Elvis Week 2000: Fans Hold Candlelight Vigil

Presley graveside ceremony unfolds at Graceland; across town, Pearl Jam tip hat to the King.

[Editor's Note: Elvis Week 2000 marks the 23rd anniversary of the passing of the King of Rock 'n' Roll. The week surrounding Aug. 16 has evolved into an annual festival in Memphis, Tenn., where thousands of Elvis fans converge to celebrate his life and music. Sonicnet.com will be in Memphis all week to report on this unique memorial.]

MEMPHIS, Tenn. — Throughout Elvis Week 2000, fans from around the globe dance, sing and, in general, celebrate the life and music of the King of Rock 'n' Roll, but the annual candlelight vigil Tuesday lent a more somber note as they honored his passing.

It was a more subdued gathering, as the block of Elvis Presley Boulevard in front of Graceland was closed by the police early in the evening to clear the way for the faithful who gathered to carry candles and leave flowers at the grave of the King.

"I'm here because I may never get the chance again," said Jeff Swain of Buffalo, N.Y. Swain, a thirtysomething Elvis Presley impersonator, saved money for more than a year for his and his wife's first trip to Memphis. "It puts chills down my back," he said. "Elvis was the icon of America. He showed a generation that love is real."

A full moon hung over the mansion as a solemn voice over the PA system asked visitors to "be respectful." A flier handed out by Graceland ushers begged newcomers to "please avoid loud talking or laughter or any other behavior that might be offensive to, or unappreciated by, those who take this tribute seriously."

The announcer then called out to the crowd: "Who is the greatest entertainer who ever drew a breath?" And the crowd unanimously cheered, "Elvis!"

Return Visitors

Lars Handy, 30, from Dallas, came to get his picture taken with Elvis impersonators. "I'm up to about 493," Handy said, showing off the latest snapshots on his digital camera. "This is my 10th year here."

Sixtysomething Pat Schaefer said this is her 21st consecutive year at the vigil. She said she returns year after year to reunite with friends.

Dot Taylor, 75, runs the Shelby County Rescue Squad tent at Graceland and has been working the vigils since the very beginning. She said the main problem has been mosquito bites — "We raise our Memphis mosquitoes extra tough." Occasionally, she said, they get a fan who gets too emotional and "goes to another planet for a while."

"I threaten them with Gatorade," she said, laughing. "That'll either kill or cure them."

"Elvis loved Gatorade, you know," she added.

The procession began as two men carrying torches made their way up the driveway from the gates and around to the meditation garden where Elvis is buried. Bright lights from TV camera crews illuminated the flowers and homemade offerings that are left daily by visitors to Graceland.

Next came a long line of Presley fans bearing lit candles and moving slowly past the graves of Presley, his father, Vernon, his mother, Gladys, and his grandmother Minnie.

Elvis In A New Age, Vedder In Disguise

Memphis residents Richard Davis, Maryann Johnson and Amanda Akins, all 19 years old, were there for the first time. Johnson said she loves Elvis — "He was really hot," she said, "when he was young, not old and fat."

Age and weight didn't seem to matter to Marlene Karause, 23, from Germany, and her friend Wendy Gonzalez, 20, from Spain, who flew in for the celebration. "This is my third time," Karause said. "My mother was a big fan. I was 13 when they first brought me to see Graceland."

"Some people make fun of us," said Rosie Gracker, 55, from Arkansas. "But he really did change our lives, and no one can take that away from us."

Elvis-presley.com, the official Elvis Web site, offered RealVideo viewers around the world a chance to watch the vigil live over the Internet.

"We are very excited about the new Web site and 'Vigilcast' taking Elvis into the 21st century," said Jack Soden, CEO of Elvis Presley Enterprises, in a statement. "Web technology provides a global reach to this new generation giving them unlimited opportunity to explore Elvis, his music, his history and Graceland."

Meanwhile, across town, an entirely different kind of tribute — if a short one — took place. Early in Pearl Jam's concert at the Pyramid, the group performed Presley's "Can't Help Falling in Love" (RealAudio excerpt of Presley's version), and singer Eddie Vedder donned a pair of chromed and louvered Elvis-style sunglasses.