Are you lonesome tonight?
Published in The Washington Post on 16 August 1997
It is 6 a.m. in this sweltering southern city and Elizabeth Zogob is splashing holy water onto the grave of Elvis Presley. She places tiny crosses woven from palm leaves against his cast-iron tombstone in hopes, she says, that "God might watch over my boy."
On her T-shirt, Elvis is depicted with head bowed against a stained-glassed background beneath the words "How Great Thou Art." The 59-year-old California woman says that when she passes away she will be Elvis's wife in heaven.
"If I had ever met him when he was alive he would still be married to me," she sobs. "Elvis never found a woman who would dedicate herself to him but I have done that. We are perfect for each other."
Zogob is among the estimated 100,000 loyal disciples who have descended on Memphis this weekend to mark the 20th anniversary of Presley's death. Dotted amongst the pillars and along the fence sectioning off the Presley family graves, women stand or kneel quietly, some openly weeping, others simply contemplative. The men hang somberly with their backs against the perimeter wall of the Elvis meditation garden, as if stepping too far forward would betray their masculinity.
The grave itself is covered in wreaths, bouquets, letters, cards, poems, photographs and miniature teddy bears costumed to look like Elvis and delivered by followers from around the world.
For many, it is a religious experience, a personal pilgrimage to a man they believe transcends mortality. He is an American icon who, like Marilyn Monroe, JFK and Muhammad Ali, has achieved a celebrity rivaled by few others, and one that seems only to grow with time. In the last few days, more people have poured into Memphis to worship the king of rock than at any time since Elvis's funeral 20 years ago.
"He is the closest thing we have to a religious experience," said Professor Bill Ferris of the University of Mississippi's Center for the Study of Southern Culture. For many of his followers, Ferris said, Elvis is like a Christ or Mohammed.
Graceland is the most visited residence in the United States after the White House, and by Saturday evening it is expected to have clocked in a record 50,000 visitors. Many here believe that Elvis will be among them.
Kate Austin, a 75-year-old woman from High Point, N.C., has been here 19 times, but it was only after Elvis died that she became a devotee.
"I didn't fall in love with him till the night he died," she says. "But then at the time he died my mother had just died and my husband was dying and I heard the song If You Can Dream.' I think Elvis and his music came into my life when I needed it."
Beside her, Jean Sauvage, who flew in from Paris, nods in agreement. She has been to Graceland on 23 occasions and each time, she says, the bond with Elvis grows.
Then there are Anna Schmitzler and Jerry Engelby. Dressed in matching fuchsia bowling shirts, black shorts, bowling shoes and ankle socks adorned with flashing Elvis lights, the Missouri couple takes a tour of Graceland every day. They go nowhere else.
"This is a must," Engelby says. "I am so tired but we need to do this. We have to stay here."
All around people are paying tribute in their own ways, but few have gone to the lengths that the Stonebrakers have. Eighteen months ago, they moved here from San Antonio and bought the house behind Graceland to be closer to Elvis.
They don't go up to the grave often because that would mean that Elvis was dead. Inside their living room, the purple walls are adorned with images of Elvis. A velvet depiction of the Last Supper is pinned above two life-size, paper incarnations of their King. There are Elvis table lamps, Elvis baubles, cushions, photo albums, records stuck on the wall. On most every available surface there are Elvis statues, all hand-painted by Mary Stonebraker.
Sitting on her white naugahyde sofa, Mary is zipped into a red, one-piece jumpsuit trimmed with gold studs and gathered at the waist by a white naugahyde belt. As she speaks, about 50 people gather outside to hear Elvis impersonator Jimmy Ellis as he karaokes along to "Suspicious Minds."
The couple believes that someday soon they will be called upon to assist Elvis. They just don't know what he'll have them doing.
"For some reason, we are to play a part and, truthfully, that part is not known yet. It's starting to shape up in some ways," Mary says. She and her husband used to communicate with Elvis through a Ouija board. Now, Mary just talks to Elvis over the fence.
Down at Elvis Presley's Memphis, a new restaurant on Beale Street, the line is coming out the door. Vicky Brower from Newark, Calif., is polishing off a skillet-fried steak, billed on the menu as an Elvis favorite. Then she takes a bite from another Elvis favorite, a butter-fried peanut butter and banana sandwich. Brower squirms and then pronounces: "I like it. Even if it was bad I'd tell you it was good 'cause Elvis liked it."
About 100 miles south, in Tupelo, Miss., thousands are also passing through the tiny shotgun shack where Elvis was born 62 years ago.
Alan Nott from Bristol, England, is showing off his three Elvis tattoos. He says he can't describe what it means for him to be here. "They say we are crazy but so what, I don't mind being crazy about the guy," he says.
Mona Laysone is a convenience store supervisor in Louisiana and visits Memphis and Elvis's Mississippi birthplace twice a year. She used to come four times a year (she's been 28 times in all) but has cut back recently. Each trip costs her $2,000, but she saves up a sum every month and calls all her bonuses "Memphis bonuses."
Around her neck is Elvis's name in gold and a solitary diamond, which she says "represents Elvis's star." "I'm kind of hung up on Elvis a little bit," she laughs. "He may be dead in the physical sense, but in our hearts he'll always be alive."
Suddenly tearful, she adds, "I think of Graceland as our field of dreams and Elvis Presley Boulevard as our street of hope."
Yet, while the pilgrims come to worship and to mourn they come to have a little fun too. There are Elvis impersonators everywhere. Some guys walk down the street dressed as Elvis, while others just have the sideburns and the hallmark chunky gold shades.
Running all week at the Four Points Hotel is "Images of Elvis," the Elvis impersonators contest. Organized by E.O. Franklin, Elvis's veterinarian, there are more than 100 contestants from around the world including the female Japanese Elvis, the Finnish Elvis and the Sikh Elvis, complete with turban. There's the Cherokee Elvis, and Elvis and Marilyn, an auditor with Colorado State Prison and the wife he met through the "King's music."
Backstage, men are running around in fringed pantsuits, quiffing their hair, primping their faces and pouting in front of mirrors. Up on stage they do mostly the late Elvis, shaking their flared pant legs and throwing lustful looks to the women in the audience.
Sitting in the front row, Theresa Fray, a housewife from Fairfax City, Va., is "a bit emotional" after a rendition of "Love Me Tender."
"He's great; he touches a part of your soul," she says. She is here with 11 people from the Washington area. Clive Barnes, from Johannesburg, says he's here because "it's like when the Muslims go to Mecca, you have to come to Memphis."
Over at Graceland they have been lining up their deck chairs for a candlelight vigil since midnight. For the most fanatical, it's important to be one of the first to pay homage to the King on his special night. As the cars drive by and thoughtless kids shout, "Get a life," they simply shake their heads. This is their life. CAPTION: Sue Walker, of Memphis, is about to get a kiss from Elvis impersonator Endre Samu, of Denver, across from Graceland in Memphis. Samu's wife Gail, left, is a Marilyn Monroe impersonator. CAPTION: Mary and Bud Stonebraker relax in their Memphis home, which shares a property line with Graceland. CAPTION: Elvis impersonator Sterling Pollaro, of Jamestown, Ky., sings "My Way" to a hushed crowd at Sheraton Hotel in Memphis, where he competed against more than 100 competitors from around the world in the "Images of Elvis" contest. CAPTION: Sneaking a peek at Graceland from the yard of Bud Stonebraker, left, are Liz Perini, center, and Sara Snyder, both born in 1977, the year Elvis Presley died. CAPTION: Elvis impersonator Larry Travis, from Bloomington, Calif., searches his mind for a verse while practicing tunes before competing in contest at Sheraton Hotel. CAPTION: Elvis impersonator Marty Gibson of Las Vegas waves as he heads toward stage at motel across from Graceland. CAPTION: Saki Nagakura, of Tokyo, far left, is comforted by Carol Rae Norman, of Takoma, Wash., during early morning meditation ceremony at Elvis Presley's grave on the grounds of Graceland. Above, a memento sent by fans in St. Louis is among the thousands from around the world that are set up near the grave during Tribute Week.