Skip to content

The chaos before the rhinestorm

Elvis Presley tribute artists and fans are on their way for the 24th annual Collingwood Elvis Festival.
Rosemarie O'Brien, coordinator of festivals and events for the town of Collingwood, is leading her team in the final touches for this weekend's 24th-annual Collingwood Elvis Festival. Erika Engel Photo

Organized chaos.

Months, and even years, of planning culminates this weekend in details like the Blue Suede Shoes on the sidewalk, the lyrics in storefront windows, the sunglasses that come with their own sideburns.

It’s Elvis - or more formally, the Collingwood Elvis Festival, and it starts all over again this Thursday for its 24th year. Thousands of fans, hundreds of tribute artists, vendors, volunteers, sound crews, media, and all of it coordinated by Rosemarie O’Brien and her team of staff and volunteers.

O’Brien is all smiles even though she knows she’ll get little sleep between now and Monday. She is, after all, the town’s events and festivals coordinator and there’s no bigger event in Collingwood than Elvis.

“Even though it’s a lot of stress and hard work … and it is … it’s all worth it when you see the fans dancing and running up to the stage to grab a scarf, or smile when a tribute artist kisses their cheek,” said O’Brien. “We are giving them the closest experience they will ever have short of Elvis coming back to life.”

This is O’Brien’s 20th Elvis festival. She signed up to volunteer for the festival in 1998, and was quickly hired first as the office manager, then the general manager of the festival. Now she’s the coordinator for all the town’s events and festivals.

You won’t find anyone more proud of the Collingwood Elvis Festival.

“It’s been kind of a baby to me … I’ve watched it develop,” said O’Brien.

The highlight of her work with the Collingwood Elvis Festival was a visit in 2014 by Priscilla Presley.

“They told me I would never get her here,” said O’Brien.

But that only served as fuel for the fire, and O’Brien was spurred on by the thought of accomplishing the impossible. Priscilla did attend in 2014, and was reportedly overwhelmed by the size and scope of the Collingwood Elvis Festival.

“That says a lot about our festival,” said O’Brien.

Through the years, O’Brien said it’s been special to meet the tribute artists and Ultimate Champions (winners of Graceland’s Ultimate Elvis Tribute Artist Contest). One of her favourites is Shawn Klush.

“He’s been called the best in the world,” said O’Brien. “He’s the closest to Elvis you’ll ever see.”

Klush was the first winner of the Graceland contest when it launched in 2007. To qualify for the Graceland contest, you have to qualify and the Collingwood Tribute Artist competition is an official qualifier.

Last year’s Collingwood grand champion, Gordon Hendricks, a British tribute artist, went on to win the title of Ultimate Elvis Tribute Artist in Graceland.

O’Brien said she wasn’t what she would call an “uber fan” when she first got involved in the Collingwood Elvis Festival.

“I respected who he was and what he has done in his life,” she said. “He was a poor boy who went on to achieve greatness. He deserves respect. Nobody has been able to do what he has done.”

O’Brien saw the Collingwood Elvis Festival as something with a lot of potential and in her time running it has attempted to make it something families can enjoy. She wants to see it include everyone: male and female and even children who are Elvis Tribute artists are featured at the festival.

“The street party Friday night will definitely never change,” said O’Brien. “And the quality of entertainment that we bring in is a signature for our event.”

The Collingwood Elvis Festival is also the only annual Elvis festival that comes up with its own themes. This year is Elvis United.

To freshen things up, O’Brien has added a Storyteller Chat, hosted by herself and Memphis Jones of Graceland. They will be doing public chats with tribute artists and former champions for the street party crowds in the hopes of teaching more people about Elvis and all that he has inspired in his fans and tribute artists.

This year will also include stories about those who wrote songs for Elvis; the lyrics of his songs will be featured around the downtown core along with bios of the songwriters.

“It’s great for the audience because it’s more than just the songs, it’s getting to know more about who Elvis was and why he should be celebrated,” said O’Brien.

Though she wasn’t an “uber-fan” when she started, it’s safe to say she is now. She uses her vacation time (from her job planning an Elvis festival) to attend an Elvis festival in Tweed, Ontario.

“Honestly, a highlight for me is meeting and getting to know the fans,” said O’Brien. “I can’t use any other word but ‘awesome.’”

The Collingwood Elvis Festival kicks off Thursday evening at 4 p.m. with a Grand Champions meet-and-greet at Living Stone. The events continue through Sunday night when things wrap up with the Grand Finals beginning at 2 p.m. and a farewell concert from the champions at 8 p.m. at the Royal Canadian Legion.

For the full events schedule, click here.


Reader Feedback

Erika Engel

About the Author: Erika Engel

Erika regularly covers all things news in Collingwood as a reporter and editor. She has 15 years of experience as a local journalist
Read more