A few days before my yearly trip to Graceland for the Candlelight Vigil, I ran into a friend who had read some of my posts about visiting Graceland. He told me that he was one of the few people ever kicked out of Graceland. Earlier in his life, he was involved in a comedy club in Memphis and went with one of the performers to visit Graceland. During their visit, the performer left a wreath of bacon at the gravesite. This was not appreciated. They were taken to one of the buses and seated at the back to be taken off of the property. He said before they left, the bus filled with a Brownie scout troop. He said it was embarrassing. He said that he took other performers after that without incident and developed a good relationship with the people at Graceland. They were the ones that told him he was one of the few people that had been kicked out.
It appears that in one way my friend had come to know some of the insiders at Graceland. There are other types of insiders at Graceland. The Elvis Insiders Club is a group you can join to get discounts on tours and Elvis swag both at Graceland and on-line. Last year, my friend Tina went for her first Candlelight Vigil. She returned this year. Since last year, she has joined the Elvis Insiders Club. This would be a great year to get treated like a real Insider. To get the VIP treatment for the first time since I started coming to Elvis Week in 2002. To finally complete the process of blending in with the Elvis faithful. Would this be as much fun as in years past? Would I be able to experience Elvis Week with the same vision I had 12 years ago? How far away am I from growing sideburns and dyeing my hair black every August?
You may rest easily in knowing that the purpose of my trip each year continues to be to watch people. To encounter Elvis fans from all over the world and try to see what makes them tick. During my previous 12 visits, I have developed a routine that I rarely stray from. Getting the cap and shirt for each year’s event, visiting the performers’ tent, snapping pictures of many of the same people, the years seem to run together. I even end up eating at KFC most years out of habit. This Elvis Insiders Club may just be the thing to break me out of my normal routine. Maybe this brings the opportunity to experience something new and different.
Tina was returning and so was my friend Nick. We set the tone for this year’s trip during a brief stop at the edge of Memphis. I asked the group if they want to eat before we arrived at Graceland or wait until we got there. Tina said we needed to wait because we were insiders. This became rule #1: “Insiders don’t eat off-site”. Our response to anyone who wanted to do something like eat before we got there would be “You think you’re an insider but you’re really an outsider”. To explain any of our actions we would just say “That’s how insiders roll”.
Our first opportunity to take advantage of our insider status was when we parked. I flashed Tina’s Insiders Club card at the entrance to the parking lot and declared, “We’re Insiders” to take advantage of the $3 discount. Even though we were insiders, we were still there to people watch. My first opportunity to talk to other visitors was when we were taking pictures at the Graceland sign at the edge of the parking lot. For most visitors, this is the first photo opportunity. I offered to take a picture for an Illinois couple that were in town for their sons’ baseball tournament. Their son was at the ball field and they decided they would visit Graceland during a break. They had no idea that they were visiting during Elvis Week. This was my first opportunity to tell people who had never been there before about what goes on during the evening of the Candlelight Vigil. While they didn’t plan to stay for the Vigil ceremony, I think I saw them later in the morning purchasing tickets for a tour of the house.
We decided to take the tour this year. We also opted for VIP access. This would give us front of the line access to the tour and repeated access to any of the attractions. We also received a lanyard with a special VIP tag that helped affirm our VIP Insider status with the common fans in the crowd. We had about 45 minutes before our tour started and we decided to try and eat at the Rockabilly Café because it was right next to the VIP Tour loading area. There was a long line moving slow in the restaurant and our VIP passes didn’t give us front of the line access there. We stood in line behind a lady from Chicago who comes to Elvis Week every year. She had two young children wearing Elvis jumpsuits. Her son was in a stroller and her daughter would pose every time we took her picture. When we weren’t talking to them, we were looking at the photos of celebrities on the walls over the booths. I told my group that if we hurried, we might get to sit in the John Stamos’ booth. We made several John Stamos jokes. I also noticed that this was the John Denver booth. And I made a John Wilkes Booth joke.
We ate fast and stood for a very short time at the VIP booth before we were loaded onto the bus. This was the first day for a new feature on the house tour. Now they issue you an Ipad that provides the audio portion of the tour. It also has pictures and additional information on the screen. On the bus ride from the visitors’ center to the house, we set up our iPads and were introduced to our celebrity tour guide whose voice would be guiding us through Graceland, John Stamos. Our bus unloaded in a special VIP area and our group was allowed to break line in front of others.
I didn’t want to take many pictures during the tour. I feel that most of the photos that I might take could be found in books and on-line in better versions than I could take with my phone. I also didn’t care to have someone else in my group take my picture in front of these places. This was a busy day at Graceland and I would be in other people’s way too much for my comfort. But then I started noticing some of the photos and paintings of Elvis and his family on the wall. I decided that it would be fun to take selfies on the tour with Elvis photobombs. This would provide a different twist to the pictures. It also freaked out other people on the tour. Although I was pointing my camera phone at them, I was actually taking a picture of myself. They would freak out and try to move out of the way. The fact that we all had headphones on made it more difficult to communicate with each other so many of them never understood that they weren’t in my way. Because the selfie has become a more common type of photo, it has made it easier to sneak photos of other people in the crowd. I just point my phone at the person that I want to take a picture of and pretend to pose before I snap the photo. I did take a few pictures this way during the day.
They had also opened a new archive attraction earlier in the month. This is a building on the grounds of the house where they give you an opportunity to see some of the clothes and documents they have that they don’t have in other exhibits. This attraction looks like it would be easier to change on a regular basis. They have a small auditorium built with concert type lighting. The clothes and documents they showed during the presentation were also projected on the screen using high resolution cameras so you could see these items better than you could when they gave you an opportunity to check them out closer at the end of the presentation. There was a young white girl and an older black lady doing the presentation. They were the perfect people to do this program. There were portions of the show where they played Elvis music. These ladies were dancing and singing along. It seemed like they were doing this because they enjoyed the music and not because they had been told to do it. It was a nice new attraction. On the bus that takes you from the mansion to the Archive attraction, we met a family from France. This was their first trip to Graceland. They were on a music tour of the US. They had visited Nashville earlier in the week. It was just a coincidence that their visit to Graceland occurred during Elvis week. They would be going to New Orleans next. A lady from New Orleans on the tour bus gave them tips for what to do when they were there. They were confused about the Archive attraction when we got to it. It was not included on their tour but the bus driver told them they could still see this. They decided to stay on the bus.
When we returned to the visitor’s center, we alternated between visiting the rest of the attractions and the gift shops. All of the attractions have you exit through the gift shop so we decided following that pattern would be the best way to see the shops. The entrance of the car museum had a distinct urine odor. On our way out of the car museum, we ran into a group of older women wearing matching pink shirts. When I see groups like this, I assume that they are all from the same place and try to talk to as many as possible. This group was from Indiana and we decided that I might have talked to them during previous years. They said that I would probably see them again next year wearing ugly t-shirts. We considered the possibility of upping our game next year as insiders and getting matching shirts. It was suggested that we might join one of the fan clubs. Then we decided maybe we should form our own.
The gift shop located next to the ticketing area at the visitor center is where they always have the official Elvis Week shirts and caps. When I was checking out, there was an Italian from New York standing in line next to us. He is a regular for Elvis week but he wife won’t come with him anymore. He was there with 3 other guys from New York. I said something about the huge TCB ring he had on his finger. He told me that Elvis’ jeweler had made it and also pointed to a TCB necklace around his neck. He mentioned he had picked up a real estate magazine and noticed the low prices of some of the houses in the black neighborhoods in Memphis. It was funny because whenever he would say the word “black” he would say it real softly. Most of the people working in the gift shops are black and all of the women at the counter where we were checking out were black. He was trying his best not to offend the women at the counter. But it was odd to hear this man who usually spoke with a loud voice bring the volume down for the occasional word in a way that drew even more attention to what he was talking about.
When we left this gift shop, we noticed a crowd gathering around the Sirius Radio studio at the visitor’s center. This usually meant they were interviewing a celebrity. As we walked up, we discovered that Priscilla Presley was being interview by George Klein, Memphis personality and member of Elvis’ Memphis Mafia. Tina was able to get in close enough to see, but the glass on the studio window prevented her from getting a good picture.
We proceeded to the airplane exhibit. The planes had been in the news earlier in the month because the company that owns them is currently in negotiations with Graceland. There is a possibility that they might be moved and fans are upset. I just considered that this might be our last opportunity to see them. I asked the Graceland employee on the larger plane how much longer they would be there. She had no idea what I was talking about.
The gift shop next to the planes has always specialized in CDs, records and videos of Elvis. They have always had a small number of 45’s. In addition to the CDs you can find anywhere else that still carries music, they have several CD’s that are exclusive to Graceland. These are usually recordings of live performances from probably any of Elvis’ tours and runs at Las Vegas during the 1970’s. There have been changes to this store since the previous year. They have greatly reduced their inventory of CDs and are using the floor space for shirts and other types of Elvis swag.
After a trip to the car to drop off our purchases, we went to the tent with the non-stop Elvis performers. This is always a highlight of every vigil trip. The interesting people to watch and talk to are more concentrated in this area of Graceland than anywhere else. I ran into Robert Pooran, the Indian Elvis tribute artist from Canada that I see each year. I asked him if he had performed and he said they had him on earlier in the week. It seems like there is controversy over the way the people who coordinate the performers do their scheduling. The tribute artists would like to get the prime spots on the day of the candlelight vigil but supposedly the people coordinating the event save those times for the people they like the most. I have seen Robert perform on vigil day before, but it’s been many years.
It seems like they have upped their game for performers. In years past, I have seen women perform that looked and sounded nothing like Elvis. I have seen guys that looked more like Meatloaf or sounded more like Don Ho than Elvis. For the most part, the guys they have performing now look and sound more like Elvis than ever before. Or at least they look and sound like you would expect an Elvis Tribute Artist to look and sound. This is the part of the trip that seems to fascinate my friend Nick the most. The genuine love that many of the ladies in the audience have for Elvis is in some strange way transferred over to an affection for these performers pretending to be him. In many cases, they have very little of the appeal of Elvis. Probably the most bizarre part of this ritual is when these impersonators sing the love songs and give out scarves to the ladies in the crowd. It is beyond me to understand why an unattractive old lady would want a scarf and kiss from a bad singer with unfashionable sideburns and an odd outfit. At times it comes across as an unfortunate combination that turns up in the world’s oddest game of spin-the-bottle. You don’t know whether to take pictures or turn your head in horror. The performer that looked like Louis C.K. was a great example. This guy shared the stage with another performer that was younger with Elvis hair and sideburns. The young guy had a great voice and interacted with the crowd well. But he was wearing jeans and a t-shirt that had a picture of Elvis in a karate outfit. It also said “Elvis kick my ass back in ’72.” The Louis C.K. Elvis didn’t try to do anything to look like Elvis. He was dressed more like the fat friend in a 60’s beach party movie. He wore a goofy hat. But he was probably one of the best singers we heard that day. And when it came time to do the ballads, he handed out scarves and kisses like the rest of the Elvi. But it was really hot and at one point, he started to use the scarf to really towel off. He realized what he was doing when the crowd started giggling. Then he went all out and started using it as a towel, even lifting his shirt and wiping off his body with this scarf. And he still gave out the scarf. I will admit that this is the first time I’ve ever seen any of the women in the crowd sit down to avoid getting one of these scarves.
The best performer that we saw was Dean Z. He was the winner of the Tribute artist contest last year and we had seen him then. Tina had friended Dean and his girlfriend after last year’s Elvis Week. We knew that he was performing at 4:30 and we made sure we were at the tent early so Tina could talk to him before he went on. During his performance, I considered how much the crowd has changed over the years. The first year, I counted the number of Elvis tattoos I saw and the number was less than 10. I think that many of the tattoos that I saw that year were temporary. This year, I just saw more tattoos period. I don’t know that any of the Elvis tattoos that I saw were temporary.
It was also during this time that I saw Brandon, the kid from Chicago that I had met for the first time last year. He was wearing a gold lame outfit this year. I got my picture made with him again this year. He had grown significantly. When we talked to his mother, he was another performer that wasn’t happy with the scheduling at the tent.
You very rarely see anyone in a jumpsuit on vigil days anymore other than little kids. The ones that do would stand out even if everyone wore jumpsuits. The tall blond with the tall hair in a jumpsuit that took a deep plunge in front was hard not to notice. Then there was the old man in the red and blue jumpsuit with hair that was thinning at a slightly faster rate than his teeth. He seemed to be a little physically and emotionally fragile and his wife stayed close by to assure that no one harassed him. I had seen him the year before. I talked to him and told him how good it was to see him again this year.
We stopped at the visitors’ center to pick up candles before we went to get in line. While we were there, I went to look at some of the flyers about Elvis week that were on a table. A lady from Arkansas was standing near the table. She showed me the cup she had gotten at the Rockabilly Café. She told me that if you were an insider, you could get free refills all day. I told her that we were insiders and flashed my VIP tag. She was a regular at Elvis Week. She told us that there were several years when her kids were getting started in college and money was tight that she wasn’t able to come. When I was talking to her, I was standing between two tables with Elvis information. A couple of women from Canada who spoke only broken English started asking me about the candlelight vigil. I think they thought I worked there. I was able to give them the information they wanted, going into details about what had happened in earlier years. I had shared this information with several people that we ran into all day. I was definitely an insider whether I liked it or not.
We had a good place in line during the candlelight vigil. The people behind us in line were a brother and sister from California. They seemed to be about my age. This was their first trip to Graceland. It was another situation where people scheduled a trip to Graceland not knowing they were coming during Elvis week. At the same time, they were Elvis fans that described this as a “Trip of a lifetime”. The couple across the rope from us in line were there for their 5th Candlelight vigil from Pittsburgh. The group in front of us were from Virginia and had also been to several vigils. One of the ladies had cute sneakers with Elvis decals on them. The interesting stories from the line this year didn’t come from these people’s stories but from the other activities going on. There was unusually pleasant for Memphis in August. You would think that the number medical emergencies would be fewer than in years past. The year that it was so hot that people were dying, I didn’t stay for the Vigil ceremony. I had seen too many people be carted off that year. I was concerned for my health. But not this year. It was really nice out. So I was surprised to see EMTs coming into the line during the vigil to tend to people. I had never seen them do this before. At one point, there was a fire truck and a paramedic vehicle at one end of the road where it was blocked off. I had never seen that before. In the line, I walked by at least two women that were being tended to by staff. That was not the only thing that was new during the vigil. There has always been the feel of a family gathering at the vigil. Everyone is nice. The temperature wasn’t hot to make people more on edge. But for some reason, a couple of guys in the line ahead of us got into a fight. One of the men hit the other and one of them left. It wasn’t a big scuffle but it was unusual for a candlelight vigil.
The crowd looked bigger than last year but smaller than the 5 and 10 year anniversaries. There seemed to be fewer flowers and tributes lining the walkway up to the meditation gardens. I had gotten a second candle when we walked through the gates. I knew that many years, one candle wouldn’t make it all the way to the gravesite. The candles that they gave us at the visitors were tall and skinner that any other year. They also gave me a cardboard circle to go around it to protect my hand. The candle they gave me at the gates was shorter and fatter. It was in a plastic candle holder. A couple of years back, Nick had one of these holders catch on fire as we were leaving the gardens. Nick and Tina didn’t get new candles at the gate and were almost out at we got near the meditation gardens. I swapped to my original candle and gave Nick the candle that I got at the gate. There was an old lady coming down a ramp from the gardens and it looked like she needed help walking down. I stepped up to hold her arm as she walked down. She said thanks and said she was about to spill her wax. I looked down at the plastic candle holder in her hand. It looked like that candle had completely melted and the wick was in a pool of wax in the middle of the holder. It looked like it could go up in flames any minute just like Nick’s had a couple of years before. Her husband told her she needed to blow it out which she did reluctantly.
When we returned to the street, we found Dean Z. and listened to him sing a bit more. It was during this time that I saw security escorting someone away from the crowd. I didn’t see what he had done but I think it was something different from putting bacon on the grave. They walked quietly beside him through the crowd and watched him as he continued beyond the barricades blocking the road. When we were looking at shrines in the road, I met a lady from St. Louis. I asked her how many years she had been coming and she said this was her 13th year straight. Exactly the same as me.
It was time for the insiders to return to Jackson. Before we left the property, we returned to the Rockabilly Café to get our picture taken in the John Stamos booth. When we got there, a lady was sitting in the booth waiting for friends. When she agreed to get up and take our picture, she told us that John Stamos had actually sat in that booth. I wonder about John Denver?
Singer, Songwriter, Entertainer, Storyteller