The Varsity: You just got back from tour at the Edmonton Folk Fest. Do you tour often?
Peter Jarvis: It’s different every year, but I tour a lot in the summer. I’ve been all over though, New Zealand, Malaysia, Singapore…
TV: How did you wind up there?
PJ: They see me at international busker festivals … A lot of times they’ll go to the festivals and scout for talent. Like the Edmonton International Street Performance Festival, that’s the prim-o festival in Canada. It’s been running 27 years now.
TV: What do you typically do at these festivals?
PJ: The Edmonton folk fest that I just came from, this is only their second year having street performers, and they’re on a pay check, there’s no passing the hat. [The buskers] are just there to animate the site. At the International Street performance festival I’m considered an installation act, so I’ll be performing lots of acts over the course of the day … This year I’m very excited because I’m going to collaborate with an abstract painter who will do abstract paintings of Silver Elvis while he’s performing. So it will be a new additional interactive presentation that I’ll be doing at the Toronto Busker Festival.
It’s hard to think of a time when there was no Silver Elvis outside the Eaton Centre. Yet it wasn’t until 1999 that Peter Jarvis decided to chalk on the silver make-up, sport a silver suit and dance the Robot to the King’s music. A professional mask maker, character artist, dancer, DJ and mime, Peter Jarvis has had a long run in the performing arts. He has showcased his other characters (such as Charlie Chaplin, Fred Astaire, and a cube) across Toronto, and has taken his Silver Elvis statue act across the world.
Sporting a superman shirt, silver pants, and a ball cap with “Silver Elvis” embroidered across the top, Jarvis sits down with the Varsity to talk a bit about the man underneath the silver paint.
TV: How did you get started in the performing arts?
PJ: When I was 11 years old, I experienced Soul Train, which was being piped in on cable. There were these great lock dancers that would do the robot; it was a guy and a girl that would only have 30 seconds here and 40 seconds there, but I would drink it in. I was so fascinated that somebody could move that way.
I was on a three-and-a-half-hour drive from Grimsby to Huntsville. I was really bored in the back, so I was looking at myself in the mirror and I was moving my head. Because of the mirror I had to move my head precisely so that I could see myself — it forced my head to be very accurate. Then all of a sudden my head moved into this robot tick and I went “Oh my God I got it, I think I got my head to do the robot” … by the end of the three and a half hour drive, from the waist up I could do the robot on every limb.
In grade 8 we had a dance contest, and I won the dance contest ’cause I did the robot down the Soul Train line-up. I ended up winning dance contests every time I went, because of the robot …. I ended up winning the Canadian Freestyle Disco Dance Championships in 1978. I’d been in over 60 dance competitions, I competed in the Dance Fever competitions with Deney Terrio — that would be comparable to So You Think You Can Dance, that’s how high that show was in its standard — and it was the show to watch. So that’s how I got going with it; I was winning these dance contests. I had VIP [status at] every dance club from Toronto to St. Catharines. I was also DJing at the time, and I was a freestyle Hot Dog skier. So I was dancing on skis, I was dancing in clubs, I was spinning records, I had a nightlife for sure.
Then I started doing store windows. I was taking marketing [courses] at Brock University … During the day when I didn’t have school I would go and do mannequin work in fashion windows. A fashion coordinator saw me and said, “you’re really good, would you like to be in a fashion show?” and I said “like what, as a model?”
“No, just what you do, with your dancing talents.”
I said, “I do theatre at Brock University, I could get the costumes,” so I did just that, and I did Fred Astaire, Charlie Chaplin, Elvis. I would do five characters in each show; they built their whole fashion show around my characters. It was a theatrical fashion show that served me for 13 years with well-paying gigs. My characters evolved out of fashion shows. By the end of the 13 years I had a repertoire of 50 different characters I could do. I have the three-legged man, the nerd, a cube.
When I graduated I was doing the robot for Bob Schneider. He had a children’s album called Bob Schneider and the Rainbow Kids, and he had a song called “Computer Man.” He had seen my robot dance, and asked me if I could be the computer man for their live stage shows … I was doing that at Wonderland, and a TV company saw us. They wanted us to do a video kids show because at the time there was only MTV available — that was [back in] 1985 …. After that I moved on to Sesame Street as a writer and a mime. Then I moved onto Goosebumps, where I played the Mummy, and I did a movie for Cirque Du Soleil that was directed by Norman Jewison.
Then I just kind of got tired of working in television and film, because it was kind of like working in a vacuum. I found a lot of my best work wound up on the editing floor. Losing that control was always frustrating; I was never really satisfied with what I saw, because it wasn’t what I envisioned … I ended up going on the street because that was the only venue I hadn’t done in the city. I designed my Silver Elvis specifically for the street. I’ve been directed by Toronto audience … Everyone gives me advice [for Silver Elvis] on the street, from the homeless right up to artistic directors coming out of CBC.
TV: How does the fourth wall work in a street act like this?
PJ: There’s no fourth wall. That’s the thing about street performing — there is no fourth wall. The music kind of creates that fourth wall because you think you might disturb what’s going on there, but no — I’ll look at somebody, reach and take their hand; I’ll come off the podium and do a photo. I’m always breaking that fourth wall of the music, if you will. Then I’ll recreate it with the music to come back into the statue again, to create something that’s going to come to life again.
See, humans are fascinated with death and birth, and a statue, when it’s still, is like death because it’s not breathing, it’s not alive, it’s not real. But then when it comes to life and it shows, they’re almost witnessing, if you will, a birth, because energy has come into it. It can freak out people to the point where there is suspension of disbelief, and that’s what my job is: to make that but then break it, and how they respond, that’s the real show.
TV: Have you ever come across another Silver Elvis?
PJ: I have heard of others. Apparently in Vegas, or New Orleans… but that would make them Silver Elvis impersonators [laughs]. But when people ask me, “Are you an Elvis impersonator?” I say “No. I’m an Elvis simulator.” I’m a simulation of the inspiration. You know the Elvis clock [with the legs that] go side to side when it ticks, or the Elvis telephone that shakes its hips when it rings? I’m sort of that ultimate Elvis kitsch toy that doesn’t quite look like Elvis, but we buy it anyway. Because I’m doing the physicality of Elvis, and doing the icon movement, they’re inspired by all the images and memorabilia of Elvis, and that’s what my act is: the celebration of the memorabilia of Elvis, not necessarily of Elvis. The celebration of Elvis happens by the viewer.
TV: Can you tell me more about the cube?
PJ: The cube is a spandex box where the walls stretch. I designed it back in 83 for a fashion show. It has a frame with the spandex around it, but I come out full body through one of those panels. I can spin it; it dawns legs and walks, and looks like the Kool-Aide Man then you come down and your face comes out full and it looks like a poltergeist. So you can be laughing one minute and terrified the next. Theatre should be that way, there should be no telegraphing and the cube eliminates that because once you come away from the wall, there’s a fresh slate. And because it’s the icon of a cube, everyone understands a cube.
… [With Silver Elvis] their curiosity is going to get them before their guilt. I think that’s what makes the act work really well for all demographics; they don’t feel forced, unless their curiosity forces them, and they just have to see Silver Elvis move again. That is a cultural response — cause and effect. It’s a motor skill that we’re taught from a very young age and it’s the simplest, most pure thing that we do, it’s innate in us. So when they go to do it, like a jukebox. We want to lose our quarters to that machine. You know? We all run to the jukebox if it’s there, even if it’s loaded with lousy songs … it’s more to see the record land and go on the needle then to hear the song. So there’s a bit of that in [Silver Elvis], the suggestion of the jukebox. I prefer not quarters, but I’ll take them.
Catch Silver Elvis at the Toronto International Buskerfest August 25-28