Tim Hendry has good reason to like Brunswick. The resident of London Ontario, Canada has twice now walked away with the top prize at the Georgia Elvis Festival competition.
“I love Brunswick and I’m excited to represent Brunswick in the Ultimate Elvis Festival Competition in Memphis. I won here two years ago so it’s special,” he said.
Hendry was swamped by fans following his final song and he took time to bask in the glow of victory, standing in the lobby of the Ritz theater.
“This feels incredible. I am just so overwhelmed and to be up there with those other five (finalists). It’s amazing,” he said.
With his win, the books were closed on the fifth annual Georgia Elvis Festival Sunday. Fans of the King traveled from across the country and even from around the world to take part in the four day event held primarily at the Ritz Theater in downtown Brunswick. And throughout the weekend, one thing was made abundantly clear — the spirt of Elvis Presley is alive and well.
Kamil Gazaleh, 7, from Jacksonville, could be found multiple days, wearing his own Elvis-styled jumpsuit as he took in the shows with his grandmother, Norma Ruleledge.
“I love Elvis. My grandparents showed me his videos on YouTube ... and my uncle Jim likes Elvis a lot,” he said with a big smile. “I’ve been dancing.”
His sense of enthusiasm was shared by all ages of Elvis fans. Over the weekend, hundreds packed the parks in downtown Brunswick to see the Elvis Tribute Artists (ETAs) perform. Pass holders also enjoyed the competition at the Ritz along with headline shows each evening. All of it though, was about celebrating the life and music of the King of Rock and Roll.
Dwayne and Nancy Nelson, visitors from Minnesota, were directed to the festivities by word of mouth.
“We are staying at a RV park and they said ... ‘you need to go down and check out the Elvis festival’ ... we had no idea so we came down,” Dwayne Nelson said, standing in the park Saturday afternoon. “It’s a lot of good fun.”
“And great people watching,” his wife added.
For those who attended the festival, it was also a chance to connect with a group of fellow fans whose love of Elvis transcends all else.
“I came because I love Elvis and I love this festival. I’ve come before and just had so much fun. It’s a wonderful event with such nice, sweet people,” Mary Brown of Washington State said outside the Ritz Sunday.
Tricia Kea, from Telfair County, and Dianne Marchant, from Swainsboro, have also attended multiple years.
“It’s like a family ... everybody is so nice,” Kea said.
“We love coming here ... we love Brunswick,” Marchant said.
That was also a sentiment shared by the Elvis Tribute Artists themselves.
“I love this theater too,” Ryan Pelton, a professional performer said amid the flurry dressing room activity Sunday afternoon. “It’s very intimate.”
Pelton would go on to nab second place in the division but took time to reflect with Dan Barrella, a non-professional competitor, while the contest was ongoing.
“The common denominator is that we are all Elvis fans. We love and appreciate his music,” Barrella said. “It’s not about winning. I mean, winning is great but it’s not about winning.”
“It’s a great group of guys ... and you might only see them once or twice a year but it’s great,” he said.
It is also a lot of work. Each performer has to dedicate countless hours to singing, dancing and general Elvis study. They also have to prepare for individual competitions, mixing up songs they sing based on what their fellow tribute artists are doing.
“Some guys you know they will do 50s Elvis or 70s Elvis. But you do want to play to your strengths,” Pelton said. “Some guys are dance guys and some guys have big voices so you do have to think about that.”
He feels there is something more important than learning the songs and the dancing — more important even than singing in that classic king-stlye tone.
“The way I think about it ... Elvis didn’t go out there and try to move like anyone else. He just went out there and connected with the audience,” Pelton said.
“That’s what I try to do. You can really overthink it and worry about what you’re doing ... but I go out and try to focus on connecting with the audience because that’s really what he did.”