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Elvis aficionados flood small town Ontario

COLLINGWOOD, Ont. - Elvis may have left the building more than 30 years ago, but his spirit - along with his white polyester jumpsuits, slicked coif and baritone vocals - was resurrected this weekend at the "largest Elvis festival in the world" in the central Ontario tourist town of Collingwood.

Elvis may have left the building more than 30 years ago, but his spirit - along with his white polyester jumpsuits, slicked coif and baritone vocals - was resurrected this weekend at the "largest Elvis festival in the world" in the central Ontario tourist town of Collingwood.

More than 130 Elvis impersonators and tens of thousands of fans flooded the streets of the town, two hours northwest of Toronto, where hair salons and scrapbooking shops hung posters of the legendary performer in their windows.

A vintage Cadillac covered in Elvis paraphernalia was parked on the main drag, sunglass-clad Elvis look-alikes chatted over lattes in local coffee shops and even the local Pizza Hut boasted two tribute performances.

Tammy Beddall, decked out in a colourful homemade shirt featuring images of Elvis, made the pilgrimage from Niagara Falls, Ont. to celebrate her 42nd birthday with a tribute to her hero.

She approached Wayne Curtis, an Elvis from Tully, New York, for an autograph and a quick picture after his performance.

"We've met before," she explained.

After following Elvis tributes for many years, she knows Curtis, and many of the other artists, personally. Curtis, who studies old Elvis performances to channel his persona, said he's become accustomed to the attention from fans.

"I made a lot of friends in the Elvis community, both Elvises and the audiences," he said.

Although it was his first time competing, Frank Cross from Lasalle, Ont. was one of ten impersonators who advanced to the semi-finals for the chance to be one of three competitors in Sunday's finals.

Carrying an Elvis guitar, he broke into his favourite song "Burning Love," which he practices at truck stop breaks while working as a tractor-trailer driver.

In drenched clothes, fans braving the weather managed to turn a downpour into a song request opportunity.

"Play Kentucky Rain!" they shouted. The Elvis on stage complied.

"Elvis fans are one of the loyalest sets of fans I've ever seen," said festival organizer Rosemarie O'Brien. "They will stand out in the rain, they will come in torrential weather. "

"They love to come and follow their favourite tribute artists around. aThey know the tribute artists are the closest thing they're ever going to get to really seeing Elvis."

Elvis-related festivities from youth and talent competitions to clam bakes fit-for-the-king continued throughout the weekend, but the main event was the tribute artist competition. Contestants who advanced through three preliminary rounds competed for the title during finals Sunday night. The winner becomes the Collingwood representative at the Ultimate Elvis Tribute Artist Contest in Memphis, Tennessee.

Some Elvis wannabes toted their sequined jumpsuits from as far away as Australia and Switzerland for a chance to compete for the title and commiserate with their quirky colleagues.

After capturing the title in 2005, Ben Klein, 28, from Spokane, Wash., returned along with other former champs to celebrate the festival's 15th anniversary. Now, he competes in Las Vegas and Memphis, where he has placed in the top five in the ultimate competition for the past two years.

O'Brien said one of her favourite parts of the festivities is watching a new generation of Elvis fans compete.

"They weren't even heard of when Elvis was alive a baby boomers and my generation will be dying off at some point and it's going to have to be those youth that keep Elvis' memory alive."

While most competitors went for the ubiquitous jumpsuit look, 25-year-old Danny Granger of London, Ont. dressed as G.I. Elvis. He said his costume was inspired by Elvis' "rockin' and rollin"' stint in the military.

Though Granger grew up in a generation more closely defined by the King of Pop, Michael Jackson, he said he was drawn to the King of Rock and Roll after watching Jailhouse Rock "a hundred and one times in one summer," when he was 15.

"Elvis just had it, you know it wasn't bred into him like Michael. He was just himself 24/7 a and he was a real humanitarian."

Granger hopes studying Elvis daily, taking vocal classes and his sky blue eyes and jet black hair will catapult him into a stellar career as a tribute artist performing in large scale productions - and share Elvis' legend with generations to come.

"Doing Elvis you're trying to bring the spirit of Elvis to other people, especially to younger generations," Granger said, pushing his coif out of his eyes, "that's why I do it."

 
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