Pesky detail of Elvis' death won't mar 20th anniversary

Published Aug. 13, 1997|Updated Oct. 1, 2005

Elvis isn't dead.

He's here, life-size, in Kathie Bryson's room at the Days Inn on Elvis Presley Boulevard, just down the street from his old Graceland mansion.

He performs in the parking lot outside the Memories of Elvis gift shop. He's in his new theme restaurant on Beale Street, Elvis Presley's Memphis, where the menu includes his cherished fried peanut-butter and banana sandwiches, and at this week's auction at the opulent Peabody Hotel, where wealthy collectors will pay thousands for his old cars and stage capes.

He's in the sequin-suited impersonators who come in all shapes and colors, like "El Vez," the Mexican Elvis, who can drive devout Presley fans to new levels of apoplexy by crooning, "You Ain't Nothing but a Chihuahua."

He's in the alien-joke punch lines of Men In Black and pumping gas for Texaco in television commercials.

He's back in stores with a new record featuring rarities discovered, remarkably enough, just in time for the 20th anniversary of his death this Saturday.

And this weekend, for the first time since his death, Elvis is appearing in concert here at the Mid-South Coliseum, reunited with former bandmates via the magic of video technology. The top-priced $80 tickets are sold out.

Nearly two decades after his death, Elvis Presley is still a big deal. This week an estimated 75,000 fans and seekers have come bouncing into Graceland for the biggest-ever celebration of his life and music, filling hotels and campgrounds at this crossroads city of the American South.

"We're almost watching the rise of a new secular faith," said Alison Scott, head of the pop culture library at Bowling Green State University in Ohio. "It just astounds me, the level of persistent and growing interest, not just in Elvis as a performer but Elvis as an emblematic figure in which we invest almost sainthood."

That's no surprise to fans who belong to what they call the "Elvis World," some of whom have journeyed from Italy, Japan and Brazil to scrawl their names on the stone wall outside Graceland.

"He just had that attraction," said Marie Worley, 40, of Winder, Ga. "He grew up hard, like everybody else."

Worley stood at Graceland's gates for the first time this week, gazing at the white columns of the Southern colonial mansion. Suddenly, she seemed about to cry.

"I just fell in love with Elvis," she said, recalling her first sight of him in the movies. "I miss him."

Despite their common portrayal as older, overweight women with beehive hairdos, the fans who have gathered here for Elvis Week look a lot like America. There are children, people in wheelchairs and adults in their 30s who never even listened to Elvis until he was dead.

"We understand he was a very troubled person," said Beth Raftopoulos, 36, who with Kathie Bryson created an Elvis shrine, complete with a life-size plaster bust, in their room at the Days Inn. "It's sad to see the videos of his last years. But he still had the voice. His talent never left him."

Some older fans won't discuss the final years, when a fat, drug-addled Elvis was heard to sing Blue Christmas at a concert in May.

"I don't like to talk about the bad things," said Nancy Wilcox, here this week from Iowa. "I want to keep Elvis' memory alive for my granddaughter."

That remembrance has taken a pounding during two decades of satire aimed at a bloated, self-parodying singer who died in his bathroom here at age 42. And devoted Elvis fans don't like it a bit.

But most visitors have come for events such as Tuesday's dedication of the new Elvis statue on Beale Street, the reunion of associates and hangers-on from the Memphis Mafia, the book signings, poetry readings and endless free music. Fans can tour his old high school, chat with his former karate instructor or spend $100 for an authentic 1956 Elvis ankle bracelet at one of several memorabilia sales.

"I've pretty much resigned myself that he's dead," said Jim Digilio, here from New York. "There are friends, the girls, who think he's coming back in 2001."

Sociologists say Elvis' appeal endures because his story is woven into the American fabric. Today, Elvis sells about 4-million records a year. Graceland is the second-most visited home in America, after the White House, generating $20-million a year.

Karal Ann Marling, author of Graceland: Going Home with Elvis, says the king's death was just "an inconvenient detail." His story goes on without him.