Montclair’s Elvis lives on, but his Fourth of July van is departing
There may be a “Mess of Blues” from Montclair locals come this Fourth of July.
Lifelong resident Peter Giuffra is retiring his famous Elvis van from Montclair’s annual parade, and he’s getting it compacted. He bought the van in 1992 for his landscaping business and is retiring it because, he said, it’s become dangerous to use.
“I've had it for 30 years,” Giuffra said. “It was used when I bought it. It's outlived its usefulness. I'm also retiring from landscaping, which was the other reason I kept the van for so long.”
Giuffra’s first Montclair parade was in June 1994. The parade was feeling too serious, and he wanted to do something fun, he said. And while Buddy Holly was his favorite singer, he was always quite fond of Elvis.
“Buddy Holly was my guy, but Elvis was the King,” Giuffra said. “He was much more popular.”
Giuffra’s younger daughter, Gillian, suggested he make use of the sound system in his van. They looked for 1950s-era costumes, and one stood out: Gillian suggested Giuffra dress up as Elvis.
“I had two of my older son's friends, Mark Mangogna and John Leard, paint the truck.”
Just two weeks before the Fourth of July in 1994, three of his nieces had T-Shirts made that said "We Love Elvis." Giuffra’s daughter went to the Crazy Rhythms music store (which later closed, in 2000), and bought a vinyl record, which his wife re-recorded onto a cassette. He bought candy to hand out to the children.
“Music blared out of the truck, and the painting (on the van) said, ‘Elvis Comes to Montclair,’” he explained. “When we reached Bloomfield Ave., the screaming was surprising to me. The people went nuts. I don't know why. And the people on the parade route were so taken by this. I will never forget it.”
Giuffra said he continues to be Elvis after all these years because he receives such a warm reception. While he doesn’t sing, he dances and hugs patrons he knows along the route.
And the van has become a staple in town — painted in blue with drawings of Elvis and other designs.
Even when he drives the van for his landscaping business, people scream, “Hey Elvis!”
There have been a lot of different themes to the Elvis van through the years, and coming up with them has always been part of the fun for Giuffra. Some of his favorite themes have been "Elvis for President" ahead of the 1996 and 2000 Presidential election, "Disco Elvis" and "Elvis and the British Invasion," in honor of Giuffra’s son and family, who live in England and came to Montclair for the parade.
“It’s so popular,” he said. “I never expected anything like this.”
The act was such a hit, Giuffra went to a fabric store before the end of 1994 and had a costume made. He had just one other made, 15 years later.
Giuffra thrives on residents’ energy, smiling and waving. He credits the people and vibe of Montclair for his love of the town and lifelong residency. He’s met a lot of people through the years, and says he loves every one of them for all different reasons.
Giuffra’s fondest memory was in 2014, when organizers made him grand marshal. He was placed at the front of the parade in a convertible, and then they brought him back to the end — his traditional spot — and had him walk as Elvis.
Montclair’s Fourth of July celebrations will return this year after a two-year hiatus due to the coronavirus pandemic. The parade will take place on Monday, July 4, starting at 11 a.m. The township’s annual picnic will follow at Edgemont Park.
This year’s parade will be dedicated to the memory of Al Pelham, the longtime community leader who died on Aug. 19. Among his many roles, Pelham had led the Montclair chapter of the NAACP and the Montclair Neighborhood Development Corporation.
The two grand marshals honored during this year’s parade won’t be individuals, but organizations — Toni’s Kitchen and the Human Needs Food Pantry, selected for their work to address food insecurity and serve the community’s most vulnerable residents in the pandemic.
Giuffra may be retiring the van from the parade, but don’t expect Elvis to leave the event any time soon. He plans to participate until he can’t anymore physically (or if parade coordinators someday suggest he’s done it too much).
“Oh no,” he said. “It is physically taxing, but I hope to be able to do it for a long time. I just won't have the van.”
— Includes previous reporting by Diego Jesus Bartesaghi Mena. Embedded video by the Montclair Celebrates July 4 Committee in 2000.