of final resolution. The fact that she is a child of an Elvis impersonator will continue to permeate her personal and professional life well after the film is done and out to the world. “My Dad and I have done other projects together,” she explains, “with him always as Elvis. I feel these all fall under that umbrella title — Children of the King — and I think it’ll always be that way.”
Kelly Anderson gratefully acknowledges the financial support of the Ontario Arts Council’s Writers’ Reserve Program.