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DATELINE: MEMPHIS, Tenn.
Goose bumps formed just below James Hubert’s
earphones as he followed the Graceland Mansion tour group into the
As Priscilla Presley recounted on audiotape how Elvis Presley
chomped southern cooking, played poker and swapped stories in this
room, the Lawton man passed from commercialized present to
Suddenly, there at the head of the eight-foot table, Hubert
could see him.
“Man,” Hubert said, “Elvis walked through here eating a peanut
butter and banana sandwich.”
The king of rock ‘n’ roll left the building 20 years ago.
When Presley died Aug. 16, 1977, at age 42, Hubert didn’t
qualify as an Elvis fan.
Then a 17-year-old high school student, he banged his head to
Van Halen and KISS – the hard stuff.
But as the 20th anniversary of Presley’s death approached, the
Lawton city equipment operator stepped into Elvis’ world.
He was far from alone.
Twenty years after Elvis’ death from an accidental drug
overdose, the King maintains his throne.
More than 700,000 people a year – 3,000 to 5,000 a day in the
summer – flock to the personal castle that Elvis bought for
$ 100,000 in 1957.
But this week – Elvis Week – those numbers won’t mean “Too Much.”
Crowds will swell as Elvis’ most loyal fans – from Oklahoma and
around the world – decide “It’s Now or Never” and converge on
Memphis’ “Heartbreak Hotels.”
Just how many thousands will come?
David Beckwith, spokesman for Elvis Presley Enterprises,
declined to make a prediction, for fear of looking stupid if he
guessed too few – or too many.
A virtual concert on Saturday will feature video of Elvis and
“reunite” him with his former backup singers. The concert probably
will help draw a record number of visitors, Beckwith said. Other
events planned include the unveiling of a statue of Elvis on Beale
Street and a presentation by RCA of Elvis’ international gold and
platinum record awards.
Add a special room to the Graceland tour for this week only –
Elvis’ mother and father’s downstairs bedroom – and all the
ingredients are in place for a good time in the birthplace of rock
This time every year, Okemah florist Connie Meadors travels to
the “Promised Land” to remember her “Good Luck Charm.”
“I think it’s wonderful that one man can touch so many lives
still, 20 years after he’s gone,” said Meadors, 29, president of
the Burnin’ Love Fan Club.
Likewise, Bill and Judy Wilson of Bristow, president and vice
president of Oklahoma Fans for Elvis, make the annual trek to 3764
Elvis Presley Blvd.
“We’re just working, family people,” said Judy Wilson, a retired
teacher. “This is kind of our vacation. This is where we go.
“We really enjoy it and pay respect to a man that even 20 years
later can bring all this love into the hearts of people.”
At Days Inn/Graceland near the mansion, the same Elvis fanatics
book all 61 rooms every August, manager Janet Patel said.
They splash in the guitar-shaped swimming pool, sport their best
Elvis attire, splurge on Elvis posters for their room windows and
spend hours watching Elvis movies on the hotel’s special Elvis
“It really looks pretty,” Patel said of the Elvis decorations.
Johnny Glover notices the crowds as well.
Elvis fans call him when their cars break down, which can happen
even in the holy land of the Graceland parking lot.
“They come through here all the time,” said Glover, 29, who
manages the Precision Tune next door to Graceland Mansion.
Sometimes, even famous people stop by for oil changes, Glover
said. However, he couldn’t remember their names.
“You see more and more people here all the time, even without
the anniversary,” Glover said. “Believe me, he’s the biggest thing
Elvis is Memphis’ mainstay year-round and has been since
Graceland opened in 1982. Those coming for mansion tours bring more
than $ 150 million each year with them to spend throughout the city.
Graceland employs about 350 people year-round, and 100 more are
added to the staff during the busy summer season.
Even during the coldest months, a few hundred visitors bundle up
for a chance to browse through Elvis’ estate. And season passes to
the home – second only in U.S. fame to the White House – are
popular items among those who live in Memphis.
But some Memphis area residents have never seen Elvis’
Or his pool table, which has torn felt from when a family friend
tried a trick shot that didn’t work.
“I guess I feel like it’s been all these years, they ought to
let him rest in peace,” said Angela Pickens, an elementary school
teacher in Tipton County, Tenn., about a half hour from Memphis.
Dead Money Maker
James Hubert bought his $ 18.50 ticket, walked past the counter
offering Elvis Presley credit cards and looked in the gift shop
that sells everything from Elvis hair conditioner to Elvis
As he signed the guest book that promises Graceland catalogs to
those who leave their addresses, his emotions wavered.
“One minute, I feel sad that so many people are benefiting and
making money with him being dead,” Hubert said. “But when I was in
the house, I almost felt like he was there.
“Of course, there’s billions of dollars being made,” he added.
Long lines gather outside Graceland Plaza, where all attractions
except the mansion tour can be found.
The line is a mix of gray-haired grandmothers who remember
“Hound Dog” hitting No. 1 in 1956 and pimple-faced teen-agers not
yet born when Walter Cronkite reported Elvis’ passing.
Every two or three minutes, the guests step aboard shuttle buses
and ride across the street – a stretch of U.S. 51 called Elvis
Presley Boulevard – to Graceland Mansion.
Hubert counted the bodies – and strollers – boarding the buses.
“Twenty bucks a pop, 16 people a bus … yeah, add it up,” he
said. “Just look at all the people that’s got jobs because he
But contemplating a moment, Hubert decided he doesn’t mind.
Elvis would have wanted it this way, he figures.
“He gave to all those charities,” Hubert said. “He didn’t do
that for tax purposes. I think he was a caring person.”
Visiting Graceland for the first time, Hubert viewed the 15-foot
custom white couch in Elvis’ living room, the baby grand piano in
his music room and the green-shag-carpeted ceiling – 1970s style –
in his “jungle room.”
At Rockabilly’s Diner at Graceland Plaza, Rick and Jan Colwell
of Purcell sipped Coke and Dr Pepper as tabletop jukeboxes hummed
“Love Me Tender.”
Colwell, an emergency medical technician, said he particularly
enjoyed Graceland’s Elvis Presley Automobile Museum, where the pink
1955 Cadillac that Elvis gave his mother is parked.
“It brought back memories of movies that I had seen,” said
Colwell, who attended a March 1977 Elvis concert in Norman.
Colwell, 43, also boarded one of Elvis’ two airplanes, passing
through an “Elvis fan” detector in the mock airport terminal that
leads to the boarding area outside.
Presley bought the 1958 Convair 880 plane for $ 250,000 in 1975.
He spent $ 750,000 customizing the plane and named it “Lisa Marie”
after his daughter. Gold-plated seat-belt buckles and faucet
handles are some of its more elegant features, while the more
practical ones include conference tables, televisions, telephones
and a quadraphonic stereo. The singer’s plane was so lavishly
appointed, he often called it his “flying Graceland.”
On the same day Colwell and Hubert vacationed Graceland-style,
Oklahoma license plates dotted the parking lot. Among other
Oklahomans signing the guest book were Pam Martin of Tulsa and
Chuck and Linda Cooper of Del City.
Hubert, for one, learned something new.
“I thought Elvis built Graceland and named it after his mother,”
Actually, Graceland began as a 500-acre farm owned by the S.C.
Toof family, explains the official Graceland guidebook.
In 1939, Dr. Thomas and Ruth Brown Moore built the southern
colonial mansion on 13.8 acres. Ruth Moore’s great-aunt Grace was
the namesake for “Graceland,” the original farm’s name.
Elvis liked the name and kept it.
At 22, after years of living with family members, in public
housing or rent homes with his parents, he was a home owner – in
Connie Meadors, the Burnin’ Love Fan Club president, was 9 when
“Me and my sister liked to always say we were raised on Elvis
and Similac formula. We’re a three-generation family of Elvis
For Meadors, Elvis brings back happy – and sad – memories.
As a child, the Okemah woman recalls being abused by an
alcoholic family member.
During the worst times, she relied on Elvis.
She would hide in her mother’s room and listen to Elvis records.
“I always felt Elvis was my knight in shining armor,” Meadors
said. “I thought he was going to come save me.
“I come from a really sad home life, and he was an all-American
dream. He came from living in nothing to living in a mansion and
touching people all over the place.”
That’s why it doesn’t surprise Meadors that Elvis remains so
The Burnin’ Love Fan Club has 70 members, mostly Oklahomans.
The club conducts three fund-raisers a year and donates the
proceeds to St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital in Memphis.
“We know that Elvis’ life was pretty much self-destructive,”
Meadors said. “But we also realize he was a generous, giving person.
“We’re not fanatics. We don’t dress up and have tattoos all over
our body. We’re following his example. We want to help. We want to
make a difference.”
Club members have one thing in common, she said: “We just all
like Elvis music and helping the kids.”
On Aug. 16, 1977, attention in Washington, D.C., focused on the
In major league baseball, Oklahoma City native Bobby Murcer
scored the Chicago Cubs’ winning run in a 6-5, 15-inning win over
But none of that mattered.
It was the day Elvis died.
Anita Brauser, then 15, and her sister, Janet Brauser, 17,
sobbed when they heard the news.
“Elvis can never be replaced,” Janet told The Oklahoman that
“He was the only music star we were devoted to,” Anita said.
The month before Elvis died, the girls had received a card
signed by him. He probably sent thousands of teen-age girls the
same card, but they treasured it nonetheless.
“Thank you very much for your very nice letter,” the card said.
“It was thoughtful of you to write. I really do appreciate the
concern, prayers and loyal support of fans such as yourselves. Best
wishes always & God bless you all!”
Twenty years later, it’s Anita Feemster and Janet Richardson.
Each is married now, but both still live in Yukon – and both
still exalt the King.
And both plan to be at – where else? – Graceland this week.
“It brings back good memories, memories of when we were
younger,” Janet said of the frequent Memphis pilgrimages.
That’s not to say Graceland hasn’t changed.
The mansion Janet visited before Elvis died – and the one there
now – are not the same.
When Elvis was alive, one of his uncles drove the Brauser
sisters through the gate.
They walked up the driveway and snapped photographs. So what if
Elvis wasn’t home at the time?
“It was a beautiful, quiet, peaceful place,” Janet said. “When
we went back later, it had kind of turned into a zoo.
“It doesn’t affect me as much as it used to. I hate to say that.
But for the first few years, it was rather upsetting. I expected it
to be more respectful.”
Many visitors continue to pay proper homage to the King when
they visit his tree-studded estate. Despite the crowds and the
constant stream of buses, most people lower their voices as they
stroll past the lion monuments that guard Graceland’s front doors.
But at Graceland Plaza, the mood is much lighter.
Elvis’ music is everywhere, and you can throw away as much money
as you like on memorabilia. Or the Graceland diner will gladly
grill you a peanut butter and banana sandwich – just the way Elvis
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Twenty years after his death, Elvis Presley still lives in Mary
Lou Washburn’s heart – and home.
From her Elvis gold-record bedspread to a telephone that plays
“Jailhouse Rock” to the fur-shaking “Teddy Bears” stacked by her
couch, the Oklahoma City woman sleeps, talks and squeezes Elvis.
“I’ve loved Elvis since 1955, and I will till the day I die,”
She discovered her “Big Hunk O’ Love” when she was 10.
Thousands of Elvises – in all colors, shapes and tummy sizes –
fill Washburn’s living room, kitchen, bedrooms and bathroom.
A street sign in her front window greets visitors: “ELVIS FAN
PARKING – VIOLATORS WILL BE SHOOK UP.”
Inside the front door, hundreds of Elvis albums rise from the
floor to the ceiling.
A Lorus Quartz carousel – once used to hold discount store
watches – revolves with Elvis key chains, Elvis playing cards, an
Elvis Presley AM radio, and Elvis figurines and trinkets.
On nearby shelves rest an “I Just Want to Be Your Teddy Bear”
bank, an Elvis belt buckle, collectors’ series Elvis bubble gum
cards and Elvis candy.
Then there’s a miniature Graceland music box and a tiny Elvis on
stage. Tiny Elvis strums a guitar and even moves.
That’s not to mention the dozens of Elvis videotapes, the Elvis
lamp, the five shelves of Elvis hardbacks and the huge Elvis
poster cut from Elvis upholstery.
And that’s just the living room.
“There’s nothing I didn’t like about Elvis,” Washburn said.
“I loved his voice. I loved his looks. I loved his charisma.”
In her kitchen, the jukebox plays, of course, only Elvis music.
The piano by the kitchen table has Elvis sheet music. The compact
disc tray is filled with … well, you get the idea.
As she shows off her collection, Washburn is wearing Elvis socks
and an “I (heart) Elvis” button.
The hallway leading to her Elvis guest room features a 1978
Elvis calendar, Tennessee”1-ELVIS” license plates, and a full-size,
green-and-white “Elvis Presley Blvd.” street sign.
Elvis posters cover the walls and ceilings in the guest room.
The bed has Elvis sheets and blankets. An Elvis shower curtain even
hangs on the wall.
She never saw Elvis in person, but loves him nonetheless.
Washburn has visited Elvis’ Graceland Mansion in Memphis,
Tenn., more than 10 times – and she wouldn’t miss this week’s
“Rumors are, this is going to be a real big blast. The main
reason is, all the people who knew or were associated with Elvis
are either getting sick or dying.
” Everybody that was anybody with Elvis is going to be there.”
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Elvis’ biggest fans cover their walls, their ceilings – even
their bathrooms – in his image.
They cut their truck driver friends’ hair Elvis-style. Sign
their checks below his shaking hips. Pay tribute to scars from
childhood accidents at his white-columned mansion.
They let their relatives rest, not only in peace – but forever
in the King’s duds.
Elvis Presley died 20 years ago, but hundreds of Oklahomans
don’t know it.
Oh, sure, they know it. They choose to ignore it.
The dozens of Elvis fans who called a special telephone line at
The Oklahoman aren’t kooks.
They’re not snooping around Burger King, expecting to see a
62-year-old Elvis gulp down Double Whoppers.
They just love Elvis, and want everyone to know it.
Take Stephanie McCullough.
The Norman woman has a house full of Elvis stuff.
There’s her modern Elvis living room. Her diner-type Elvis
kitchen. Her walls decorated with Elvis prints and newspapers from
the day he died.
But don’t confuse McCullough with crackpots who believe stories
about Elvis hanging out with UFOs.
“It’s just kind of humorous to see that kind of stuff because
anybody who has any kind of intelligence at all knows he’s dead,”
said McCullough, 31, a nurse.
Then there’s Darcie Logan.
The Oklahoma City woman, who was born four days before Elvis
died, will celebrate her 20th birthday Tuesday.
“My mother told me he died to make room for me, and I thought
that was great,” said Logan, an Oklahoma State University
student who works at an Oklahoma City Hallmark.
Logan has loved Elvis for as long as she can remember. She has
visited Graceland Mansion in Memphis, Tenn. She has an Elvis clock,
Elvis posters, Elvis dolls and a velvet Elvis painting.
“I always felt like I had some kind of connection to Elvis,” the
1995 Putnam City High School graduate said.
But not, she hastened to add, “one of those scientific
When Shirley Ferguson dies, she assumes they’ll inscribe “Elvis
Fan” on her tombstone.
Ferguson, 54, a Rose State College payroll clerk, has loved
Elvis for 40 years.
As a teen-ager, she covered her bedroom with Elvis pictures.
Four decades later, it’s her bathroom that’s filled with Elvis
license plates, records and a Hilton Hotel towel wrapped in plastic.
“I won’t put that (the towel) out because it still has Elvis’
sweat on it,” she said.
The Midwest City woman also has a childhood scar from when she
scratched her wrist at Graceland.
She remembers that every time the wound started to heal, she dug
her fingernails into it.
That way, she could say, “I’m the only one with an Elvis scar.”
When Ferguson was 15, her mother died.
Rather than focus on her mother’s death, Ferguson thinks she put
her energy into Elvis.
She liked all his songs and movies, even the bad ones.
“To me, as long as you could look at him, it was a good movie,”
she said. “As long as you could watch him, as long as you could
hear him, it was great.”
Like Ferguson, other Oklahomans don’t just remember Elvis – they
Becky Elmore of Oklahoma City has Elvis whiskey bottles, an
Elvis puzzle, Elvis plates, Elvis pillows – and she used an Elvis
phone to call in her comments.
She also has Elvis checks, but apparently, that doesn’t make her
“The first time I saw Elvis Presley was in the Civic Center in
downtown Oklahoma City in the ’50s,” Elmore said. “There was a lot
of talk about him being risque and not good to see.”
But Elmore’s mother took her to the concert. And years later,
Elmore and her own daughter saw Elvis in Oklahoma City.
Like Ferguson, Donna Burris has an Elvis bathroom, complete with
an Elvis shower curtain. She has Elvis music boxes, music
note-and-guitar wallpaper and a plaque with Elvis stamps.
The Oklahoma City woman also lives with a real, live Elvis
impersonator – her husband, John, a Westmoore High School football
Asked if her husband looks like Elvis, she replied, “Sure he
does. And he sings like Elvis, too.”
Chris Allen of Oklahoma City has an Elvis shirt and ties, not to
mention “a lot of other Elvis Presley paraphernalia.”
The last five digits of his cellular telephone number are 35847
– or as he prefers to think of it, ELVIS.
In Moore, Lori Ingram’s gift and collectible store resembles an
Among her treasured keepsakes: an exact replica of the 1955 pink
Cadillac that Elvis bought for his mother, who did not even drive.
Buried With Elvis
For most of his 39 years, Larry Wayne Houck’s life revolved around
But he became an even more dedicated follower his last 14 years,
after he developed multiple sclerosis.
“When it got to the point where he couldn’t go anyplace, Elvis
was his No. 1 thing,” said the Noble man’s sister, Donna Williams.
“He watched all his movies. He had all his tapes. It was kind of
At Houck’s birthday party three years before he died, his family
gave him Elvis sheets and curtains. They complemented the 183 Elvis
photographs on his walls and ceilings.
“He told us he was the king, so we had to bow down to him,” his
sister joked. “Every time you brought anything of Elvis to him, it
kind of perked him up. He thought that was neat.”
Houck wanted to visit Graceland, but never made it.
But when he died last November, his family fulfilled his
request: They buried him in Elvis attire and placed a photograph of
Elvis in his casket.
Nine months after Larry’s death, Betty Houck maintains the Elvis
decor in her son’s bedroom.
“If they come across something of Elvis,” Williams said, “people
will still pick it up and take it to Larry’s room.”
But at times, the family avoids Elvis.
“Sometimes, I think it’s harder to watch Elvis things because it
reminds us so much of Larry. It just kind of makes it sadder.”
Get Well, Elvis
Rhonda Lugo, 31, lives in Oklahoma City and works at Tinker Air
Force Base. But she grew up in Memphis three miles from Graceland.
She remembers her mother used to drop her off at Elvis’ gate.
She’d talk with Elvis’ uncle and collect the Elvis pocket
calendars he passed out.
“I’d ask a million and one questions,” she said.
When her mom finished grocery shopping, she’d return and drive
One time, when Lugo was 8, she asked about Elvis and found out
he had the flu.
So she rushed to the store and bought a get well card and a
When she returned with the gifts, Elvis’ uncle drove her up the
Graceland driveway for a better look at the mansion.
“For a second, I thought he was going to take me up there so I
could give the card to him,” she said.
About a week later, Elvis mailed her a signed thank-you card.
She treasured the card for years, but thought she had lost it
when she moved away.
But four years ago, she opened a Christmas gift from her mother
– and was delighted to see the card again.
In all her years standing outside Elvis’ gate, she never saw the
King in person.
“He drove by once when I was standing at the gate,” she said.
“With the windows tinted, I could see enough to see the big
sunglasses and the sideburns, but that was the closest I ever came
to meeting him or seeing him in person.”
Her mother stood in line for tickets to Elvis’ last Memphis
concert. She got just close enough to see the “Sold Out” sign
placed in the window.
Lugo still visits Graceland every time she returns home.
“It’s just part of visiting the family,” she said.
Elvis Cut, Please
A few years ago, Linda Drew hung a few Elvis pictures in her small
salon near Harrah.
“Several customers said, I didn’t know you were an Elvis fan,’
” Drew said. “Next thing I know, they start bringing me little
Little Elvis things, that is.
“And next thing, they start bringing big things. … And it’s
all from customers and friends, and that’s what makes it so
Among Drew’s customers is a friend who is a truck driver and
He even dyes his hair black.
“He really goes all out,” Drew said. “When he’s there, my other
customers will look at the walls and they’ll look back at him.”
Drew said it amazes her that even her younger customers, as
young as 7 years old, are Elvis fans.
“It thrills me, but amazes me.”
Twenty years after Elvis’ death, his enduring phenomenon seems
difficult to explain.
Then again, nothing has changed.
As Memphis’ Commercial Appeal newspaper noted on Aug. 17, 1977 –
the day after Elvis died – the legend was made when Elvis performed
on the Ed Sullivan show and became the first media-fed pop hero.
“From that point on,” the newspaper recounted, “he couldn’t
twitch without a good section of the country – the press, the music
world, the girls – all having Elvis spasms which helped to build a
phenomenon that it is doubtful anybody really ever understood.”