The Elvis Festival brings more than 30,000 people into Porthcawl for one weekend a year. Abby Bolter looks at how it all started in 2004 and how it’s changed the town...
FOR decades Miners’ Fortnight was the anchor which held Porthcawl’s success as a seaside town firm.
Thousands of families would decamp from the Valleys to the caravan sites of Sandy Bay, now demolished, and Trecco Bay for their annual two weeks of fresh air and fun every summer.
Miners would find themselves sitting next to their mates or “butties” from the pits on the beach, which led to Sandy Bay becoming known as “Hiya Butt Bay”.
Then the pits closed and reasonable package deals lured the masses to the Mediterranean, and Porthcawl, along with other seaside towns, lost its lustre. Attempts have been made at regeneration in the decades since and while one large and much-hoped-for transformational scheme has yet to get off the ground, some projects are starting to come off.
The town now has a marina instead of a harbour. The Grade II dockside Jennings Building, which stood derelict for years, has been leased to developers and, with Welsh Government and council help, has enjoyed a £2.5m transformation into a home for modern eateries and live/work units.
A community interest company with backing from the European Regional Development fund via the Welsh Government is also poised to build the multi-million-pound Porthcawl Maritime Centre on the seafront.
But all victories in the long-running fight to pull the town up have been very hard fought. All that is, except one.
Back in the early 2000s author, show and film producer Peter Phillips – who hailed from Wales but lived in America – attended an Elvis event at the Mall of America in Minnesota. Its popularity took him by surprise and stuck with him.
When he came back to Wales he met up with Jan Adkins – who was then the manager of Porthcawl’s iconic Grand Pavilion – and successfully pitched the idea of an Elvis tribute artist award show to her, which was to be called The Elvies.
The first event was pencilled in for a weekend in the autumn of 2004 at a time when Peter said the Grand Pavilion’s future was uncertain and it needed a boost.
“I would like to say I had a great vision, but it wasn’t,” he admits.
His collaborator at the time, Porthcawl resident Steve Maitland-Thomas – now a town councillor – said it was meant to be a one-night award show. But, by both luck and design, its appeal was widened.
Despite not being an Elvis fan himself – he admits his first response to Peter’s idea was “don’t be so stupid” – Steve did start to see potential.
He said by pasting the same message repeatedly on thousands of Elvis websites, their fledgling idea caught the eye of Charles Stone, who had once been Elvis’ tour manager and was now looking after the man dubbed the ultimate Elvis tribute artist (ETA) – American Kraig Parker.
Charles and Kraig flew in for the 2004 festival, but Steve said they had trouble generating interest at first.
“We went into the Hi Tide on the Friday and the manager Dave Jones pointed at Kraig and said ‘Can he sing as good as he looks?’,” Steve recalls.
“So we turned the microphone on and he performed a cappella.”
Steve said Dave was so impressed he wanted to cancel that night’s show and replace it with Kraig but it was too short notice. Dave then scheduled him to perform on the Saturday but Kraig was left venueless for that night.
Steve said the Texan, who has played Las Vegas, ended up in the Cabin Bar next door to the Coney Beach Fun Fair.
“We started off with about 20 people in there and by the end there were people running down the street to see him,” said Steve, who added his motherin-law later had a shock when he had to give his house keys to another Elvis ETA, Rockin’ Dave Riley, so he could get changed ahead of his show.
Peter agrees the Hi Tide, which now hosts about 500 Elvis shows over the festi- val weekend, was among the first venues to “take it and run with it”. But others were still unsure.
Thankfully, the doubters didn’t include the Mayor of Porthcawl at the time, Phil Rixon. A well-known local character and businessman, he rang Peter and asked how he could help.
“I said you and the lady mayor can come and renew your wedding vows on the seafront in a recreation of the scene from (Elvis film) Blue Hawaii,” said Peter.
“He said he’d do that and they did and it was a huge publicity stunt which resonated and appeared in all the American newspapers. This was before things ‘went viral’, but it resonated.”
Phil and Cheryl, who first married at Bridgend Register Office in 1974, renewed their vows in Hawaiian shirts, surrounded by fake palm trees in front of 2,500 people in a ceremony led by Kraig.
The coup was one of the crowning glories of that first celebration of the King in Porthcawl and from then on there was no turning back.
Peter said the show has basically stayed the same “just got bigger” over the years. However, he admits it did survive a sticky time thanks to the timely intervention of none other than First Minister and Bridgend AM Carwyn Jones.
“Year four and the festival sort of needed a leg up,” said Peter, now 59 and dividing his time between Ireland and Spain.
“It needed investment to take it up another gear and Carwyn secured £15,000