The Big E: Joni Mabe

By September 22, 2022
All photography by Amanda Greene at the 18th annual Big E Festival in Cornelia, Georgia.

Earlier this year we asked writer Annie Moye to revisit her feature on Joni Mabe from 2019 with a visit to The Big E Festival for our 2022 theme ARTIST ENVIRONMENTS.

Less than a year after Mabe opened The Everything Elvis Museum, she started The Big E Festival to attract more visitors to the museum. The first year, 2000, she hosted the event on site at her home and museum in Cornelia and had only one Elvis Tribute Artist, or ETA, perform as part of a broader community festival (complete with jumpy castles, food vendors, and antique cars). Then, like sands through the hourglass, the “Elvi” (plural for Elvis) “just started showing up,” she says. By the second year, Mabe had enough Elvi (five or so) for a competition. Likewise, over time, the festival kept growing: more Elvi, more guests, more events (Championship Show, Meet & Greet, Country Hoe-Down Dinner, Sock Hop, and Gospel Brunch), and Mabe, self-competitor that she is, kept thinking bigger and bigger, quite literally. This year, The Big E Festival and ETA Competition celebrated its eighteenth year, and it has long been much too large to host in Mabe’s front yard. What was once essentially an Elvis-themed community fair is now a three-day, five-event festival and competition boasting over four hundred tickets sold. 

Kirsten Stolle's Only You Can Prevent A Forest on view at Halsey Institute through Dec 10, 2022

Like previous years, the energy at the 18th Big E ETA Competition on August 6, 2022, was electric, which was perfectly symbolized by the year’s big art reveal, a fourteen-foot high Elvis “TCB” lightning bolt-shaped pendant on a gold chain, the world’s largest of its kind, hanging from the center of the stage. The pendant and chain complemented last year’s “World’s Largest Elvis Belt,” coming in at fifty feet long, that Mabe enlisted interior designer Linda Parish to create. The sense of fandom and community was so high, even members of the audience were in costume. The unofficial best dressed guest of the year, Floridian Ada Munch, arrived unceremoniously at the venue to pick up her tickets in a stunning white, bejeweled B& K Enterprizes Eagle jumpsuit (a replica of the American Eagle jumpsuit from the 1973 Aloha from Hawaii Satellite concert, priced at around $1,500). She quickly grabbed the attention of other guests and Elvi, for photo ops. As for the talent on stage, seventeen Elvi competed (three youths/fourteen adults), but of course, there can be only one King (well, other than The King, that is). 

After he refused to eat the sandwich, Drunk Elvis took a turn for the worse and transitioned into the serious material: gospel.

Mabe created a four-page ETA Competition Rules List and Judges’ Criteria that clearly speaks from eighteen years’ worth experience. No more than twenty Elvi will compete, performing two songs each. Later, the top five Elvi will perform one extra song before a new King is chosen. Some of the more memorable rules in the list: Elvi may give away only three scarves to eager audience members during their performances. No medleys allowed. Costume must match era of songs chosen. Absolutely no use of the “2001: A Space Odyssey” theme music, which Elvis famously played before walking on stage in his later years. As for the judges, they’re to judge based on five criteria: vocal (0-30 pts); stage presence/professionalism (0-25 pts); appearance (0-20 pts); authentic movements (0-15 pts); and connection with audience (0-10 pts). Mabe includes an anecdote from the Judges’ Criteria in her welcome speech to the audience: “Ask yourself, Do you want to hear a whole concert by this Elvis, or is two songs enough?”

All photography by Amanda Greene at the 18th annual Big E Festival in Cornelia, Georgia.

Sometimes a performance falls apart. Sometimes a big voice comes out of a scrawny body. Sometimes the MC plays the wrong song. Sometimes the guy you’d least expect has the best moves. There are always surprises. Either way, members of the audience always graciously applaud, and the other Elvi backstage encourage. 

Re:Focus a photo exhibition on view at Swan Coach House in Atlanta through October 27

That’s not to say that everyone is always well-behaved. This year, a woman in her 40s catcalled a youth ETA, who responded without missing a beat, “I’m only twelve!” Also, this year, it came to Mabe’s attention that a fan with a history of stalking certain Elvi showed up at the Friday Championship Show, violating a restraining order. Luckily, there were no incidents reported, but Mabe has seen far worse, too. One year — the worst year — an Elvis fanatic and regular Big E attendee allegedly spiked the drink of three-time Big E Champion and that year’s headliner at the Championship Show, and mayhem ensued. Mabe groans when she recalls the story today: “It was awful!” According to her and other witnesses, the highly intoxicated Elvis stormed the stage while a Conway Twitty tribute artist was warming up the audience and stole the mic away. He proceeded to sing unrecognizable Conway Twitty songs and make potentially obscene gestures towards the audience until Mabe herself was able to coax him off stage. The drama didn’t end there, though. The “Drunk Elvis,” as he became known, continued to belt out Conway Twitty tunes backstage, louder than the Elvis who was performing on stage. His brother suggested that he just needed food, so they brought him a pimento cheese sandwich, and that’s the image that defines the bottom to Mabe that infamous night: a miserably inebriated Elvis sloppily grasping half a pimento cheese sandwich like it was a microphone and warbling Conway Twitty numbers. After he refused to eat the sandwich, Drunk Elvis took a turn for the worse and transitioned into the serious material: gospel. Mabe describes the sounds he made as having come from deep within him. Eventually a group carried Drunk Elvis out of the building, and after he offered an embarrassing apology the next day, she never saw or heard from him again.

Nothing of the sort happened this year, though. Things went off (mostly) without a hitch, and the competition was spirited. The Big E traditionally supports three separate local charities, and Mabe raised more than ever this year, over a thousand dollars, through People’s Choice votes for the Habersham Humane Society. As for the talent show, in third place, Ben King, also known as “Australian Elvis,” or “The Thunder from Down Under,” returned with an act that earned him one spot further from number one than last year. E.J. Boyer claimed second place for the second time in the last four years, drawing encouragement from this year’s MC, David Lee. And the winner of the 18th Big E Festival and ETA Championship, who placed third last year, was Sylvester, GA, native Jordan Poole, and he brought practically his whole family tree to the event for support. They went wild when his name was called as the winner. 

All photography by Amanda Greene at the 18th annual Big E Festival in Cornelia, Georgia.

The festival provides a kitschy version of the kind of living history experience one might expect during a reenactment at Old Sturbridge Village in Massachusetts, for instance, with those Elvis prophets walking around for pictures and people of all ages and backgrounds showing up for the show. Indeed, the audience for Big E ranges from elderly Republican ladies to middle aged gay men to gothic high school students and college hipsters. They all stand as the ETAs march among them to the Bee Gee’s “Stayin’ Alive,” a ritual start to the show Mabe uses to signal to everyone there that we’re keeping His memory alive with these ceremonial proceedings. Much of the overall aesthetic of the event — Elvis simulacra both on stage and for sale in the form of memorabilia at vendor booths — is obviously a continuation of Mabe’s work in the museum, but at the Big E, it all comes to moving, breathing, hip-shakin’ life. 

The Big E occupies a large portion of Joni Mabe’s year in planning, but it hasn’t kept her from creating work in her career as an artist. Her upcoming show of new, non-Elvis-related material, “I Ain’t No Hick from Habersham,” opens at the Mason Scharfenstein Museum in Demorest, GA, on October 27 and runs through November 29, 2022. Mabe will give an artist talk on November 3. 

This essay is part of Burnaway’s yearlong series Artist Environments.

Find out more about the three themes guiding the magazine’s publishing activities for the remainder of 2022 here.

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