One person received a standing ovation at the Collingwood Elvis Festival, and it wasn’t an Elvis tribute artist.
It was Rosemarie O’Brien, the festival’s organizer, head cheerleader, chief visionary, and — as festival host Memphis Jones put it last night — “King Maker.”
O’Brien has been leading the team responsible for the Collingwood Elvis Festival for 23 years.
“This has been my baby,” said O’Brien. “I’ve watched it grow up.”
At Sunday afternoon’s grand finals, Dean Collver, the town’s director of parks, recreation, and culture, presented O’Brien with a framed copy of the 25th-anniversary Elvis Festival souvenir program signed by every 2019 Elvis Tribute Artists (ETA) and all the staff who helped organize and run the festival.
The crowd rose to its feet to applaud her decades of work to help create the world’s largest Elvis festival.
O’Brien choked back tears as she told the crowd she was blessed to have a job that never felt like work, and one she loved every day.
“This was something you wouldn’t usually get to experience in life,” said O’Brien.
Later, she reflected on the 25th anniversary of the festival, which also marks the last time the town will run the festival. Next year’s event will be managed privately.
“It’s hard to describe how I’m feeling,” said O’Brien. “I have mixed emotions. It’s bittersweet. I’m proud of the festival, but it also feels like the end of an era.”
She said she knows it will transition to private management, but it will be different.
“This has been my baby,” she said. “I’ve watched it grow up. So it’s a bit hard, but it’s a happy feeling.”
O’Brien was hired in 1997 as festival manager. Almost right away she began dreaming of what could be.
She set four goals for the festival.
One was to make it an award-winning event.
Another was to receive grants for the festival.
A third was for the Collingwood Elvis Festival to receive international recognition.
Finally, she wanted to get Priscilla Presley, Elvis’s former wife, to the festival.
She accomplished all four even though the latter, she was told, was a pipe dream. Priscilla came to the festival in 2014.
“I fulfilled my bucket list with this event,” she said. “I can walk away with my head held high having accomplished all I set out to do.”
O’Brien began her Presley adventure as a fan, but with little knowledge of his career. Now, she’s practically an encyclopedia, though she isn’t sure when or how that happened.
Throughout her work organizing the Collingwood Elvis Festival, she’s come to know a large network of Elvis tribute artists from all over the world. Over the years, she’s come to love them and be inspired by them.
“Every single one has the same love and commitment to Elvis’s music,” she said.
During this year’s festival, CollingwoodToday spoke with several ETAs, and they all sang the praises of the Collingwood Elvis Festival, and, particularly, O’Brien for making it what it is today. Some of them say it’s because of O’Brien they come back every year, whether to compete or as a headliner.
The Casino Brothers Band leader, Marco Spadafora, said it was O’Brien who first discovered them and brought them to Collingwood’s festival, a move he said put the band on the map.
She walks through a crowd and fans stop her to say thank you. And not just in Collingwood, other Elvis Festivals welcome her as a VIP.
It’s the part of her career that has surprised her the most.
“There’s such an incredible love and generosity,” said O’Brien. “I’m overwhelmed by the love that is spread by the fans to me … it’s one big family and that’s the consequence of working in this industry.”
Over and over, at each festival event this weekend, O’Brien thanked the fans, the ETAs, the volunteers, and the festival staff for making the Collingwood Elvis Festival the largest in the world.
She’ll be wrapping up her final Collingwood Elvis Festival at the after-party tonight, surrounded by those same fans, ETAs, and volunteers – her family.