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Cornelias Big E Festival is like a reunion for Elvis tribute artists
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Elvis tribute artist Matthew Spalding of Atlanta waits for his name to be called Saturday during the 10th annual Big E Festival at the Loudermilk Boarding House Museum in Cornelia. Spalding, who was the 2006 champion in the tribute contest, has performed at the festival for the past 10 years. - photo by SARA GUEVARA

CORNELIA — Whether it was the hip-churning moves on stage or the humidity, performers and fans could feel their temperatures rising at Saturday’s 10th annual Big E Festival in Cornelia.

"Are y’all hot out there? I’m burning like crazy. Lord a mighty ...’" Matthew Spalding of Atlanta, who performs as "The Young Elvis," asked the crowd after his first number.

Elvis Presley fans from as far away as Myrtle Beach, S.C., filled the yard of the Loudermilk Boarding House in Cornelia with rows of lawn chairs Saturday to watch a parade of ETAs — Elvis tribute artists, as they prefer to be called, not impersonators.

Each year, the boarding house’s front porch is turned into a stage for the annual competition that is the focus of the Big E Festival. The winner moves on to the Images of the King world competition later this month in Memphis.

Friday night featured performances from previous winners, including the 2008 winner, Damon Hendrix of Dawsonville.

Hendrix performs across Northeast Georgia, portraying Elvis from the late 1960s to early 1970s. He’s heard it countless times in his everyday life as a video game technician — "Did anyone ever tell you that you look like Elvis?" — but Hendrix said he feels like The King when he gets on stage.

"When I hear the intro music ... it puts me in the mood, feeling the music like Elvis did," Hendrix said. "And I think it’s important that you feel what you sing, too. I don’t think you can get up there and sing empty, or the audience will know."

On Saturday, fans gave into the atmosphere by handing roses to performers, who in exchange — just like The King — gave them scarves, teddy bears or kisses. Fans also could vote on People’s Choice, with all funds going to the local animal shelter.

Stephanie Dove of Anderson, S.C., came to the Big E Festival as a vendor and a fan of Elvis tribute artists. Though she was too young to be an Elvis fan when he was living (he died Aug. 16, 1977), she has seen many of the weekend’s performers at other Elvis competitions.

"This is well worth the trip," Dove said. "This is a great little set up they got here. It’s real family-oriented and it’s fun."

Many families spent the day at the event, with little girls joining their mothers and grandmothers in running up to the stage to get a kiss or scarf from the performers.

Dove’s 8-year-old daughter, Brianna, is a big Elvis fan.

"I get it from my Papa," Brianna said, pointing to where her grandfather was manning the family’s vendor tent.

Each competition is like a family reunion for the performers, except the family members tend to have blue-black hair, sideburns and sequined jumpsuits.

"A lot of these guys are like brothers," said Spalding, who won the Elvis competition at the 2006 Big E Festival and manages a pizza restaurant when he’s not portraying Elvis. "It’s like a family reunion."

Robby Scott of LaGrange has been competing at the Big E Festival for eight years. His first year, he tied for first with David Lee of Birmingham, Ala., an eventual winner of the world Elvis competition.

"All the Elvises, we know one another because we’ve come up here every year and it’s like a family reunion once a year on the first Saturday in August. We love it," Scott said. "Joni puts on a great show."

Joni Mabe, museum owner and festival organizer, said next year the event will have a new home.

"I love having it here in Cornelia, it’s a hometown and it’s very comfortable on the front porch. And no other contest is like mine." Mabe said. "Everybody tells me this is their favorite contest, but I’ve outgrown this location."

Much of the charm for many attending the Big E Festival is the boarding house itself, part museum and part re-creation of Graceland.

"Everybody likes it here because they can roam all over the house and I have the jungle room and Elvis’ bedroom and bathroom, so it’s like this Elvis suite downstairs that all the ETAs hang out and get dressed and shower and die their hair black and put sideburns on and put Brut all over them," Mabe said.

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