Monday, August 16, 2010

Elvis Week

When I was 16, I started working at Graceland, the famed Memphis home of Elvis Aaron Presley. What began as kind of a joke ended up being by far the most rewarding and interesting job of my life. Back before the pre-recorded, stock tours visitors to the mansion listen to now, I was a tour guide at Graceland mansion and the accompanying attractions like Elvis's two airplanes, and the really awesome movie that plays in the plaza every 20 minutes. I've watched that movie around a thousand times, and I never got sick of it.

The biggest event of the year for Elvis Presley Enterprises (EPE) is Elvis Week, the extravaganza that brings in thousands of Elvis fans around the world to celebrate and mourn The King of Rock n' Roll. Elvis Week culminates with the Candlelight Vigil on the night of August 15, the night before Elvis died at his home. Tens of thousands of Elvis fans walk up the long driveway to Graceland and around to the grave sites of Elvis and his family on the side of the estate. To say that I was snarky about Elvis's hard-core fans when I started at Graceland is understating it; I wondered what kind of losers flew from Asia and Australia to stand in line for hours to file past a grave at a very specific hour. My attitude would soon change.

I had my first unusual siting during Elvis Week as I was walking from the employee parking lot up to the ornate gates of the mansion with my coworker. In Memphis, there are not many homeless people on the streets, and they definitely don't hang out in Whitehaven, the neighborhood where Graceland is. "Oh, Mike," I said. "That's so sad! Look at those homeless people sleeping outside the gates." Mike, a seasoned veteran, chuckled. "They're not homeless -- they're fans!" When I looked again, I saw that the family had an extension cord plugged into an outlet they found somewhere, and they were watching TV on the sidewalk like it was the most normal thing to do. That family, and many others, were camping out to be among the first people to ascend the hill during the Candlelight Vigil. In case you're planning a trip to Elvis Week, please note that no matter how early you camp out, if you are not affiliated with a registered Elvis fan club, you will be behind the thousands of official fan club members, so wear really comfortable shoes. Additionally, book your hotel room really early, or you'll end up commuting in from far out in Mississippi and Arkansas since every hotel room in Memphis and its close environs will have been sold out for 11 months.

As Elvis Week progressed, the elaborate floral arrangements you see above start to roll in from the fan clubs. There are so many of them that few get displayed, and the ones that are displayed on the driveway and at the grave site are rotated frequently to showcase others. I was new to this whole Elvis Week culture, and was a little intimidated at first by the Fans. I mean Fans with a capital "F": the hard-core, Elvis fans. They are easy to spot, as they are usually clothed head to toe in Elvis paraphernalia. Some, but not all, are middle aged and they literally come from all over the world and will eagerly tell you that they saved their money for years to make the journey to Memphis. Some come every year, like the haj. I was afraid the Fans would be really hard on me as a tour guide, or try to usurp my role. Nothing could be further from the truth. The Fans are frikkin' awesome. They are the nicest, most genuine people. They love EPE employees whom they believe are carrying on the King's life's work, and they are eager to show their appreciation. Accepting tips was strictly forbidden, so the fans would bring us roses or get us tickets to exclusive Elvis Week events that their fan club was hosting. Cool stuff like that.

As Elvis Week went on, God softened my heart to the Fans. How could it not be softened? I had hundreds of conversations with the Fans, and a theme became very clear: Elvis made their lives better. They loved Elvis as much for his philanthropy as for his music, and they were totally committed to charitable works and service in the name of the King. I don't know of any other entertainer who has had a similar effect on his or her fans. People are fanatical about many musicians, but how many times have you heard people say, "I work at a soup kitchen because Michael Jackson influenced me to help people in my community" or "I raised $10,000 for a charity because Lady Gaga made me realize the importance of doing my part to make the world a better place"? The Fans truly look up to Elvis and try hard to impart his generosity and charity in the ways they can. How can you not respect that? People often ascribe a religious fervor to Elvis Fandom, but they don't get it: they think that the religious undertones are veneration for Elvis's music. It's not. It's that call to service, to making the world a better place, that illuminates the fans and bonds them together. The Fans love of all things Elvis is critical, of course, but secondary.

My first year at Graceland I was eager to experience the Vigil for myself, so I volunteered to work the night of Aug. 15. I am so glad I did. It was truly overwhelming to see tens of thousands of people holding candles, making their way up the driveway all night to pay their respects at Elvis' graves. They cry. Elvis music plays all night on speakers. I cried. I drove home the next morning after being awake and on my feet for about 14 hours.

Today marks 33 years since Elvis died, and the fans are no less passionate now than they were in 1977 or in 1992-1994 when I worked at Graceland. In fact, 15,000 fans withstood Memphis's 118-degree heat index last night to walk up the driveway and pay their respects. Elvis, I was a doubter when I went to work at your house, but my admiration and respect for you grew during the two years I worked there. I came to revel in your entertainment and respect your commitment to your friends, to Memphis, and to the world at large. I once was lost, but now am found. Was blind, but now I see. Rest in peace, Elvis.

1 comment:

Judy said...

Beautiful thoughts beautifully expressed. You really get it. As a participant this past Sunday evening (08/15/2010), I was so impressed with the respect such a huge number of people showed to each other and to the environment. No pushing, no shoving, no littering. Not even a complaint about the frying pan temperatures! I also must add that the employees of EPE understand how important the fans are and work tirelessly to make the entire week a true tribute to Elvis's memory and his commitment to make the world a better place.