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Fallin’ in love at Elvis festival

Visitors vie for top Elvis Tribute Artist title

POSTED: July 31, 2014 1:10 a.m.
/For Get Out

Elvis Tribute Artists, or ETAs, such as Damon Hendrix, will put their best blues-suede shoes, shake their hips and curl their lips to earn the title as best among ETAs at the 11th annual Big E fest in Cornelia this weekend.

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The city of Cornelia is about to get all shook up.

The 11th annual Big E Fest and ETA Competition will bring the songs, spirit and memorabilia of Elvis Presley to new and old generations Saturday, Aug. 2, at the Grant Reeves VFW Post 7720. Festivalgoers can enjoy the performances of dueling Elvis Tribute Artists, or ETAs, as they pay tribute to Presley and vie for the title of best ETA.

In addition, attendees of the all-day, family-friendly event can participate in a raffle for Elvis-inspired artwork and other merchandise.

Cornelia resident and artist Joni Mabe, who organizes the yearly Elvis extravaganza, has a long history with the King of rock ’n’ roll.

When Presley died Aug. 16 in 1977, Mabe was pursuing a master’s degree in art from the University of Georgia. When Elvis’ music began to play over the radio in memory of the fallen icon, it inspired Mabe to begin a whole new chapter in her artwork.

“I was the first one to get a master’s of fine art doing a thesis on Elvis,” she said. 

Mabe began creating Elvis-inspired artwork. Soon she started trading it with other fans in exchange for Elvis memorabilia. From 1983 to 1999, Mabe traveled the world with her collection, gathering new Elvis-related items everywhere she went. Today, Mabe possesses the largest collection of Elvis paraphernalia this side of Graceland, a little more than 3,000 Elvis-related items.

After 16 years of touring with her collection in places such as London, Hawaii, New York and Los Angeles, Mabe realized just how universal the King’s popularity is.

“I used to think it’s because he’s still Southern that he’s still big in the South, but then I realized he’s not just big in the South,” Mabe said. “They love him everywhere.”

In 1993, Mabe purchased the Loudermilk Boarding House in Cornelia from her grandparents. She renovated the nationally recognized historic site and remodeled it into a permanent home for her sprawling Elvis collection. The Loudermilk Boarding House is now the home of “Joni Mabe’s Panoramic Encyclopedia of Everything Elvis,” which was once voted the best Elvis experience outside of Graceland, Tenn.

“I just got hooked,” Mabe said of her life with Elvis. “It became an obsession to listen to Elvis. Nowadays it’s like I’m married to him. It’s not that intense love, infatuation like it was, but I still love him, especially when I hear the music. That’s what it’s all about — the music.”

Mabe gets to celebrate that love with others when she hosts the 11th annual Big E Fest as Joni Mabe the Elvis Babe.

The Big E Fest and ETA Competition began in 1999 when Mabe had a single ETA perform on the back porch of the Loudermilk on the anniversary of Elvis’ death. A decade later, Mabe welcomed 200 guests to the 10th annual festival. This year the event has moved to the Grant Reeves VFW Post, where patrons can enjoy the performances of 17 ETAs ranging in ages from 18 to 58. Performers will come from as far as Indiana to share their impressions of the King with other Elvis enthusiasts, all in hopes of being voted the festival’s one and only King.

ETAs are judged based on the categories of voice, appearance, connection with the audience, stage presence, mannerisms and movements. The first-place winner receives $1,000, the second-place winner $500 and the third-place winner $250.

This is the first year the Big E Fest will give out a People’s Choice Award. For $1 per vote, the audience can select its favorite ETA. All proceeds benefit the Habersham Humane Society.

El Patron Mexican Restaurant will serve food out of the Loudermilk’s bar-café area, which Mabe carefully remodeled to resemble a decade more familiar to the King of rock ’n’ roll.

“It’s still the 1970s over there in the restaurant,” Mabe said. “It looks just like Graceland.”

Festivalgoers can also indulge in many of Elvis’ favorite desserts, such as peanut butter and banana sandwiches and moonpies.

For those who have attended multiple ETA fests, it’s the spirit of the event rather than the spirit of the King that keeps them coming back. The 10th annual festival hosted 200 Elvis-loving attendees, and Mabe has good reason to suspect this year’s number will be even greater.  

“We get a variety of voices and vocals that are amazing,” said Ginger Demore, who has helped Mabe organize the past five Big E Fests. “Elvis fans everywhere come out of the woodwork. It’s just a fun thing to do.”

For information, visit or call 706-499-1370.


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