Linda Brown of Goose Creek, Louisiana, attended this week's Elvis "Candlelight Vigil" in leather boots that had been home-accessorized in recognition of the 60th anniversary of the movie "Blue Hawaii."
The boots were blue and swathed in fabric patterned with photographic reproductions of Elvis on a surfboard, Elvis strumming a ukulele, Elvis in Hawaiian shirt and lei.
Like those made famous by Elvis' "Speedway" co-star, Nancy Sinatra, Brown's boots were made for walking — for walking up the driveway of Graceland to the grave of Elvis Presley in the Meditation Garden, where Brown placed a dozen yellow roses, as she does every year on the anniversary of Elvis Presley's death Aug. 16, 1977, at the age of 42.
A retired nurse, Brown and her husband, Bert Brown, 70, haven't missed a Candlelight Vigil in 22 years. They were here last year, when the COVID-19 pandemic resulted in a "socially distanced" vigil that was limited to three hours and 720 ticketed mourners — or fans or celebrants or whatever is the correct word for a person who travels to Memphis to light a candle and participate in a ritualized appreciation of the life and art of the singer whose 1954 sessions at 706 Union Avenue have been described as the Big Bang that ignited the rock 'n roll explosion.
"It was a ghost town, but we couldn't skip it," Linda Brown said of the pandemic-altered 2020 Graceland experience, when all "Elvis Week" events other than the vigil were canceled. "Seeing all the people here makes all difference."
If "all the people" were not as many as in years past (the large international fan contingent was mostly absent, due to pandemic travel restrictions), Elvis Week 2021 showed that "things are progressing and picking up," said Alicia Dean, marketing, promotion and events specialist at Elvis Presley Enterprises, which manages the Graceland mansion and its across-the-street campus of attractions.
She said about 5,000 people attended the Candlelight Vigil, which began at 8:30 p.m. Sunday (the event begins on the eve of Elvis' death) and concluded after 2 a.m. Monday.
Priscilla Presley joins Candlelight Vigil
In addition, many Elvis Week concerts and events — this year's Graceland-organized celebration of the King began Aug. 11 and concludes Tuesday — were filled to capacity, with tours of the Graceland stables, a Priscilla Presley-hosted cocktail party and an outdoor screening of "Blue Hawaii" among the sold-out happenings.
"Elvis was connected always with his fans," said Priscilla, 76, Elvis' former wife, who made a surprise appearance at the event, just before the candles were lighted at 8:42 p.m. Sunday. "They made him and he never forgot them."
Priscilla — who pulled her coronavirus-inhibiting face mask down to her chin when she reached the microphone she used to address the fans — called the vigil "a celebration" of her former husband. She added that Elvis Presley's absence "is still hard for me to believe... 44 years after Elvis' passing. Elvis was one of a kind, he really was. When he walked into a room, it was like, whoa, what just blew in?"
"It's a great show of devotion and caring and inspiration," said Jack Soden, Elvis Presley Enterprises president and CEO, who alluded to the challenges of the ongoing pandemic without mentioning the virus by name.
"This is different than anything I think we've ever experienced," he said. "And given the circumstances in the world, it couldn't be more special."
'Like a religious experience'
Early Sunday evening, the crowd seemed sparse, with only a couple hundred fans in line at the three security checkpoints in front of the mansion on Elvis Presley Boulevard, which was cordoned off from traffic for the evening.
The checkpoints opened at 6:30 p.m. and the fans already in line hastened to form a queue at the iconic musical-note gates of the mansion, while Graceland employees passed out white candles with white holders that resembled inverted witch hats, with a broad round to catch the dripping wax.
However, by the time the Austin, Texas-based Elvis Country Fan Club — which originated the vigil in 1978, before it was adopted by Graceland and made the emotional climax of Elvis Week — began the "official" lighting ceremony, the wide boulevard was crowded with fans, most of whom were bedecked in various forms of Elvis heraldry and many of whom constructed Elvis shrines or created Elvis art in the street.
Many sat in the street in folding chairs they had brought to Graceland, and some rode scooters with tiki torches attached like hood ornaments to the front of the vehicles. Perhaps a third of the fans wore face masks, which Graceland encouraged but did not require.
On the wide sidewalk across the street from the famously fan-graffitied Graceland stone wall, Greg Damron, a technical designer from Ashland, Kentucky, created a large and colorful portrait of Elvis with blocky pieces of chalk from a sidewalk art kit purchased at Walmart.
The picture presented Elvis in the bent-knee tip-toe pose made famous by a publicity portrait for "Jailhouse Rock," but Damron had replaced the striped inmate's uniform the King wore in that movie with the even more famous Elvis ensemble, the gold lamé suit. Damron's daughter, Haley Damron, of Ellicott City, Maryland, collaborated with her dad, using a water-dipped brush to smooth out the colors over the coarse concrete and sprinkling glitter onto the moistened gypsum. Explained Greg Damron: "I wanted it to sparkle."
Revving up the crowd before the vigil, Derrill Argo — better known as "DJ Argo," a longtime host on the Sirius XM "Elvis Radio" station — said that Elvis Week demonstrated that "people from all over with different beliefs and different backgrounds can come together in the commonality of Elvis. The world can learn a lot from Elvis fans."
Hype? Not according to some fans.
"It's been like a religious experience for me, I'm not kidding," said Damron's fiancee, Angela Kees, 51, a first-time vigil attendee. "It has totally changed me.
"I was a fan before, but being here, just seeing the way he affects people, even after his death, has really made an impact. We've made friendships with people that I'm sure will last."
This article originally appeared on Memphis Commercial Appeal: Elvis death anniversary: Fans return to Graceland to honor the King