Graceland Host 75,000 As Elvis Fans Mark 35th Anniversary of his Death

If news reports are correct, an estimated 75,000 Elvis fans gathered at the gates of Graceland to celebrate the life and legacy of Elvis Presley on August 15. Fans were in for a surprise when, for the first time ever, Priscilla and Lisa Marie Presley came to the gates to greet guests for the Candlelight Vigil.

The excitement was palpable as fans began the day with Conversations on Elvis where they heard from the men behind the cameras that captured some of his most iconic images. Priscilla joined the list of guest speakers and shared memories about her time spent with the king. Fans then put on their leis and enjoyed an afternoon of cupcakes, hula dancers, and live music. Once all of the excitement calmed down, thousands gathered at the gates of Graceland to honor the king’s life, turning the 35th celebration into the largest Elvis Week in history.

Fans can check in on the candlelight vigil going on in Memphis, Tenn.,  to mark the anniversary of the singer’s death on Presley’s official website.

His daughter, Lisa Marie, and his ex-wife, Priscilla, will host a 35th anniversary concert at the city’s FedEx Forum tonight starting at 8:10 p.m. Pacific time. The event will blend film footage of Elvis Presley in concert and his recorded vocals backed by live music by the Memphis Symphony as well as many of the musicians who backed him on tour, including guitarist James Burton, pianist Glen D. Hardin, drummer D.J. Fontana  and the Sweet Inspirations vocal group.

Elsewhere, among the plethora of events being staged to mark the anniversary of his death at age 42, the American Cinematheque will host a Q&A and book signing at 1 p.m. Sunday at the Egyptian Theatre in Hollywood by songwriter and publisher Mike Stoller, half of the songwriting-publishing-production team of Leiber & Stoller, who crafted many songs Presley recorded. The session will be followed by a screening of the performer’s 1957 film “Jailhouse Rock,”which featured Stoller in a cameo appearance playing piano for Presley.

Stoller, 79, will draw from the 2009 book “Hound Dog: The Leiber & Stoller Autobiography” about his long partnership with lyricist Jerry Leiber, who died last year at age 78. They wrote “Jailhouse Rock,” “Loving You,” “Don’t” and “King Creole” for Presley, among the dozens of hits they wrote for a wide range of rock, pop and R&B singers, mostly in the 1950s and ’60s.

Elvis Week organizers say this year’s edition, which runs through Aug. 18, could be the biggest ever, thanks in part to the participation of Presley’s widow Priscilla and daughter Lisa Marie Presley.

Highlights include tonight’s all-night vigil at Graceland’s gates, where AFP notes that this year’s fans can go the traditional route by lighting real candles or switch on virtual candles on a special Elvis Week smartphone app.

On Thursday, the anniversary of Presley’s 1977 death from heart disease and prescription drug abuse, a Memphis concert featuring Priscilla and Lisa Marie Presley and surviving members of Presley’s band will explore the entertainer’s roots in blues, gospel and country music.

Memphis’ sixth annual Ultimate Elvis Tribute Artist Contest is drawing competitors from as far away as Australia and Japan.

“I always look like this, minus some of the make up – but the hair is always the same, sideburns and everything,” immaculately coifed Rick Huntress, an award-winning Elvis tribute artist from New England, told AFP.

TripAdvisor, meanwhile, offers an anniversary-related round-up of 10 Elvis attractions in Memphis, his birthplace of Tupelo, Miss. and beyond. Among the lesser-known options: the Bay Beach Amusement Park in Green Bay, Wis.,where “visitors can rock and roll down the Zippin Pippin, one of the oldest wooden rollercoasters in America and Presley’s favorite ride. Elvis reportedly liked the attraction so much that he would occasionally rent out the entire Memphis amusement park it was originally located in, and story has it he rented it just a week before his passing. Park admission is free; it costs $1 to ride the Zippin Pippin.”

The vigil began Wednesday night after Priscilla Presley and her daughter made the unscheduled and impromptu appearance on a stage set up just inside the walls of Graceland, Elvis’ Memphis mansion. Together they briefly thanked the crowd for their undying admiration of the rock `n’ roll icon.

It was the first time both women had appeared together at the annual gathering, which became an official event in 1980.

Priscilla said the sight of thousands of fans holding up candles in tribute to Elvis was amazing.

“This is something that Elvis would never, ever have believed could have taken place here,” said the actress and businesswoman, who was divorced from Elvis Presley in 1973.

Lisa Marie Presley, on the stage alongside her mother, told the fans she loved them for their devotion to her father. She also acknowledged she had shied away from making public appearances at past anniversary vigils.

“I’ve always avoided this because I felt that it would be too emotional, but I really felt it was important to come down here tonight,” the singer’s daughter, herself a singer-songwriter, told the crowd. “I love you very, very, very much.”

Some teary-eyed mourners laid flowers on the gravesite, where Presley’s father Vernon, mother Gladys, and grandmother Minnie Mae Hood Presley also are buried.

Outside, some fans used chalk to draw pictures of Elvis’s face on the street, where groups of fans set up folding chairs to wait for the line to die down.

Sergio Galleguillo, of Santa Cruz, Argentina, said he became emotional when he walked past the graves.

“I felt the spirit of Elvis there, as if he was alive,” said Galleguillo, who was making his first visit to the United States. “It really was a beautiful experience.”

The somber atmosphere of the vigil was in contrast to some lighter moments beforehand.

As the line of people waiting to get into Graceland grew longer Wednesday evening, a group from a Brazilian fan club waved that nation’s flag, danced and sang Presley’s early-70s hit “Burning Love” in the street in front of the entrance.

Steps away, an Elvis impersonator, complete with a white-sequined jumpsuit and red sash, sat alone in the street in front of the entrance, lip synching “In the Ghetto.”

Earlier in the day, Cheryl Skogen and friend Susan Struss held up black umbrellas with polka dots near the front of the line as they waited to enter Graceland’s grounds. As longtime Elvis fans and neighbors in Los Angeles, they said they decided to come to Elvis Week without their husbands. They got up well before dawn Wednesday for a prime spot in the line.

Skogen said she first came to Graceland in 1981 – before the home became a museum and a tourist attraction – and has visited several times since. She remembers first seeing Elvis on “The Ed Sullivan Show” and being enthralled with his hip-swiveling performance at a Lack Tahoe concert.

“The first time I saw him he changed my life,” said Skogen, now 66 and retired. “I had never seen anybody dance like he did or sing like he did or look like he did. He captured my heart.”

A few spots down the line, Allen Black, 47, sat in a blue and white chair alongside the outer wall of Graceland. Black – who is from Aurora, Colo., scene of the July 20 movie theatre shooting massacre – said Elvis was a great performer but also someone who treated others well.

He talked about his memories of where he was when he first heard Elvis had died. He was 12 at the time.

Elvis’ estate is still bringing in big dollars. The Cirque Du Soleil show “Viva Elvis” helped Presley become the second highest paid deceased celebrity, right behind Michael Jackson.

Contributor; D. Chandler

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