(Editor's note: Aug. 16 marks the 29th anniversary of Elvis Presley's death.)
MEMPHIS, Tenn. -- Got some inside stories about Elvis Presley? Then grab a shovel and rush on down to Memphis. There's gold in them there spills.
Elvis Week 2006 began Aug. 8 and runs through Wednesday (Aug. 16), the anniversary of Presley's death. Events have been held throughout the city, and fans from around the world have converged for the annual celebration.
While it may be difficult to identify with their extreme passion for "the King," one can't write them off as cartoonish obsessives. Within their ranks are scholars, serious memorabilia collectors, performers, students of popular culture and people who simply want to examine the processes by which legends are turned into cash.
Graceland, Presley's mansion, is the event's focal point. But for three days -- Aug. 11-13 -- a group called Elvis Insiders staged its own convention at the Memphis Marriott East hotel. It was here that people who knew Elvis gathered to talk about their relationship with him, sign autographs -- and sell lot and lots of merchandise. (Elvis Insiders is a fee-based fan club.)
Speakers included singer Pat Boone (for whom Presley was once an opening act); June Juanico (who dated Presley for three years early in his career); Jerry Schilling (a long-time friend); Maxine Brown (a member of the vocal trio, the Browns, that toured with Presley for two years); photographer Al Wertheimer; veteran guitarist James Burton; former girlfriend Linda Thompson; and Gordon Stoker (a member of the Jordanaires, the vocal group that performed and recorded with Presley). Several of the speakers and special guests also had new or recently-published books to sell.
Also manning merchandise tables were actors William Schallert and Victoria Paige Meyerink (who co-starred with Presley in Speedway) and Chris Noel (who worked with him in Girl Happy); Nancy Rooks (author of Inside Graceland: Elvis' Maid Remembers); Joe Moscheo (a former member of Presley's backup vocal group, the Imperials); and Tanya Lemani George (a dancer on Presley's 1968 NBC-TV special).
Juanico enthralled a crowd of several hundred as she detailed her romantic encounters with Presley -- from holding hands while watching the 1956 Doris Day-James Stewart thriller, The Man Who Knew Too Much, to flying with him to Houston to pick up his new Cadillac El Dorado. "We slept in the same bed together," she said of that trip, "cuddled up like spoons, and I was intact the next morning. So when you hear stories about Priscilla and Elvis [sleeping together celibately], you can believe them."
Brown told how her mother had introduced her to Presley's music and how the promising young singer virtually became a member of her family after he joined the Browns on the Louisiana Hayride in Shreveport, La., and then began touring with them. She devoted a chapter to Presley in her career memoir, Looking Back to See.
Presley's name and image adorned a staggering array of products other than the customary T-shirts, photos and CDs. There were displays of Elvis wines, Elvis coffees, Elvis purses and even Elvis bicycles.
While most of the crowd were late middle-age and upward, there was also a sizable sprinkling of teenagers and twenty-somethings. Several guys -- old and young -- with suspiciously black pompadours strolled the hotel hallways, looking eager for conversation. Three Elvis impersonators performed Friday evening, backed by a shared band, and then signed autographs for an hour afterward.
Many of the Insider events were priced separately -- and the prices tended to be steep. It cost adults $38 a day (or $60 for two days) to hear Presley's friends talk about him. The faux Elvis showcase was tagged at $30. An evening show by Terry Mike Jeffrey and the Imperials carried a $40 ticket. A sightseeing trip from Memphis to Presley's birthplace in Tupelo, Miss., cost $75.
But few complaints were overheard about this relentless harvesting of cash. Even in the especially long and slow-moving lines that Boone and Schilling generated, the people were remarkably relaxed and amiable. Real fans, it seems, are accustomed to sacrificing. One fan told of another who -- after years of sitting out in the sun in order to be the first in line to attend a candlelight vigil at Presley's grave -- developed skin cancer. That level of zeal puts the pain of an overpriced ticket into perspective.
A spokesman for Elvis Presley Enterprises estimated that Elvis Week 2006 will draw 4,000 to 5,000 fans.