40 Years After Elvis' Death, Fans Decry Elvis Week Avarice

Aug 16, 2017

An estimated 50,000 to 60,000 people hold up candles at Tuesday's Candlelight Vigil at Graceland.

Forty years ago today, Elvis Presley died in his Memphis home. As one of the world's biggest stars and a pioneering voice in rock and roll music, news of his death at age 42 would give rise to the cult of personality that endures still today. 

It's a fandom that drew an estimated crowd of 50,000 to 60,000 people to Elvis Presley Boulevard on Tuesday night for Graceland's annual Candlelight Vigil, about 15,000 fewer than five years ago. Officials predicted a larger than average attendance this year, enticed by the recent $130 million expansion of the entertainment complex. 

But many long-time Elvis fans had as much to say about the corporate changes at Graceland and Elvis Presley Enterprises as they did about their love for the King of Rock and Roll.

"It's just not the same; it just isn't," said Kelly Diakonis, a frequent vigil attendee from Chicago. She was first in line outside the famous gates of Graceland on Tuesday afternoon.

"I don't think it's only me," she said. "Most of everybody is saying the same thing. It's kind of Disney World now. It's lost that feeling of being someone's house."

The expansion added gift shops, a hotel and museum exhibits. It also added steeper admission prices.

Cheryl Skogan from Los Angeles said the structure and pricing of Elvis Week is broadcasting the wrong message to fans. 

"It's not personal anymore; it's too commercial," she said. 

The most egregious change for die-hard Elvis fans was Graceland's decision to make the vigil a paid event. Traditionally, it has been free, giving everyone who wanted to wait in the enormous line the opportunity to walk quietly past Elvis' grave and pay their respects. Now visitors must pay Graceland $28.75 for the privilege.

Skogan called the scheme "ridiculous."

Beefed up security, including bag searches, were reasons Graceland said it charged visitors nearly $30 to pay respects to Elvis' grave.
Credit Christopher Blank/WKNO-FM

Graceland defended the cost, citing crowd size and beefed up security measures -- including concrete barriers, searches of bags and purses, prominent police cameras -- that kept many early arrivals standing in long lines just to access the street in front of the house. Far fewer in numbers were the homespun Elvis "shrines" set up most years by local Elvis fans. 

Despite all the differences from past years, Tad Pierson, a Memphis tour guide and raconteur, says the vigil is still a place where Elvis Presley's musical legacy can be seen at work. 

"Walking through the crowd, there a family from India and dad's lookin' like Elvis," he says. "Next to it's a group from France and one of the cats in there is lookin' like Elvis. I don't know that there's any other figure in history that brings that many cultures together. That's what blows my mind."

Elvis would have been 82 this year, and while the ages of his fans seem to get ever younger, his music itself remains ageless.