The shirts matched in style but the backs identified which generation each member of this family of Elvis fans was from. A unique idea that I had never seen in my years at Graceland. After that, I asked if I could get a picture of the fronts of their shirts. While I was getting this picture, they told me there were two other women in their group somewhere. I said I would try to get a picture of them if I ran into them.
There was something different in the air this year during Elvis week. There was a sense of transition and change. New things are about to happen at Graceland. New things are happening now. Elvis week is changing. Some of this is being driven by Elvis Presley Enterprises. Some of it is with the fans. Some of it was just me. During a normal Elvis week, I go to the candlelight vigil on the 15th, spend all day on the 16th recovering from the trip and writing an essay like this one. I like to write while the trip is fresh on my mind. It is easier to remember where people are from and conversations with strangers when they happened the day before. This year I spent the 16th preparing to leave the country. I would be leaving for business in Vietnam on the 17th. I would not have an opportunity recount my Elvis week saga until a week after it happened. I would have to depend on extensive notes and multiple photos to spur my memory. I had committed myself this year to returning to the original vision of what I do during Elvis week. I wanted to talk to as many people as I possibly could and get lots of pictures. The last few years, I’ve taken more friends with me for the trip. It’s fun to have these people along but I felt like I was giving more attention to my group and less to the people around us. The new encounters are what make this trip special and I was ready to make that happen. In addition to committing to taking more pictures, I would actively pursue a picture with anybody wearing a jumpsuit or dressed in any way like Elvis. Because I didn’t get a picture of the guy with the Elvis hair, puffy gold shirt, shorts, and black, ankle-high boots with black socks, I cannot count myself completely successful. But at least someone in my group did get a photo of him. And I did make an honest effort to get a photo with him where in recent years, I wouldn’t have always gone for a picture with a guy like that.
One of the changes for this year was a larger group. This was the third year in a row for my friend Tina to join me on the trip. Tina’s sister, Jenny, came in from Louisiana to join us. Jenny had visited Graceland before but this was her first candlelight vigil Rounding out the group was my friend David. David grew up in Memphis and had been to Graceland on a candlelight vigil night before, but it was part of a high school class reunion after party. He had never seen the ceremony, never done the full immersion experience that a trip with me provides. Our plans included the Platinum tour featuring the house, and all exhibits excluding the planes and no VIP access. Going non-VIP was probably a good idea this year. While we were purchasing our tickets, I saw someone with a VIP tag complaining about the length of the VIP access line for the mansion tour. He told the lady in the ticket booth, “I feel like I’ve been taken.” I heard her make some sort of offer to downgrade his tickets to a lesser package to which he replied, “that will just be starting over and put me in worse shape than what I am!”
Unhappy people seemed to be the exception to the rule. Most of the people I talked to weren’t wearing jumpsuits or fan club shirts. Most of their plans to visit Graceland were completely unassociated with Elvis week or the Candlelight vigil. They were there for weekend excursions. Even the people from foreign countries were there on side trips instead of the “Graceland as primary destination” trip. The young, Brazilian couple who sat behind us on the bus from the Mansion to the Welcome Center were here to play soccer. They were not Elvis fans. Neither was the other young couple that was in Memphis on a daytrip. They came to tour the mansion and had no intentions of staying for any candlelight vigil. Maybe they would have put their visit off for a week if they had known what was going on that day.
But most of the people that we encountered were there for Elvis week. I met a family from Argentina because of their Argentina Elvis shirts. It was the man’s third Graceland trip, the woman’s second trip and their child’s first trip. I talk to the two guys from Miami because their Elvis jumpsuit shirts matched the one that my family had gotten for me last year for Father’s Day. It wasn’t an exact match; their shirts had been bedazzled by a girlfriend. This was their 27th year to come to Elvis week. The family from England was there for their first time and had many questions about the candlelight vigil. Their oldest son was 9, which is the same age my son was when I took him to Graceland. Their youngest son was 6 and they wondered how their kids would make it during the vigil. I established a pattern of trying to get a picture with anyone that I talked to. I wasn’t taking notes like I had last year and the delay before I could write anything about the trip meant that details about some of the meetings would be lost forever.
We didn’t pose with the set of kids in more sophisticated Halloween costumes but we did get a picture of them posing with Kid Rock. Seeing Kid Rock mingling in the crowd was the first time I had seen a non-Elvis celebrity during Elvis Week. Sometimes you see people wearing things that they just shouldn’t be wearing. There are some of these that fall into the “People of Walmart” category that are good for a laugh. Then there are some people that you wish someone had not let them go out of the house dressed that way. You feel bad about laughing at them but regardless of how pitiful the situation, you can’t help but be amused. I’m sure that the young man with special needs was in heaven to be wearing his ill-fitting jumpsuit at Graceland during Elvis week. It was unfortunate that the jumpsuit had a V-neck that opened all the way down to just slightly above his navel. It was even more unfortunate that he had a tan line from another V-neck shirt that didn’t plunge quite as low.
This kid was not the only person getting inappropriate laughs this year. An older man waiting in line for the vigil was entertaining the crowd around him by singing along with Elvis and dancing like no one was looking. But everyone was looking. The applause of the crowd around him was what drew me to go and get video footage. While shooting footage of one of his performances, I struck up a conversation with a couple of ladies in line. This conversation was the type I usually remember in detail but my attention was split between them and the dancing man. My attention was slowly drawn more to the dancing man because he looked like he might need medical attention. The show was over and the crowd became concerned about his physical well-being. Was he drunk? Did he have mental issues? Was anyone there with him? The fun decreased as our concern increased. He got some rest and would dance again later in the evening. But it wouldn’t be the same.
People in jumpsuits was one of the changes in the air this year. We had been told in recent years that they were discouraging the jumpsuits on the day of the candlelight vigil. This was most noticeable among the performers at the tent. But it seemed like this year the jumpsuit was being accepted again if not outright embraced. When I was getting my picture with the guy in the most professional jumpsuit, he asked David to make sure he got the belt in the picture. Another change in the area around the tent with the non-stop Elvis impersonators was beer. In the past, they’ve had a beer concession at the tent but it was gone this year. The restaurant next to the Elvis tent had a new, prominently displayed sign that said you couldn’t leave the restaurant with beer. I’m not sure what prompted the change in policy. It could be that they are trying to change the environment in a way to be perceived as more family friendly. It could be that they had issues with drunks they are trying to address. It could be that the people that ran the concession didn’t want to return this year. Regardless of the reason, beer policy was changing at Graceland and I’m sure this made a difference in the crowd.
Change was also present on the tour but not so much for content but for me. This was the first time that I’ve done the tour in back-to-back years. The content of the tour was not that new for me. I would have to take a different approach if it was going to entertain this year. Last year was the year of the selfie as a way of keeping from just taking pictures around the mansion that everyone else takes. This year, I wanted to take pictures that no one else took. My first opportunity to do this was on the front steps of the mansion. We were greeted by a very pleasant tour guide named Erma. Erma gave us the standard welcome and instructions about photos and movement through the house. I decided that I needed a selfie with Erma. And I got it. As we continued through the house, I continued to take selfies that probably look very similar to the ones I took last year. When I got to the dining room, I decided to take a picture of myself in the mirrored wall surrounding a photo of Priscilla and Lisa Marie. Later in the tour, we were standing next to a door in the hall between the kitchen and the stairwell to the basement. I decided to check the door to see if it was locked. It was. Then I took a picture of the doorknob. Even later, we were standing in a paneled hallway leading to the stairs going up to the Jungle Room. There was a painting of a ship in a harbor. There is nothing special about that painting. I’m willing to bet that very few photos of this painting have been intentionally taken with the painting as a subject of the photo. I took a selfie with the painting. Even later I was standing at the bottom of the stairwell up to the Jungle Room and noticed the shag carpet on the wall. I thought a selfie with this carpet in the background would be great. It might even look like I was lying down.
There were changes that I had nothing to do with. Last year, the Archive Studio exhibit was new and I thought it was a great idea. They had a presentation that lasted about 30 minutes that had video and a chance to show a very small sampling of the clothes and documents that didn’t fit into other exhibits. It seemed like something that could vary and change more frequently than the other exhibits that needed a theme. This year, they would show a 15 minute video and let us go. There seemed to be more people going through than last year. Maybe they changed the tour packages to include this for more people. And with the increase of people for Elvis Week, maybe this necessitated a change in the program to get people through more quickly. I understand the need for this change but not all change is good.
We also changed where we ate this year. After the tour, we had a limited about of time before we would need to get in line for the vigil. We wanted to be able to spend some time around the Elvis tent at the same time. We wanted to get food to go from the restaurant near the Elvis tent and go out and watch. It was confusing enough in the restaurant that we could not figure out how to get food ordered to go. We had noticed a food truck outside and that was easy to understand so we went there. While we were standing in line, we found out they ran out of hamburgers. Much to Tina’s dismay, we were soon told they were out of chicken fingers. I scanned the menu for something that I would be ok to eat that I didn’t think many people would order. I decided on the fish sandwich but I was in the back of the line. David wanted BBQ nachos but they were out of BBQ. Tina and Jenny ordered hot dogs while David and I got fish sandwiches.
The highlight of the trip is usually the line for the vigil and this year was no exception. There was a young couple in line behind us from St. Louis. He was the big Elvis fan in the family. They had been to Graceland before but never for the candlelight vigil. I really enjoyed talking to this couple. I believe the man told me that Elvis died the year before he was born. This amazes me and speaks to Elvis’ talent and the continuing marketability of his music and films. He is one of those few people that stands out as really special.
Two other people ended up between me and the rest of my party. After a while, Tina introduced me to one of the ladies and said she was a hula instructor. Tina knew that I would be fascinated with a hula instructor. She was right. It’s not every day that you run into a hula instructor from Cleveland (that’s right, Cleveland), who is a founding member of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and is also into Reiki (if you don’t know what that is, I suggest you Google it right now).
Change was also in the air for the candlelight vigil ceremony. Two years ago, Priscilla and Lisa Marie made an appearance and spoke to the crowd during the ceremony. Priscilla was at Graceland last year but didn’t make an appearance during the vigil. This year, they were both back and participating in a way that was new. After the Elvis Country Fan Club usually conducts the ceremony, they start letting fans come through the gates, lighting their candles from torches lit by the eternal flame at the gravesite. This year, they played music after the readings of the ceremony while Lisa Marie, accompanied by her twin daughters, brought the torch from the gravesite. She cast an eerie, ghostly image wearing a long white dress with her daughters in similar white dresses. She wore her hair long. Lisa Marie's husband and Priscilla join them at the podium. Priscilla spoke and then Lisa Marie stepped up to the mike. She paused before she spoke, giving someone in the crowd enough time to shout out, “We love you, Lisa!” She was tentative as she replied, “I love you too.”
I think Lisa Marie really struggles with her feelings toward her father’s fans. I think this is why she has been out of the spotlight so much during the previous years during Elvis Week. My mom passed away 10 years ago and I miss her very much but it would be odd for me if there were a group of people who held a ceremony in honor of her every year on the anniversary of her death. With the solemnness of the ceremony, it’s almost like a yearly funeral service. And you don’t really know what the relationships were like in that family when he died. Her parents were divorced and she lived with her mother. That environment is tough on a family when you aren’t in the public spotlight. Earlier in the day, we had been in the “Sincerely Elvis” exhibit hall. I had mentioned to David that the first time I took the tour, they had furniture and other items from Lisa Marie’s bedroom on display there. Your bedroom was on display for millions of your father’s fans to see. No wonder complete strangers speak to her like they know her. I’m sure that she appreciates her father’s fans. I know she has to be grateful for their love for her father and the fact that their devotion and money gave her a lifestyle she would have otherwise been without. I think the change that was in the air could be Lisa Marie embracing her father’s legacy as she prepares to turn this celebration into something that makes her more comfortable. If this is what she is doing, I wish her well.
After the vigil ceremony, we went back to visit gift shops. Tina wanted to buy her son a souvenir. In the previous years, she had bought her son the ’68 Comeback Special Mr. Potato Head and the Blue Hawaii Mr. Potato Head. She wanted to get him the Mr. Potato Head in a jumpsuit. While the jumpsuit may have been back at the Elvis tent, the Elvis Jumpsuit Mr. Potato Head was out of fashion at the gift shops. As a matter of fact, Mr. Potato Head was hard to find at all at the gift shops. The only one they were carrying was the ’68 Comeback Special model and even that was hard to find. When Tina was checking out with her alternate gift purchase, we asked the lady at the register how late the gift shops would be open. I had never shopped in them after the vigil so I had no idea. She told us probably 2 AM.
We left well before 2 AM and made a stop at Waffle House. This is an occasional Elvis Week tradition for me. It was especially desirable this year because we didn’t get much during the earlier meal. Everyone was at least a little hungry. When we were done eating, we went to the counter to pay. I was last in line. There were three black ladies in the booth next to the checkout. One of them had a rainbow colored dress that caught my eye. She also had on a light sweater. When I gave her a second look, I realized that it wasn’t a dress but just a top. A bikini top. After midnight at Waffle House. It was August but I don’t think she had been to a late night pool party. I think her friends would have been in swimwear too. I didn’t get a good look at any of the other women’s outfits to tell exactly what they were wearing. The lady sitting next to bikini woman was wearing something that exposed much cleavage but her outfit blended in better with her skin tone. I would have had to stare even more that I was to have been able to make out what she was wearing. And then it might have gotten weird. When I was telling my friends about this on the way back to the car, had not seen the bikini woman and asked why she was wearing it. I said I thought she was advertising. I was afraid that if I stared any more, she might think I was interested in buying. And I wasn’t.
Singer, Songwriter, Entertainer, Storyteller