Fan from Memphis
This was the tenth consecutive year that I have gone to the candlelight vigil at Graceland. You might think that I have some sort of ritual that I go through before I leave, but it really varies from year to year. There have been years when it was vital that I purchase tires before I left. This year, I decided to get a haircut. I’ve eaten at home before I left, stopped for fast food on the way and eaten Mexican food in Jackson before I left. This year, it was a trip to Krystal before the haircut. Lots of people ask if I “dress up” for the vigil. For the past several years, I’ve worn a bowling style shirt that my wife made for me but this year, I just wore a polo shirt. Each year has its own style, its own flow and routine. I try to be as open as I can to the possibilities for each year. I hope I learn and experience something new and different. This year was no disappointment.
My friend Nick went with me this year. Nick has been with me before. He went on the infamous 2009 trip that we can’t share as many details about. Yes, you have to ask to find out about that trip. Because he had been before, we were able to focus on the people. This is the real reason I go every year. We did a tour of the gift shops first. After we had purchased shirts and caps, we were exiting the main gift shop. There was a lady handing out Elvis fans and buttons. While we were getting these, there was a lady sitting on a park bench very near us who is best described as having a fit. I’m not sure who she was angry at. I think it was her husband/boyfriend but it might have been the fan/button lady. She wasn’t getting what she wanted and she was letting everyone know. Few people were paying attention to her. The mentally unstable are par for the course at Graceland.
Like later, when we were entering the first gift shop next to the Elvis impersonators performance tent. There was a young guy that smiled at me and said hi. He wanted to talk and he was the kind of person I was looking for. It turns out that he has performed a few minutes earlier. He told me he was born in Memphis. I asked where he lives now. He said he lived in Lakeland. His name was Doug. Doug introduced me to an attractive girl from Brazil. She had also sung earlier. I talked with her briefly but Doug was the one that got all of the attention. Doug asked if I had a copy of the schedule for the performers at the Elvis tent. I said no and that was all it took for Doug to go on a search. He led me into the gift shop where he knew he could get a schedule of course they didn’t have one but they told him another shop that did have them. I told him I would get one there. Doug told the girl that he had a gift shop. He was talking about Boulevard Souvenirs, the low rent, independent gift shop that is always a fun stop. It sounded like he works there. Just being around him for a short period of time, it might be a stretch to call anything that he does work but he was a really nice kid.
Earlier in the day, I took a picture for some old ladies from Arizona that were posing in front of a guitar statue. This was our first encounter with normal people. I think it was their first trip to Graceland and they were spending the whole week. You can usually spot the first timers. They are about the only ones that will pose in front of a statue of a guitar. Maybe they weren’t so normal after all.
The weather was beautiful. I’ve never been to Graceland when it has been that nice. Most years, I spend a lot more time in the gift shops just to cool off. This year, I didn’t go into any of the gift shops more than once. It was just really nice to be outside. We spent a huge amount of time at the Elvis tent. I don’t know what it was, but it took a while to get into the groove of talking to people and taking pictures. I’ve gotten to a point where I don’t take as many pictures. I’ve gotten used to seeing old men with hair dyed deep black with huge belt buckles. Each one is unique, but I’d rather talk to them than take their picture. Their stories can be freakier than their pictures. And the fan club members are as entertaining as the performers and people that dress like Elvis. I saw a lady wearing a shirt for the Elvis’ Angels Fan Club. I decided to try and find out more about them. Their club is based in Shreveport, Louisiana but this lady was from Huntsville, Alabama. A lady from Shreveport was sitting with her. They were Graceland and Candlelight vigil regulars. They told me about all of the connections between Shreveport and Elvis, especially about the Louisiana Hayride where Elvis got his start. The Huntsville lady’s husband came up. He looked like Martin Landau in wrap around sunglasses. Later they danced while one of the performers was singing. Later in the day, Huntsville lady brought me an application to join the Elvis’ Angels Fan Club. It’s $12 a year and might be worth joining.
The Elvis tent was the gift that keeps on giving. One of the first freaks we had run into was a guy wearing a rebel flag as a cape. The flag had a picture of Elvis in the center. In the picture, Elvis is wearing a cowboy hat. I don’t know where this guy was from. I did get his picture I was afraid to talk to him. If you’ve never been to Graceland, it might be important to this story to know where Graceland is in Memphis. It is in a section of town called Whitehaven. I think it got that name years ago when white people were about all that lived in that section of town. It is not like that anymore. The other important thing to know for this story is that many of the people that work at Graceland during Elvis week are from the neighborhood. Yes, they are black. It just makes things uncomfortable with this guy running around all of the black people while he wears a rebel flag as a cape. I don’t think he’s from Memphis.
One of the most striking things about the people that are dressed like Elvis is how little they look like Elvis. It’s almost like they are trying to not look like him. One of the worst was a guy sitting in a lawn chair next to the beer vendor. He had super thick hair that took the shape of a bedpan sort of like Gene Simmons hair. He also had a full beard cut in a way that really made him look like that guy from the country group Alabama. All of the hair on his head looked like it had received an overdose of Just for Men hair color or a sloppy application of Kiwi shoe polish. He was disturbing to look at because he never smiled and didn’t look like he was having a good time.
There was an Italian impersonator that was really good. He didn’t go for much of an Elvis look except for the hair. He wore a suit with an open collar. He has been performing at the tent for 20 years. He started when he was, as he put it, “a fat little kid”. Of all of the performers we saw, he has the best set. He had lots of upbeat songs and put plenty of energy into the performances. Even his slower songs kept people interested. There was still a bizarre element to his performance. During one of the songs, he pulled an old man out of the crowd up on the stage. The old man was dancing like crazy. It reminded me of Bruce Springsteen’s “Dancing in the Dark” video where he pulls Courtney Cox out of the crowd and dances with her. Except in this case, Italian Elvis is dancing with an old man.
The guy that followed Italian Elvis looked like belonged in a Journey tribute band. A dark, sleeveless t-shirt instead of a suit and the Elvis hair was replaced with a mullet. He sounded ok, but just couldn’t get the crowd involved. It was about this time that I saw the guy in the Elvis jumpsuit. Nick pointed him out. I needed to talk to this guy. I’ve noticed that over the last few years, you don’t see people in jumpsuits at the Elvis tent. I didn’t know why. This guy was also different because he didn’t have the sideburns and he had normal hair. He even had normal colored hair. This guy would have looked out of place if it hadn’t been for the jumpsuit. I had to talk to him. It turns out he was there with his mother. His name was Danny and he was also from Huntsville. Danny’s mother was an artist was going around trying to interest people in her Elvis art. He point to her. She was several feet away talking to some people about her art. She had little cards with samples that she was showing to people. I also found out that mom had made Danny’s jumpsuit. It was nice but it wasn’t made for performance. It had more of the feel of a Halloween costume. It was made to look nice but wouldn’t put up with much wear or movement. Danny told me that he didn’t really want to wear it. He even tried to talk me into wearing it. He told me that they really discouraged people from wearing jumpsuits at the Elvis tent on the day of the candlelight vigil. It takes away from the solemn atmosphere of the occasion and takes some of the focus away from Elvis. OK, like “Burning Love” is a solemn song. I wouldn’t rag on it but you hear it about a million times at the Elvis tent every year. Anyway, I learned something from Danny that I did not know. When I started coming to Elvis week, I know they wore jumpsuits. I even remember seeing Elvi comparing jumpsuits. But that was back before Elvis Presley Enterprises took over the Elvis tent. I guess they want to change the mood of the event. They don’t like the tent and have talked about taking it away but the fans like it too much.
Anyway, I’m talking to Danny and suddenly I hear something behind me. I turn around and Danny’s mom has fallen to the ground. I think she tripped on a concrete barrier or something like that. Her cards with her art samples were scattered on the ground. Danny, some guy from England and I rushed to her side. She was ok other than her knees. Danny ripped the crouch out of his jumpsuit when he bent down to help his mom. The belt also fell off of his jumpsuit. No wonder he didn’t want to wear it. We asked mom if she needed anything. She said she could really use a margarita. Too bad they didn’t have them at the beer stand or I would have bought her one.
When I was walking away, I met this lady that was hanging out with the British guy that helped with Danny’s mom. The lady wanted her picture taken with me. We did that and then I got picture of me with her and British guy. She was from Germantown. They joked around with me telling me they had just gotten married. It turns out that she was married to someone else that was there with their 5 year old child. She was there hanging out with people that she had met that day. She seemed to enjoy Elvis too. She said she didn’t like it when the women performed. I bet she didn’t like the girl from Brazil at all.
I went back and started watching the performers. Most of them were unimpressive. I started looking at the crowd. There was the lady with the opened back top with an extreme Graceland/Elvis tattoo mural on her back. For her sake, I hope it is a temporary tattoo. There were other ladies with conditions that were more permanent. There was the older lady with extremely large legs that looked muscular and tight from surgery instead of exercise. Then there were the ladies with the large breasts. There were several older ladies with breasts that drooped as much as the tops of their outfits sagged. Clothes and breasts seemed to be too low on these ladies and too much skin was exposed above. This is also par for the course but it seemed more disturbing this year. Maybe it was because of the comparison with the young lady with the perky breasts that seemed to be popping out into the walkway around the gift shop that we had seen earlier.
We also saw an Indian Elvis impersonator. I think I have pictures of this guy from my first trip in 2002. His name is Robert Pooran. He lives in Toronto. He was there with his wife, 2 daughters and a 5 month old grandson. He gave me his business card. It says he is also known as Etobicoke Elvis. The card advertises his “Tribute to the King…Elvis” and under his name it says “For All Occasions”.
In addition to it being a year for old women falling down, it was a year for naked old men. Not completely naked, just without shirts. During a stop to drop off souvenirs at the car, we saw an old man changing shirts in the parking lot. Not long after that, we were at the restrooms at the vistors’ center and saw another old man changing shirts.
After we ate, we went to the visitors’ center for candles and made our way to the line for the candlelight vigil. I look forward to this part of the trip each year. You spend more time with the people in line than anyone else on the trip. You have a better opportunity to get to know them. There were 3 young girls from South Africa in the line in front of us. They have recently moved to the US. They told us about a book project they were working on. They said that New Line Cinema also had options for a movie. They asked if we would want to give them our email addresses so they could send us information about the projects when and if they came out. Or course we said sure. While we were entering them into their iPad, they started telling us more about the project. Something about Techno-Romance, Non-Dates and life in the post-dating world. It was hard to understand what all it involved and was sort of scary to be giving out email addresses. They gave us some flyers about it and I checked out the website. I’m still not sure what I think of them. They were also into face painting and one of the girls drew a picture of Elvis on her arm. Every little girl in the line around us wanted an Elvis drawing and they started doing drawings for $5 each. As interesting as they were, they were not the most interesting people in the line.
We started talking to the ladies behind us. There was a lady with bad teeth and her mom. They were from Memphis and big Elvis fans. Bad teeth lady’s sister showed up. Her name was Lisa Marie for obvious reasons. Lisa Marie had good teeth. They all had dark hair and heavy make-up. The mom was pregnant with Lisa Marie when she went to an Elvis concert. Lisa Marie was proud of the fact that she had been to an Elvis show even though she was in the womb at the time. Lisa Marie’s husband showed up later. He is best described as a shit-faced drunk. He was loud and sounded drunk. He was a little guy popping beers in line. The family looked like they were used to the husband’s behavior. At some point before the vigil ceremony started, the mom left. I’m not sure where or why she was gone. Maybe to visit the restroom or get water. Anyway, she passed out in the middle of the road right next to an ambulance. They put her in the ambulance and took her to the hospital. The rest of the family stayed at the candlelight vigil. How screwed up can you be? If I’m with family and family passes out and has to go to the hospital, I think I’m going to the hospital with family.
After we had our initial talk with Lisa Marie and family, we turned around and there was another girl in front of us sort of next to the South African girls. At first, I thought she was with them but I think she just sort of ended up there. She was from Memphis and lived down the street from Graceland. Very pale girl. She visits Graceland about 4 times a year. I sort of got the feeling that it wasn’t to bring friends and family who were in town but just because she liked going. She was able to tell me that they change the rotating exhibit about twice a year. She said her first trip to the candlelight vigil was 2002, the same as my first year. It sounded like she is more regular than the regulars. For a while if we moved up or back in the line, she stayed with us but at some point we were separated. Then there were the girls from Wisconsin. At some point when the line was moving, Lisa Marie and her family got in front of us. The Wisconsin girls were behind them. They had driven 14 hours straight and had gotten there around 6 pm. The vigil started at 8:30. They were wearing black dresses that looked nice. It looked like they might be going to a casual funeral. They were very quiet. They could have been afraid of us or exhausted from the 14 hour drive. There was also a large group of travelers from Belgium and the Netherlands. Some had been to Graceland before and they had varying abilities to speak English. I wish we had more opportunity to speak to them.
The vigil ceremony was typical. The wind wasn’t blowing too badly so you didn’t have to shield your candle as much. Graceland has always been pretty strict about following rules and showing respect during the vigil. They don’t warn people about making trouble anymore. Some of the people got a little rowdy at the end of the vigil ceremony. I think Graceland is just happy to have you there regardless of why. They said not to use flash photography or take video at the gravesite but there were all kinds of flashes going off when I was there. I sure some people were taking video too. It’s hard to police and I think they’ve given up. While they discourage the jumpsuits for the vigil, they’ve gone back to selling more cheap crap in the souvenir stores. It’s easier to find ashtrays again. They know that a segment of the people coming to Graceland are coming to make fun. They’re coming to make fun of Elvis, make fun of Elvis junk and make fun of the people that love Elvis. They need stuff on the shelves to laugh at so the people may not pay as much attention to the people that love Elvis. People that think Graceland salt and pepper shakers also occasionally buy them. You’ve got to have them on the shelf for people to buy.
During walk to the gravesite, Nick and I passed by flowers from several fan clubs. Most of the clubs are named after Elvis songs. I told Nick that we needed to start an EPFC (Elvis Presley Fan Club). I wanted to pick a song that no one else would pick. I thought Rock-A-Hula was a good name for a club. When we were done with the trip to the gravesite, we started looking at the shrines set up in the middle of the street. We took several pictures. We got to one that was set up by the Rock-A-Hula EPFC. The old lady sitting with the shrine was from Fargo, North Dakota. Her daughter who started the club was from California. I told her that Rock-A-Hula Baby was a favorite Elvis song because it was written by Delores Fuller from the Ed Wood movies. I knew she would never know who that was but it didn’t matter. I got my picture made with the Rock-A-Hula lady.
It was time to leave. There had been too many old women falling down and naked old men. I was looking for something to pull this whole trip together. I didn’t think I could find anything that would help it make any sense but there had to be something to tie it all up. I had turned off my camera and slipped it into my pocket as we began the trip to the parking lot. Then I noticed something. A line of people that had gone unnoticed before. A line of people in wheelchairs and oxygen tanks and assistants. The rest of the old women and men that had already fallen down and needed to see Elvis one more time.
Singer, Songwriter, Entertainer, Storyteller