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Elvis Is The Titanic

By Julie Wiskirchen

I voted for the fat Elvis stamp, and I'm not ashamed. There's something about the excessive Elvis that I find irresistible. The rest of you can have the handsome kid offering to be your teddy bear. I'll take the bloated, sweaty, nocturnal, police badge-collecting lounge singer who feared our collective suspicious mind.

I was five years old when Elvis died. I felt the loss since my grandmother was an Elvis fan and she'd taught me the words to "Hound Dog." I convinced my Mom to buy me a commemorative T-shirt. At the T-shirt shop, I picked out a fab iron-on of a jump-suited 70's Elvis in concert with the slogan: "The King Lives On." The T-shirt shop employee affixed the iron-on to a white T-shirt with blue ringer sleeves. The shirt was still warm from the steam press when I wore it the next day to kindergarten and proudly showed it off to my teacher, but she wasn't impressed. And the other kids didn't share my pain. I thought I was alone in my mourning.

Twenty years later, I found the community that was lacking in my kindergarten classroom. Accompanied by Chrissy, my best friend (since kindergarten, ironically), I went to Memphis for the 20th anniversary celebration of Elvis' death, officially called "Elvis Week," A.K.A. "Death Week."

On Thursday, August 14th, 1997 we drove from our posh accomodations at the East Memphis Motel 6 to Graceland. We spent about an hour stuck in traffic and searching for parking. Eventually, we resorted to paying $5 to park in a muddy field near the Graceland Crossing strip mall that houses three Elvis gift shops and the Hound Dog cafe. A large tent occupied the strip mall parking lot and Elvis impersonators were performing under it. We went straight to the visitors center to pick up our tour tickets which we had reserved in advance. We had some time to kill, so we browsed through the official Graceland gift shops and checked out the display of children's artwork in the visitors center. The schools had contests for Elvis art and the winners were displayed.

This was my fourth time taking the Graceland tour. Some would view that as excessive but there was a specific reason to take it this year. For the first time, we were allowed to view the first floor bedroom where Elvis' parents used to stay. The bedroom was a sight to behold, with its purple and white color scheme. They've changed the tour to one of those wear-headphones-and-listen- to-the-tour-guide-in-your head experiences and I really don't like it. It's touring in a vacuum. You get no chance to fraternize with fellow Elvis fans because you're too busy straining to hear every word of Priscilla's anecdotes. However, it sort of makes it all worthwhile when Priscilla talks about Elvis insisting on having meatloaf for dinner every night for a month and how she finally had to ask the cook to prepare something else for her.

At the end of the tour, we ditched our headphones and spent some time in meditation garden. Elvis' grave was heaped with stuffed animals and flowers. Many fan clubs and individuals had placed elaborate floral displays around the grave and on the walkway leading from the house to the garden. The photo at the top of this page should give you some idea of the outpouring -- check out the gold Eiffel tower created by the French fan club (upper right). Photographers and reporters ringed the grave and when an Australian fan club member behind us placed a koala on the grave, tons of flashbulbs went off.

After the tour, we browsed through the truly schlocky shops in the Graceland Crossing strip mall. The official Graceland shops and these shops carry some of the same merchandise and their prices are comparable, but the strip mall shops have the really tacky stuff. The shelves had been picked clean, except for a couple of velvet paintings and decoupaged guitar-shaped wooden clocks. Fans and impersonators clogged the aisles like peanut butter and mashed banana in Elvis' intestines. It got really claustrophobic. We had to leave.

We drove to the Graceland Ramada Inn to attend a fan fair. We paid $3 to look at Elvis memorabilia that we couldn't afford. A woman with a book to peddle accosted us and insisted on telling us about how she achieved her lifelong goal of meeting Elvis. She became a Vegas showgirl--it was just that simple. She swore we'd love the intimate details about her sex life with Elvis, as revealed in her book. We passed.

We decided to go for an early dinner at the newly opened theme restaurant Elvis Presley's Memphis, located on Beale St. Upon arrival, we had to wait for over an hour outside in the oppressive Memphis heat. Then we reached the maitre'd who took our name and gave us a beeper that would vibrate when our table was ready. Inside, all we wanted to do was sink into the couch and soak up the air conditioning, but a family straight outta Deliverance harangued us. They didn't understand the concept of the beeper. The father kept squeezing it tight, afraid he'd be unable to detect the vibrations. I wondered how they'd eat when they did get a table, since they seemed to have one tooth between the three of them. I guessed that they must pass the tooth back and forth, like Medusa and her sisters pass their shared eyeball in the Perseus myth. After another hour, we got a table on the second level, overlooking the stage and near a glass case containing a jumpsuit. I ordered a scrumptious peanut butter and banana sandwich--Elvis' favorite and the cheapest thing on the menu. We finished our meals and then browsed through the memorabilia, including a pool table that used to be in Graceland. Supposedly, Elvis and the Beatles once played on that table. If only that eight ball could talk.

On Friday, we visited Kang Rhee's karate studio for a free tour and demonstration by Kang Rhee, Elvis' former instructor. An aging southern belle greeted us and said we must wait for the arrival of a busload of Japanese tourists. To kill time, we looked at the wall of photos that depicted Elvis in various karate poses. The photos were for sale, of course, along with TCB (Elvis' motto--Taking Care of Business in a Flash) patches like Elvis wore on his uniform. The Japanese arrived and processed in single-file order, sitting along the edge of the studio. Mr. Rhee appeared from behind a beaded curtain and told us anecdotes about life with Elvis, such as the time Elvis bought him a Cadillac and the time the King went to do a high kick and split his pants. He seemed very grateful for his time with Elvis. The Japanese tourists listened quietly and many videotaped the presentation. Mr. Rhee gave a brief demonstration and then invited us back to his office, where we posed for photos draped in Elvis' XXL karate belt.

We drove to Libertyland, a deserted, run-down theme park, to ride Elvis' favorite roller coaster, the Zippin Pippin. It's one of the oldest wooden roller coasters in the country that's still operating and it provides the lift-you-out-of-your-seat thrills you can't get on padded modern coasters. A plaque at the entrance to the coaster states that Elvis rented the theme park one night just a couple of weeks before his death. He showed up after midnight and rode the Pippin continuously for over an hour. After experiencing the jarring ride, I wondered if the coroner missed a contributing factor to Elvis' death.

The climax of Elvis Week, the Candlelight Vigil, was slated to begin at 9:00 P.M. that Friday. We arrived around 8:00 P.M and joined the line that was already snaking up and down over a three block area of Elvis Presley Blvd. The street had been closed to traffic for the night. Many people sat on blankets or in lawn chairs along the street and near the visitors center. In front of us in line, there were two female college students from CA and one of their mothers, who had the foresight to bring her knitting. We realized we were in for a long wait. Behind us, three generations of Elvis fans -- grandma, mom, and daughter -- waited patiently.

Behind them, three Elvis impersonators--old Elvis (see photo of him sitting on the curb), young Elvis, and Japanese Elvis entertained the crowd, harmonizing on Elvis' gospel favorites. The mood was respectful and celebratory. The opening ceremony began shortly after 9:00 P.M. but we were too far away to hear it. We raised our candles and lit them when everyone else did. Then we watched as people slowly began to process up the walk and toward the mansion. The Candlelight Vigil protocol brochure instructed vigil-goers to form a single-file line, keep moving, and resist the urge to pause at the grave. Apparently, no-one paid attention or else they couldn't read, because the line barely moved. Our feet begged for mercy. We took breaks and sat on the curbs or the street.

Around midnight, the CA girls gave up, truly bitter about the wait. Chrissy and I remained resolute, shifting our weight from foot to foot, bolstered by the enthusiasm of the singing Elvii behind us. We got excited when we reached the grafittied Graceland wall, which gave us something to read and something to lean on. Around 1:30 A.M. we reached the gates and lit our candles off the torches held by Graceland staff. We filed past the honor guard of fan club members whose somber faces glowed in the light of their candles. We processed up the winding drive and around the house to the meditation garden. There seemed to be twice as many floral displays as yesterday, including a four foot pile of roses at the foot of Elvis' grave. Some women were weeping. Their men pushed them along. The somber mood was broken by the Graceland employees who kept whispering "keep the line moving." It was 2:30 A.M. when we left the graveside, having spent less than a minute there after waiting six and a half hours for the privilege. My feet felt like bloody stumps.

Was it worth it? I wondered. I caught myself thinking, "If Elvis died for my sins, the least I can do is offer up a little suffering to pay my respects." The solemnity of the event was more than a little creepy. But, in the end, I didn't feel it was wholly sacrilegious, nor did I feel that Elvis had been elevated to godlike status. I think Elvis Week is about nostalgia and community. It's a chance for the bored housewife to tell people about the time she went to a concert and Elvis threw her his sweaty scarf and have listeners who actually care. It's a chance for the town freak who still wears long sideburns and curls his lip to find thousands like himself. And it's a chance for a jaded gen-xer to declare, "I voted for the fat Elvis stamp and I'm not ashamed" and hear a chorus of "Amens."

The next morning, before leaving Memphis, we took in the Titanic exhibit at the Pyramid. We went on another headphone-guided tour, saw artifacts from the ship, and learned the details of the enduring accident. It was all very moving and it helped me sythesize my Elvis Week experiences. The unsinkable sometimes sink. Stars fall out of the sky. Elvis is the Titanic.

Elvis, Elvis Presley, and Graceland are Registered Trademarks of Elvis Presley Enterprises, Inc. Copyright 1996 E.P.E., Inc. and are in no way associated or represented on or by these pages. Every American should visit Graceland and my travelogue is only intended to whet your appetite for the religious experience.

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