Elvis Week is an island of nice in a sea of snark.
It will be around 100 degrees this week, but thousands of people from around the world will come to Memphis anyway, as they have every year since 1982, when Graceland opened as a tourist attraction.
No one will be talking about schools, Congress, the debt limit, unemployment, the stock market, or poverty. The mood is hugs, not hate. An Elvis Internet comment board runs to sweet sentiments (Zelda: "Before and after his time on this earth there has been no other like him") and warm seconds (Branka: "Zelda, I couldn't have not said it better, your words are PERFECT! thank you").
The signature event, the Candlelight Vigil on August 15th, requires everyone to simply stand still and be quiet for hours as they wait their turn to walk up the driveway to the gravesite and back. They will bond in memory of the singer who died in 1977 but whose music legacy lives on through Elvis fan clubs, Elvis license plates, Elvis tribute songs, and multimedia events like "Elvis Presley Live: The King in Concert" on August 13th at the Orpheum.
Every year is the anniversary of something Elvis. This is the 55th anniversary of "the year Elvis catapulted to superstardom": 1956. Next year will be a double dip: the 30th anniversary of Graceland's opening and the 35th anniversary of Elvis' death. Oh, and his 77th birthday too.
"The number of visitors (550,000, with a spike in anniversary years) has flattened out the last couple of years," said Kevin Kane, head of the Memphis Convention & Visitors Bureau. "They have to continue to reinvent themselves, and they know that."
Elvis and Graceland straddle the worlds of old media and new media. His fan clubs were the forerunners of Facebook friends. Elvis movies are popular at revivals, and singers who weren't born when he died sing his songs on American Idol and America's Got Talent. Elvis Presley Enterprises, fiercely protective of his image, has gone with the flow by co-opting the annual impersonators or "tribute artist" contest that used to be an independent event at a Holiday Inn near the airport. And if you want to write your name and message on the wall in front of Graceland, have at it. Thousands do it every year.
"They do an unbelievable job of reinventing the sizzle over and over again," Kane said. "Elvis Presley Enterprises has probably gotten more free press than any tourism entity in the country. I don't know how many more tricks are left in the bag before you have to write a really big check and focus on the physical plant."
Graceland and Whitehaven are an awkward fit. Most Elvis fans are white. Most Whitehaven residents are black. Elvis Presley Boulevard is a nondescript commercial street. Other than Graceland, its claim to fame is the top-grossing Krispy Kreme in the United States. It is a 15-minute drive to the downtown tourist attractions, the Mississippi River, and most of the bigger hotels. There are only five hotels in Memphis with more than 300 rooms, and the closest one to Graceland is at the airport. The Heartbreak Hotel on Elvis Presley Boulevard, which is not in the big five, is, however, number one in occupancy year after year.
"Graceland is limited in what they can do after hours other than private parties," Kane said. "In that location it is hard, other than the hotel, for them to become that 18-hour-a-day revenue-producing machine."
Harold Collins is the Memphis city councilman whose district includes Graceland. He also lives "a six-iron away" from the mansion. We are sitting in the lobby of the Heartbreak Hotel. An Elvis movie is playing on the flatscreen television above us. In it, there are scads of perky young women in shorts in a rustic setting, and Elvis is possibly a camp counselor. The volume is so high that we have to put our heads together like conspirators to hear anything.
The Heartbreak Hotel, Collins says, may not be long for this world, at least not in this incarnation. Once a Wilson World, one of Kemmons Wilson's chain of budget lodgings, it will be relocated across Elvis Presley Boulevard on a lush site next to the mansion. The Elvis Presley Museum and artifacts as well as Elvis' jet, the Lisa Marie, are also slated to be moved across the street, making room for new souvenir stores, a visitor's center, restaurants, and R.V. parking sites. The goal is to create a Graceland and Whitehaven after-dark experience that lasts beyond Elvis Week.
Collins describes a dramatically revamped Elvis Presley Boulevard from Winchester to Raines Road, roughly 1.2 miles in all. "At dusk, I would like to see cars go away," he said. "Maybe have some kind of train or trolley and pedestrians and bicycles."
He sees the number of visitors doubling to roughly 1.2 million. He is confident that the transformation of the Graceland neighborhood will happen. It was first announced in 2006 as a $250 million investment that would put Graceland on par with Disney World. In May, Apollo Global Management acquired CKX, Inc., the company that owns the rights to all things Elvis.
"What slowed it down was the economy," said Collins, echoing Kane. "Elvis Presley Enterprises has not given us any indication that they have changed their mind." Representatives of Elvis Presley Enterprises declined to comment about the proposed redevelopment.
Collins and I left the hotel and drove across the street to take a picture next to the wall in front of Graceland.
"Graceland is a huge asset for Whitehaven," said Collins, who was elected in 2008. "We needed to embrace it and make it part of the community, like being part of the Whitehaven Christmas Parade and tying that in with the lighting of the Graceland lights. I love Elvis Week, although I tend to have something else to do that weekend because of the traffic on my street. I see so many people from different parts of the world in our neighborhood."
As if on cue, a couple from Washington, D.C., Smith and Janice Rudolph, walk up to take a picture in front of the sign near Graceland's gates.
"I rocked to his music," says Smith Rudolph, "and I am still rocking even now."
Story has been edited to reflect Elvis' correct age.
Read On: "Everybody Elvis" by Susan Ellis
Sidebar: "Where Do Elvis Visitors Come From?"