This year has been one of the hardest years for me to come up with a way of approaching my annual trip to Graceland. In recent years, I have had some idea of an approach that I wanted to take before I even left home. This year has been full of distractions. Other things seemed to take more importance that a trip I have taken ten times before. Why was I going this year? It seems to be more out of habit than anything else. People expect me to be at Graceland on August 15. And these are not people that are there. Friends and family want to ask me about it.
My friend Nick had gone the last two years and once before that. He had things come up that prevented him from going. Another friend, Tina, asked to go. Would she be up to the task? Would she cramp my style? Would I be able to do the things I normally do without any problems? It turns out that Tina was a great guest for the Candlelight Vigil trip. She likes to people watch and is willing to talk to total strangers. It is a small plus that she is an Elvis fan.
Tina had been to Graceland before but never for a Candlelight Vigil. She had bought a Jailhouse Rock themed shirt for the trip. The shirt was a great icebreaker for her. She ran into at least 3 people wearing the same shirt and it always started a conversation. At one point, we found a Jailhouse Rock cardboard cutout of Elvis and she posed for a picture by it. I told her to smile then took a picture. Then I told her to give me her jailhouse face. She gave me a serious look and I snapped another picture.
The trip started with the regular search for the official Elvis Week hat and shirt. The main gift shop at the visitor’s center is the best place to find these. I also picked up an Elvis Week pub glass and can huggie. I don’t remember everything the Tina bought but she decided that a ’68 Comeback Special Mr. Potatohead would be the ideal gift for her son. I also ran across a container of Elvis themed canes. My wife is not interested in ever going to Elvis week and has never been. She doesn’t seem to be particularly interested in Elvis either. This year would have been an especially bad year for her to try and make it since she has a broken ankle. I sent her a text with a picture of the canes asking her which one she wanted. She was not amused.
I did find a potholder with picture of Elvis and a recipe for fried peanut butter and banana sandwiches. Our family collects Elvis potholders. We use them to squeeze hot baked potatoes when we are preparing them to eat. When we are setting the table on an evening when we eat baked potatoes, we always tell someone to “get Elvis”. This means to get the Elvis potholders for the potatoes. It turns out that I already had the fried peanut butter and banana sandwich potholder. This one was just a little bit bigger.
My favorite item that I saw that we didn’t purchase was some sort of terrycloth robe thing. It looked sort of like a robe but it seemed to have too many parts. It was make to look like a white Elvis jumpsuit. It also had a cape. I don’t remember how much it cost but it was too much for a joke and it looked like it had been around for a while. It was in the low-rent gift shop and had probably been there since I first started coming to Graceland. It will probably be there next year if the shop is still around. I got pictures which were good enough.
The real jumpsuits will set you back about $2,000. If you want the White American Eagle design, it’s more like $3,000 but it includes a belt and cape. They also have a gold lame’ suit like the one he wears on the cover of the “50,000,000 Fans Can’t Be Wrong” album cover.
While looking through the gift shops, we met an 11 year old Elvis impersonator named Brandon and his mother. They are from Chicago. Brandon comes each year with his mother. When I search for more information about him, I found pictures of Brandon when he was 21 months old during an Elvis Week. His mother said she had been coming to Graceland for 37 years. This is 2 years longer than Elvis has been dead. I had a similar experience with a lady at the 30th Elvis Week. This lady’s story was a little different. I don’t think their regular visits to Graceland were coordinated with any possible Elvis visits. She talked about meeting Elvis’ father Vernon at the front gate, talking to him and playing on the lawn. It seems that the opportunity to have this kind of encounter just with people close to Elvis was enough to give the fans a special connection with him. Brandon’s mother wasn’t the only one we heard from that came to visit Graceland while Elvis was still alive. Their stories were all similar and it gave the fans a connection to one another that makes this experience unique. While it is a fan gathering, it also has the feel of a family reunion. While the fans come from all over the world, they form a small, tight-knit community. While this was my 11th straight year of attending the Candlelight Vigil, I am still very much an outsider. As much as I know about the yearly activities, I still feel out of place.
The Elvis tent is always a reliable source of entertainment both on and off the stage. One of the performers looked like he was older than me. He was at least older that what I think I look like. He had the Elvis hair but looked like a large, middle-aged man wearing a bowling shirt. At one point, he started singing an up tempo song. The crowd started clapping. A younger, large lady sitting from the front row stood up and started “making eyes” at this man. As any good Elvis impersonator should do, he acknowledged her presence and he sang to her. But he didn’t go over and kiss her like he did when he was singing a ballad and handing out Hawaiian leis to the ladies lined up at the edge of the stage. This was disturbing to watch and I thought they needed to get a room. Or at least she did. Fortunately, my phone rang the only time during the trip and I had to step away from the performer tent so I could hear. When I returned to the tent, the performer had a lady that looked older and bigger than him on the stage. Her dressy black and blue outfit matched the colors of his bowling shirt. Her outfit also included a “diamond” Elvis belt buckle. While he sang “You’ll Never Walk Alone”, she did a dramatic signing/interpretative dance performance. I have video.
The other performer that we watched for a long time was a young man named Dean Z. While he didn’t really look that much like Elvis, he was a great all around performer. He sang well, danced well and did a good job of engaging with the crowd. He selected good songs that he crowd liked. He even brought up another performer and they sang together. And it was good. I think I saw a pair of panties get thrown on the stage.
After we watched Dean Z, we went to get in line for the vigil. The people behind us in line were from Australia. This was their second time to come to the United States. Both times were to come to Graceland. The man asked if I have ever been to Australia, I said no. He said it was my turn to come and visit him.
The family in front of us were from Michigan. The man works for Chrysler and he wife teaches school. Their daughter looked to be middle school age. Most years when I encounter a family like this, one or two members of the family are big Elvis fans. The rest of the family seems to tolerate the other members Elvis passion. Everyone in this family was a fan. They seemed to have a life beyond Elvis, which is something unique in this crowd. But they were also regular visitors. The man talked about visiting Graceland with his parents a few months after Elvis died. This was before they had opened the house as an attraction but were allowing people to visit the gravesite. He said that there was a line around the corner all the way to Vernon’s house. This is one of those things that the Elvis community knows. They know the name of the street that Elvis’ father lived on and they knew which one was his house. They came to this attraction before it was an attraction. It was another moment when I felt a little out of place.
The weather made for the most pleasant Candlelight Vigil I have ever experienced. It was not the typical hot Memphis August weather. It was not hot or humid. The wind wasn’t blowing so keeping your candle lit was easy. When the ceremony was over, it sounded like the crowd was instructed to “file silently and reverently in single file to the Medication Gardens”.
The path to the gravesite goes between the pool at the house and a small pasture for a couple of horses. This was the first year that I noticed the scent of the horses wafting through the Meditation Garden. A siren from a cop car went off and the horses were spooked. One of the people in line in front of us slowly placed the same rose on Elvis’ grave 3 times while his friend made video of it. After we left the gravesite, we took some cool pictures standing in front of the house.
Outside the gates of Graceland, I felt a little more comfortable in the crowd. There are more of the locals with their chairs and coolers that have come to people watch. Some of them set up shrines to attract the fans. They know how to behave too. They have been invited to this very strange family reunion like I have and you don’t expect to make a scene and still get potato salad. And this family is very open and friendly. They are ready to share their experience with you.
As we strolled around the shrines and street painting, we came up to a “camp” where people were playing guitars and singing Elvis songs. Dean Z was playing one of the guitars and was the main attraction. He could really play. And he really had a passion for Elvis music. I found out a couple of days later that he won this year’s Ultimate Elvis Tribute Artist Contest.
My final Facebook post of the trip: “We came, we saw, we burnt candles”
Singer, Songwriter, Entertainer, Storyteller