By Jon Waterhouse
During my attempt to be the eyes and ears of my brothers and sisters in Elvis who can’t be at Elvis Week 2012, it was tough keeping those peepers open.
I was running on fumes yesterday as I arrived at Graceland on the morning of day six. But the air of enthusiasm I felt as I rolled through the parking lot gates woke me up like a triple shot of espresso.
It was a big day for Elvis Week. Of course the masses accumulated at Graceland for the Candlelight Vigil later in the evening. However, it was a certain someone’s arrival that had fans percolating in the early part of the day.
Priscilla Presley entered the building.
Host Tom Brown opened the Main Stage door for her during the Conversations on Elvis: Behind the Camera session. The other guests who shared the stage focused on Elvis in photographs.
No one knows Elvis’s photographic image like Robert Dye Jr., the Photography Manager of Elvis Presley Enterprises Inc., who oversees the 60,000 Elvis images EPE keeps on file. When introducing Dye, Brown said Dye told him backstage that they’re going to be the Elvis Week 2012 versions of Sammy Shore and Jackie Kahane, the comedians who had the sometimes unfortunate opportunity to open for the King in concert. The crowd was chomping at the bit to see Priscilla.
The segment, however, proved more than interesting. The packed-to-the-gills audience listened intently as Dye revealed that he’s actually a second-generation Elvis photographer. His father had taken pictures of Presley back in the early days of the performer’s career. Dye offered slides of his dad’s shots including a picture showing legendary Memphis disc jokey Dewey Phillips sharing a mic with Elvis.
Dye, who can be seen snapping away throughout Elvis Week’s entirety, is the lensman on the scene at official Elvis events. He also said he’s been known to get some interesting out-of-the-blue phone calls from time to time.
“I might get a call saying that Jerry Schilling is giving Robert Plant a private tour of Graceland,” Dye said.
His response? “I’ll be right there.”
Dye’s interview session came to a close, and the topic of Elvis images was put on hold. Brown may be a top tier host and interviewer, but he’s admittedly a fan among fans. I could only imagine the rush he felt when introducing Elvis Week 2012’s most momentous guest, Priscilla Presley.
Simply the mention of her name caused an undeniable gust of elation. A flurry of flashes filled the room as Presley, looking as lovely as ever, took the stage.
I definitely give kudos to Brown for keeping it together. As an entertainment journalist, I’m fortunate enough to meet quite a few celebrities, and many whom I admire. I’ve built up composure over time. Heck, they’re just people.
Yet, if I were given the opportunity to interview her, I’m sure I’d be suppressing my inner Chris Farley.
“Remember when you married Elvis? That was…AWESOME!”
Brown, however, did a fantastic job asking her the questions many fans have on their minds. He spoke with her about opening Graceland to the public in 1982, and what that entailed. Presley explained that fortunately Elvis and his parents rarely got rid of things. Priscilla and her team were able to find curtains and other furnishings, refurbish them and bring the mansion back to its heyday.
She also addressed the fact that visitors aren’t allowed upstairs and inside Elvis’s bedroom. She said it’s simply out of respect for Elvis and the fact his bedroom was his retreat. Priscilla did mention that when she and Lisa Marie visit the room “his spirit is still there.”
Brown and Presley’s conversation touched on subjects such as her business savvy and her love for classic cinema. The latter topic certainly resonated with Brown as he’s the Vice President of Original Productions at Turner Classic Movies.
However, it had to be Priscilla’s sincere appreciation for Elvis Week attendees that resonated the most with the audience. She mentioned that she’s met so many special people in her life through Elvis Presley.
“And I mean that from the bottom of my heart,” she said.
Presley made her way off the stage amid a standing ovation, which brought one of the biggest highlights of Elvis Week 2012 to a close. Although she wasn’t able to sign autographs for fans, a few lucky winners, including Laurie Thompson of Baltimore, Maryland, took home a photo signed by Priscilla.
The photography topic got back on track with an appearance by Angie Marchese, Director of the Graceland Archives. Marchese definitely has a job coveted by Elvis fans around the world as she has direct access to the King’s personal belongings. Brown joked by calling her “Indiana Marchese,” because her job often finds her sifting through the material and uncovering amazing Elvis treasures. She explained how she uses photos from the EPE archives to validate specific items. For example, when she opened a box of Elvis’s effects that included a leather wristband, she used a picture from the “’68 Comeback Special” to prove that was the one he wore on the show.
Brown welcomed photographer Dave Darnell to the stage. As a staff photographer for The Commercial Appeal newspaper in Memphis, Darnell, captured Elvis on film throughout the ’70s. This included shots at the Ten Outstanding Young Men Awards ceremony and candid images recognized by the Elvis faithful.
“He was an icon living amongst us,” Darnell said.
Perhaps one of the most treasured collections of Elvis photographs comes from 1956 when freelance photographer Alfred Wertheimer used his camera to capture Presley in the midst of his meteoric rise. As the next Main Stage guest, Wertheimer presented a slide show of these pictures. Wertheimer’s fly-on-the-wall style serves as a time capsule of this period and shows the 21-year-old Elvis at work, play and even shaving.
The most iconic of all of Wertheimer’s pictures is one that’s been dubbed “the kiss,” a candid shot of Elvis embracing a woman backstage at a concert venue. For more than 50 years this woman’s identity was a mystery. Then two years ago, after encouragement from her husband, Barbara Gray stepped forward.
Gray herself joined Brown and Wertheimer on the Main Stage. Not only was I amazed to see the real woman behind the image, it was fascinating to hear Gray and Wertheimer’s recollections of the entire experience.
I found myself spending the rest of the afternoon getting all shook up in Elvis revelry. Thumping Polynesian drums lured me back inside the Main Stage pavilion for the Elvis Aloha from Hawaii Party. After a hula dancer’s hip-shaking performance, Scott Williams, EPE’s Vice President of Marketing and Media, led a presentation about Elvis Presley’s Aloha From Hawaii 40th Anniversary Celebration taking place in Hawaii January 10 through 15, 2013.
Fans, many decked out in colorful leis, lined up for complimentary cupcakes presented on top of an Elvis-themed piano display. I had my first bite into one of those confections and the flavor was unmistakable. Peanut butter and banana.
An afternoon concert followed, and Jeff Wenberg kicked things off with a stripped-down set. Lori Anderson, Gavin Kelly and their band were up next and served a heaping helping of Elvis. The set included Kelly and Anderson replicating the 2007 Elvis and Lisa Marie Presley duet of “In the Ghetto.”
Country vocalist Deborah Allen stepped on stage for a special presentation of her tune “Amazing Graceland.” She introduced the song by saying that her parents were upholstered Elvis’ tour bus back in the day. At the age of 3, Allen said she even camped out in the bus.
Jamie Aaron Kelley and his band closed out the show. Although I was beginning to run out of steam, Kelley’s rip-snorting renditions of early Elvis gave me the second wind I needed. With a doghouse bass laying down the bottom, Kelley tore through songs including “Too Much,” “Little Mama” and his high-energy “Sun Medley.”
I took a breather and then whisked myself back to the Main Stage for the Sony Award Presentations. Sony Records presented 10 new sales awards that Elvis scored in 2012. A troupe of volunteers wearing white gloves each held framed gold, platinum and multi-platinum records. The big daddy of the bunch was “Elvis’ Christmas Album,” which achieved Diamond status with 10 million copies sold.
Making my way through Graceland Plaza to the Elvis Radio studio, I passed legendary DJ Cousin Brucie Morrow, who was broadcasting his own program underneath a tent. I soon escaped the heat by slipping inside the station and was given the opportunity to geek out on air with TY and Argo.
“This is our Super Bowl,” Argo said.
Police were closing Elvis Presley Boulevard, thousands of fans were converging upon the scene and news helicopters hovered overhead. We chatted about the spectacle of it all. Yet, I really had no idea what to truly expect at my first Candlelight Vigil.
Fans were already congregating on and around Elvis Presley Boulevard in front of the mansion. I could see groups representing Elvis fans from multiple nations. It was particularly cool to see Marlyn Mason, the King’s co-star in “The Trouble with Girls,” mingling among everyone.
As the sun was going down, the throng was thick. I weaved my way through the crowd on Elvis Presley Boulevard. Folks were packed in shoulder-to-shoulder. Others were a little further back sitting in lawn chairs on the boulevard, some with candles on the ground and artwork they created right there on the pavement.
I moved in as close as I could to get a good view of the podium just behind Graceland’s wall. EPE’s CEO Jack Soden took a few moments to welcome everyone to the Vigil. Kevin Kern, Director of Public Relations, did the same and gave a run down of how this year’s Vigil would work. But the big reveal came when both Priscilla and Lisa Marie Presley stepped up to the podium.
This was a first for the Candlelight Vigil and the fans couldn’t have been more appreciative. Both women were obviously incredibly touched by the turn out. Lisa Marie mentioned that she hadn’t attended in the past, because she feared it would be too emotional. But there they were sharing their personal appreciation with the thousands in attendance.
When “If I Can Dream” started playing over the loudspeaker I could hear voices from the crowd lifting up and joining in. That’s when I could feel my own emotions welling up inside.
I’ve been an Elvis since I was a child, and have always considered myself someone who has a deep understanding and appreciation for what the King is all about. But when I stood in the middle of that immense crowd, I received a serious taste of the unprecedented impact Elvis has on the world.
I was surrounded by a countless number of people, many of whom would be spending the next 12 hours paying their respects to the biggest and most inspirational pop culture icon we’ll ever see. In the history of the world, no other entertainer has garnered something of this magnitude. Period.
Gabriel Rodriguez of Miami, Florida stood next to me. Attending his 23rd Candlelight Vigil with his wife Betty, Rodriguez echoed my thoughts.
“You really have to be here to understand all of the power, love and emotion,” he said.
I could feel that collective emotion, and it was nothing short of powerful. As the Elvis Country Fan Club wrapped their presentation with the crowd singing along to “Can’t Help Falling in Love,” the words had new meaning. Elvis fans just can’t help but appreciate the gift he gave us.
I had the opportunity to walk up the Graceland driveway and witness the procession of fans first hand. The candles flickered in the darkness as the line snaked along the mansion grounds all the way up to Mediation Garden. International news crews were covering the event and a helicopter was still buzzing overhead.
Standing on the Graceland pool deck, I watched as fans, candles in hand, made their way past Presley’s gravesite. Seeing it on TV is one thing, but being in the middle of this cultural phenomenon is especially moving. This same procession would be taking place until 8 a.m. the following morning.
It was a long haul for me on day six of Elvis Week 2012. Yeah, it was tough at times to keep the eyes open, but I couldn’t help but be wide awake to what was going on around me. Not only did I cap off the day with opened eyes, my mind was now open to understand the true level of significance Elvis continues to have in our lives.