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October 24, 2014

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At Elvis Festival in Las Vegas, impersonations are reverent tribute to the King

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John Locher / AP

In this July 12, 2014, photo, from left, Daniel Jenkins, Tyler James and Jacob Roman joke around during the Las Vegas Elvis Festival in Las Vegas. The three, along with other Elvis tribute artists, performed in a competition at the convention.

Elvis Festival

In this July 12, 2014, photo, Yvonne Garcia, of Midland, Texas, watches an Elvis tribute artist perform during the Las Vegas Elvis Festival in Las Vegas. Some three dozen Elvis tribute artists took their gyrating hips and curled lips to the stage over the weekend to see who could do the most convincing portrayal. Launch slideshow »

The white-suited, chest hair-baring, blue contact-wearing men posing with fans outside the showroom of the former Las Vegas Hilton don't want to be called Elvis impersonators.

The correct term is Elvis tribute artist — or ETA for short — to distinguish their studied performances from the dime-a-dozen characters trolling the Strip.

"It's not a gag," explained Jason Sherry, producer of this weekend's Elvis Festival in Las Vegas, one of several sanctioned by Presley's estate that lead up to Elvis Week in Memphis, Tenn., in August. "It doesn't mean we don't enjoy it. But we're not making a mockery of Elvis."

About three dozen ETAs took their gyrating hips and curled lips to the stage over the weekend to see who could do the most convincing portrayal. Prizes included $2,500 in cash for the top performer and a chance to represent Las Vegas in the Ultimate Elvis Tribute Artist competition during Elvis Week.

Eli Williams, a Vancouver, British Columbia, resident who placed second in the contest, said he took up karate just like the King.

"It made a lot of what he did make sense," said Williams, 26, of the singer's stage movements.

Like many ETAs, Frank Werth, a salesman from Hays, Kan., buys his suits from B&K Enterprises, a company that employs the man who designed jumpsuits for Elvis himself.

An intricately embroidered suit might cost $4,000, while the matching cape could run $500.

"We try to re-create (shows) as closely as we can," said Werth, 32, who finished in third place. "Nothing is out of taste."

Licensed events help Elvis Presley's estate cultivate a fan base decades after radio stations stopped playing "Love Me Tender," and promote the more positive aspects of his life and career, Sherry said.

Organizers have tweaked the festival to keep up with the changing demographics. For example, they ditched sock hops and replaced them with an after-hours party more familiar to Millennials.

The intergenerational allure of Elvis was on display among the dozen or so people of all ages who came from Penticton, British Columbia, to Las Vegas to watch hometown boy Adam Fitzpatrick, 29, take home top honors at the contest.

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