“Hi! This is Art Wheeler. I will be out of the office on August 15th and 16th in observance of the 30th anniversary of the death of Elvis Presley. Thank you very much.”
This is the message I left on my voice mail at work. My office email had a similar message. This would be the 6th time I had been to Memphis for the Candlelight Vigil. The first year was 2002 for the 25th anniversary. The last three years I have continued to go to talk to people and take pictures. While I don’t really consider myself a big Elvis fan, I am fascinated by the phenomenon of the celebrity of Elvis. I am interested in what brings people back each year. I observed several things this year that I wanted to document. Some of them have pictures and some are just memories. This is an attempt to capture some of those memories.
This guy almost passed out.
I usually purchase the official t-shirt and cap for Elvis week every year. Some years, I have shopped around before I have bought anything because I wanted a particular color shirt or was looking for a different style shirt or cap. I have learned a couple of things over the years. First, the quickest and easiest place to find the official shirts and caps is in the gift shop right off the ticket center at the visitor’s center. Any of the other official stores have the same shirts and usually in the same designs and colors. The only other shirts can be found at Boulevard Souvenirs which is one of the last non-Elvis Presley Enterprise gift shops close to Graceland. They have cheaper stuff, less air conditioning and they usually have a celebrity signing pictures or books around the store. Their unofficial t-shirts are less expensive but also very thin and cheap. The other thing that I learned is that you should buy early to make sure you get what you want. Last year, I didn’t like the style of the shirts and decided to shop around. When I went back to the first store at the visitor’s center, they didn’t have any more shirts as big as what I usually get. Because of this, I almost went down the weekend before just to shop for shirts and caps. I decided not to do this because this is just part of the trip for me.
They had two designs this year as they seem to have each year. One shirt notes that it is the 30th anniversary. The other shirt was specific for Elvis Week. I liked the Elvis Week shirt and quickly found one in my size. When I looked for caps, I couldn’t find any for Elvis week. They had two designs for the 30th anniversary. One was more of a trucker cap than what I like to wear. The other had flames and looked like a Harley/NASCAR type cap. I bought the t-shirt and went on the hunt for a different cap. I had no luck at the official stores but ran across a couple of Elvis and Nixon t-shirts that I considered getting if I didn’t find a cap. I finally went to Boulevard Souvenirs and found a 30th anniversary cap that looked more like me. Later in the night, I saw some people with Elvis week caps but I figured they had purchased them earlier in the week.
While I was at Boulevard Souvenirs, Joe Esposito was signing books and pictures. A pickup truck was parked outside of the store that had a custom Elvis paint job. I also heard a couple of statements that were almost exclusive to the Elvis shopping experience. The first was at Boulevard Souvenirs when I overheard a sales lady asking someone, “Do you want the one with our without the rhinestones?” The other was two young girls considering a purchase when one said to the other, “Well, we don’t have an Elvis umbrella!”
The visitor’s center is set up so the exit for each attraction sends you through a gift shop with a different theme. The plane exhibit exits through a store that specializes in CDs and videos. They have recordings there that I don’t think you can get anywhere else. Some of these are compilations with alternate takes, others are live performances focusing on the later years and still others are re-releases of the standard Elvis albums in oversized packaging. There is a new DVD set release about a week before Elvis week this year. They had a special Graceland Edition that probably has some extra stuff you can’t get anywhere else. Everything in the stores is overpriced. The only reason I might consider buying something here is if I wanted some of the things you just can’t find anywhere else. I thought that the film “Elvis on Tour” was released with this group of films and went in to check. It was not one of the films released but while I was looking, an older lady with teased black hair asked me if I knew anything about the release of a video of the final Elvis concert on DVD. She said she had received an email from a reliable source that mentioned it would be released on July 31 and was only available at Graceland. She said she had talked to all of the employees and no one knew anything about it. A man came up and got involved in the conversation and he said that they probably wouldn’t release it. He said the estate didn’t like it because Elvis looked so bad in it. He said he agreed with the estate. The lady said she had a copy of the video that she had made when NBC had broadcast it in 1978. Someone asked her how she managed to tape it in 1978 because home video was unheard of then. She said her mother had bought her a Quasar video unit that used huge tapes. If I understood her correctly, her mother bought it for her just for this special. When I told her about my aunt taking me to see “It Happened at the Worlds Fair” and “Live a Little, Love a Little” at a small town theatre when I was a kid, she said, “Weren’t you lucky?”
There are two main areas to hang out at Graceland. The visitors’ center usually has the best gift shops so it has a lot of activity. It is also the starting and stopping point for the Graceland tours and has the better restaurants. The other place is the strip mall in front of the Heartbreak Hotel. When I started coming, this strip mall was not owned by the estate but they have purchased it in the last couple of years. They have put official attractions in, given some space to Harley Davidson, and have generally tried to upgrade the place. There are still a few things left over from the old days that you can only get there. The Elvis bowling ball is an example. This strip mall is an attraction because they have a beer cart set up outside of the restaurant and a tent that has non-stop Elvis impersonators. The impersonators are only part of the attraction of this area. This is a great area to observe the fans. This area is where I get some of the best pictures and have some of the most interesting conversations. One of the reasons that I enjoy going to the Candlelight Vigil is that it makes me feel good about myself. I have gained more weight this year that I care to acknowledge but the people that you encounter during this week are bigger and more bizarre than you might imagine. The other reason they made me feel good is that I thought that I am not as crazy as these people. I am sure there are many intelligent people that are extremely devoted Elvis fans. There were several people at Graceland that should not have been there. The temperature was over 100 F and the humidity was the worst I have ever encountered there. Earlier in the week, the heat was identified as the cause of the death of at least six people in Memphis. I tried to prepare myself by wearing light colors and I brought two water jugs that I kept in my jeep. I made frequent trips back to the jeep to make sure I kept plenty of water in my system. I didn’t want to wait to feel bad before doing something about it. I made frequent trips into the different gift shops, mainly just to cool off. I ate when I did because it was during the hottest part of the day and I was committed to eating somewhere with air conditioning. Still there were times when it was just hot and I needed to rest or cool off.
One of these times was while watching the impersonators. They brought up this one guy that was wearing too tight white slacks, boots, and a red shirt opened to reveal an unimpressive chest with spotty chest hair and a big belt. His hair was big and black like you would expect and he had the sideburns. His singing left much to be desired. He was in tune most of the time but he didn’t have the range to sing these songs. The worst performance was Suspicious Minds when he couldn’t hit the high notes on the chorus. He had problems with his pants slipping down and made a comment that he hoped they didn’t split. At the end of the song he was doing the move that Elvis did on this song when he performed it live. He really got into it and it was probably the best thing in the performance. He knew he could do it ok and used it to make up for things like forgetting the words and the lackluster karate moves. He made a few comments about getting too hot during the song and I was convinced that I was going to get to see an Elvis impersonator pass out in the middle of a performance. He was drinking some kind of fruit punch between songs, by-passing the bottle of water he should have been drinking. He did a song a cappella that wasn’t written to be sung that way. As you might expect, he wasn’t able to stay on pitch and no music allowed you to hear how much the crowd wasn’t paying attention to him. He wrapped up with another song and a gimmick. He toweled off with stuffed teddy bears and threw them into the crowd. While doing this, he completely lost his place in the music and wasn’t anywhere close to being with the music. If the applause from the crowd had good intentions, it was a courtesy or because they liked the song selection but not the performance. If they had bad intentions, the applause was because he was finally off the stage.
This guy is just an example of the endless stream of impersonators they have every year. While I was watching him, I had a couple of observations. First is that this guy was not the worst that I have seen although he is probably a little below average. While he was talking, he mentioned his regular shows. Most of these guys do this for money on a regular basis. Some of them may even do this as a sole source of income. I thought that I am better than most of these guys. If they can make any money doing this crap, I should be able to do something in the music business. Don’t look for me in a jumpsuit anytime soon. The other thought I had related to the idea that these people are now called “Elvis Tribute Artists”. I wondered if Elvis would have ever considered performing under a tent across the street from his house. I wondered what Elvis would think of these shabby performances. Would he be honored to have this guy dressed like this butchering these songs that are identified with him? If he were alive today, I bet Elvis would have a buzz cut. He wouldn’t be all caught up in the big sideburns or the jet black hair. He would think the people dressed this way looked ridiculous, no matter how much they loved him.
Another impersonator that stands out for me this year was this kid I met when I was standing close to the beer wagon. A quick note about the beer tent: I don’t drink beer when I am there. I am concerned about the heat and the alcohol. I also think that people might be more reluctant to talk to me if I had a beer in my hand or on my breath. Back to this little guy: he was in a white suit with a light blue shirt. He seemed nervous and acted like he wanted me to talk to him or at least notice him. He had thick hair that added at least a couple of inches to his height. Just guessing, I thought he was probably 8 or 9 years old. When I asked him if he had performed yet, he said no. I asked when he was performing and he said he didn’t know. I detected a slight speech impediment. I asked him where he was from and he said somewhere in North Carolina. It shocked me when he told me he was 13 years old because he was no where as tall as my 13 year old daughter. I was stooping over to talk to him and I don’t have to do that with my 9 year old. Mary is probably a few inches taller that this kid and that is even including his tall hair. I couldn’t help but thinking what unfortunate circumstances for this kid. He is short for his age, has speech problems and his parents encourage this Elvis masquerade. I wonder how often he gets beat up at school.
The last impersonator that stands out was an old guy in an elaborate, white jumpsuit sitting near the Elvis tent. I never saw him perform and I don’t know that he did. He might have just been dressed that way for Elvis week. This guy had the black hair but it was much thinner that Elvis’ hair ever was. The guy looked really bad and not like Elvis at all. Where he was sitting, someone came up to him in a black jumpsuit and a full head of hair. He was helping them with the collar of the jumpsuit. I could only see this person from behind and assumed it was a son or grandson and I assumed that they were both impersonators. I walked on by and saw that this person was an older lady with a flat chest, extreme tan and many wrinkles; probably this guy’s wife.
Speaking of women’s chests, there is no lack of tube tops, halter tops, bikini tops, spaghetti strap tops and just thin low cut t-shirts at this thing. This is regardless of the age of the women wearing them or the size of their breasts. I mentioned that many of the people there are larger than me and this includes the women that are too large and/or old to be wearing these clothes that are too revealing. I have heard some people wondering what all of these women with the tattoos on their breasts will look like when they get old. I have to say without boasting that I have a pretty good idea. There are plenty of airbrushed tattoos that you can get for the day at the visitors center but I saw plenty of real tattoos on breasts that have lost their perk a long time ago. I saw a young lady in a tube top wiping the sweat from her chest while she tried to decide which breast to get a temporary tattoo on. I wondered what would be the deciding factor. I wondered if being the guy running the temporary tattoo concession is a good thing or a bad thing.
I mentioned the heat earlier but I don’t think I really conveyed how bad it was. I made frequent trips back to my Jeep to get water. On one of my trips back from the parking lot when I got to the visitors’ center, the Emergency crew had a lady on a cart taking her to the ambulance. She looked like she had spent too much time in the heat. She also looked like she was too old to spend very much time in the heat to begin with. I think I even detected the feeling that she might be having second thoughts about the intelligence of anyone being there in that heat. An hour or so later, I saw another stretcher that they were getting ready to put an old lady on that was already in a wheelchair. I don’t know if she came to Graceland in the wheelchair or if they put her in it when she started feeling sick. Other than these incidents, I know I saw at least three ambulances coming onto the grounds at different times during the day. There is a bridge that crosses a creek on the grounds between the parking lot and the visitors’ center. I was making a water run to the Jeep after I had seen at least one of these people being picked up and I was feeling a little hot. When I got to the bridge, there was a group of people coming from the parking lot. The lady in front of the group was rather large and not moving very well. She was using a walker but looked more suited for a wheelchair. There was a lady following her with an oxygen tank. At first glance, I thought it was for the walker lady but then I noticed the lady pushing the tank was hooked up to it already. This was the point that I decided these people where crazy. There is no good reason for these people to be here. Someone needs to tell these people to go home. What does it say about me? What am I doing here? Is it really worth it to stand out in extreme heat to see this freak show? That was when I decided that I might not stay for the Candlelight Vigil ceremony. I had left because of the heat in years past. I also decided that if I did stay, I needed to eat in air conditioning during the hottest part of the day to be out of the sun and cool down. It was on my next trip for water that I discovered the water tunnel. There is a pavilion with tables between the visitors’ center and the Elvis tent strip mall. This is a cab pick-up and drop-off point. They had a vinyl tent set up that was open on both ends. The tent had water misters inside to allow you to cool off. I walked through and found out that it was more of a light spray than a true mist but it felt good. There was a lady standing there watching her swimsuit clad daughter play in this water. I struck up a conversation with her as I passed through. I usually ask people where they are from, if it’s their first trip to Graceland or the vigil and I usually end up asking how many times they have been to Graceland and/or the vigil. This lady has been for 32 years. That’s right, they were coming even before Elvis died. They were actually in Memphis when Elvis passed away. Her mom had brought her to Memphis to try and see Elvis. How they knew this, I don’t know but she said Elvis was usually in town for his mother’s anniversary on the 14th. The anniversary of what, I don’t know. Her mother was in a tree on the edge of the property when the ambulance came and picked him up. Her mother called in to work and told them that she needed off more time to attend a funeral. They stayed in Memphis until after the funeral.
Later in the day, I saw some ladies in matching t-shirts from one of the Elvis fan clubs. This was the “He Touched Me” fan club. I was curious about where their fan club was from and found out that they were from various places. I think they were from New Jersey and Chicago. One of them was black. This is unusual. You don’t see that many black people at Graceland that aren’t working there. Almost everyone that works there is black. While talking to them, they mentioned that one of their members had past away earlier in the day. She said it happened in the RV Park beside Heartbreak Hotel. The lady that died was a regular for Elvis Week. She rode around in an electric wheelchair and had a little dog. I think they said the dog’s name was Killer. Later, several members of the fan club went on the stage in the Elvis tent and announced that their friend had died and they started collecting money to try and get her body back home.
I try and get pictures of interesting people each year and things that make that year different. In front of the visitors’ center they had the NASCAR car sponsored by Reese’s. They have a peanut butter and banana flavored candy with Elvis on the package and the car has the same artwork. I was taking a picture of it and this redheaded guy from England that talked liked Austin Powers came up and offered to take my picture with the car. He also wanted me to take a picture of him with the car. I talked to him for a while. He met Elvis at a show. He caught a scarf that Elvis had thrown into a crowd and he was getting his butt kicked by the crowd. He said that Elvis made them stop. He told me about all of these celebrities that he had met and pulled out a scrapbook with pictures of him and all these people. He was most proud of his Paul McCartney picture. He talked about being aggressive and getting in to see all of these people. When I mentioned I was from Jackson, we talked about Carl Perkins. He said something about George Harrison being close to Carl. He said that George was rude to him. He said George “spat at him.” At some point he said he had a website on the internet and I was afraid he was going to try and sell me something, especially when he pulled out his pictures. He never told the name of the site. After he left, I took a few more pictures of the car. I did this as much to try and sneak some pictures of the black lady that was looking at the cars. She had a 60’s retro blonde hairdo and was about to fall out the front of her dress.
Another person that had pictures was the lady at the Elvis tent with the buttons. She was of course a large lady with a vest that went below her knees. The vest was filled with buttons. I really wanted to get a picture of her but my priority was to talk to her. I asked her if she had made her buttons or bought them all. Most of them were homemade. She collected these buttons and wanted to wear something that would hold all of them. She made the vest extra long to take care of this. She said she no longer wears as many buttons on the back because when she hopped into the car, sometimes they would come undone and poke her in the rear. I asked her about the pin with the picture that looked like her as a teenager with Elvis. She said that was one of the times she met Elvis. The way she acted, I think she had other pins with pictures of some of the other meetings. I also got the impression that she had worn buttons even back when she met Elvis. I thought when she talked about jumping in the car; she might have been jumping in with Elvis. Judging from her personality, I don’t know if this would have been a welcome move. I noticed that several of the other homemade buttons had pictures of Elvis’ butt. They were rear view pictures of what I assumed to be Elvis wearing various jumpsuits. The thought did pass through my mind that these could be pictures of impersonators taken during Elvis week. When I was walking away from her, I asked her name and she told me she was “Buttons”. Her real name is Ann but everyone has always called her buttons. I saw Buttons several other times throughout the night. She is sort of hard to miss.
The closest thing to Buttons that I did get a picture of was the older lady with the cape. I first saw her when I was going for more water. She had an afro and this ankle length cape. My first thought was it is too hot to wear a cape like that. It was almost like a tent with her fuzzy little head sticking out. Next, I wondered what was on the cape. When I saw her later, I had my camera out snapping pictures of an infant in a jumpsuit and sunglasses with sideburns attached. I asked the lady if I could get a picture of her. She started walking across the parking lot. I thought she wanted me to follow her but I wasn’t sure. Next she turned around and held her arms out so I could take her picture. I went up to talk to her and ask her for a picture of the back of the cape. It turns out that she was from Italy and spoke virtually no English. I never even got a good look at the back of the cape.
I ran into some more people from Italy. They had matching black t-shirts identifying where they were from. I asked if had been at the 25th anniversary candlelight vigil. They were there and I told them that I had pictures of them at home. You see the same people from year to year and if you talk to them, they may even remember you. I saw the Elvis impersonator that looks like professional wrestler Bill Dundee and the Middle Eastern or Indian impersonator who identified himself as “Elvis Pompeii”. Before the candlelight vigil, I was walking down the street looking at various shrines that are set up on the street after they close it to traffic before the ceremony. I saw an Oriental or Polynesian lady that I had seen earlier in the day. I remembered the homemade top she was wearing from earlier because it had an Elvis stamp pattern that I don’t remember seeing before. This time I thought I recognized her and asked her, “Did I stand next to you in line during the Candlelight Vigil last year?” She asked me, “Where you wearing a shirt that your wife made for you?” Of course the answer was yes. She had her daughter with her this year that looked about the same age as my kids.
One of the things I enjoy is meeting people from all around the world. The people standing next to me during the candlelight ceremony were from New Zealand. They said it was winter there now and snow was on the ground when they left home. I met a guy from Paris, France that spoke no English and he was on his first trip. He held a banner that said “Elvis Forever” and a flag in each hand. There were the rockabilly fans from England. The lady had a red western shirt and a jet black ponytail. The guy had his head shaved on the sides and a ski jump shaped flat-top.
I spent more time with a plumber from Eaton, Pennsylvania and his grandson. They were going to eat at same time I was. I talked them out of eating at the Chinese buffet. I had bad experiences there. They stood next to me in line at the KFC and I let them sit at the table with me because of the limited table space. The KFC had no ice. They were out and weren’t getting anymore. The people working the counter were all black and were having problems getting everyone’s order correct. I was very polite and had no problems other than the ice. I don’t remember specific comments but the Pennsylvanian grandfather said several things that reminded me that white Northerners can be even worse than Southerners in their attitudes toward black people. His son was a plumber by day and an Elvis impersonator by night. He had a long, grey beard and remembered talking to me during a previous year.
On the way from the KFC, a car with three college-aged girls pulled up and asked me where Graceland was. I gave them some general directions to everything and told them where they would want to go if they wanted to see some real Elvis freaks. They were just passing through town and stopped out of curiosity. Earlier in the day, two guys and two girls about the same age in the parking lot just passing through and gave them similar directions.
Next to the Elvis tent, I ran into a couple of ladies with big Es on their heads. The Es looked like they were made from Styrofoam and covered with gold glitter. One lady was from Memphis and her sister was from Oklahoma. This was the sister’s first candlelight vigil. The big E is a yearly thing for the lady from Memphis and her husband. Their Es were covered with aluminum foil last year.
The lady that stood next to me during the candlelight ceremony was also from Oklahoma. She attends almost every year. She told me about where she parked and all the roads around Graceland. She talked about driving by Vernon’s house. I thought, “How do you people know all this stuff?” This lady knows where Elvis’ dad lived and the lady from Detroit knew when Elvis was in town. Is this just common knowledge for these people? She also talked about the fire engine down the road with Elvis’ name on it. All the firemen fans go and get their picture made there. This lady had been to the first 20 candlelight vigils. She also loaned me a Japanese fan during the ceremony. After the ceremony, we followed a guy in an Elvis jumpsuit to get out of the crowd. Before we parted ways, we were approached by people handing out tracts that said something about heaven on the front.
To get people to tell you about them, you have to be willing to share your ideas and experiences. I tell them about bringing James and about the girls not wanting to come. The lady from Detroit talked about our kids being the ones to keep this thing going. The Oklahoma lady said the same thing as she pointed at the crowd and said, “A lot of these people won’t be here very much longer.” I couldn’t help but think about the ladies on the stretchers and the people at the bridge. Even the old people in the Elvis jumpsuits can’t last that long. I tried to think of what these people had in common. They were all around when Elvis was alive and he was able to touch their spirit in a unique way. He was a special performer, a one-of-a-kind entertainer that set the standard for others and pushed the bar higher than almost anyone else will ever be able to reach. He had successful records, movies, television and concerts. But he was most successful in marketing himself and that success continues to this day. A child hearing him today cannot embrace the Elvis experience any better than you can have the candlelight vigil experience by reading this. The thing that makes Elvis Week a special time for the fans is that it gives them a chance to reclaim that feeling they had when they claimed Elvis as their own. If this is what the people at Elvis Presley Enterprises expect to keep the money rolling in, they are as crazy as the people with the walkers and oxygen tanks on the bridge. They may do better to start attracting the people who might poke fun at the Elvis image. There are a lot more of those people in the world. The changes they are talking about making at Graceland will probably make it more of an amusement park experience and less of a shrine. There will probably be more fake sideburns attached to cheap sunglasses and fewer real sideburns and authentic TCB sunglasses. But maybe they can keep something going for that young man with that gleam in his eye, a guitar in his hand and a song in his heart.
They said this year had the biggest crowd ever.
Singer, Songwriter, Entertainer, Storyteller