All day, they traipsed up the long windy driveway to their heaven, 2,000 pilgrims in all, past the life-size manger scene on the lawn, paying homage to the King. They came from as far away as Canada and California, Europe and Japan. They wore ski jackets and mink, his face pinned to their hearts, his name sewn onto jeans, his memory all they have left.
Some wept quietly beside his grave in the meditation gardens, laying wreaths shaped like guitars, teddy bears and blue suede shoes on the melting snow. Others tossed coins in the wishing well, pining for how it had been. Then it was time to sing:
Happy birthday to you,
Happy birthday to you,
Happy birthday, dear Elvis,
Happy birthday to you!
Elvis Aron Presley, avatar of rock, was born 50 years ago today in Tupelo, Miss., and although he has been dead seven years, heaven has only made the heart grow fonder in those who flocked here to Graceland mansion to pay a curious kind of homage only they can understand.
"There will never be another 50th," said Carol Ann Der of Baltimore, "and we had to be here." She was among some 80 fans from Baltimore who forked over $160 each for an 18-hour bus ride and four days in a cheap heartbreak motel near the airport to savor the moment.
"I have dried and framed grass I've picked from the lawn here," said Teresa Ruhl, a lobbyist from Lancaster, Pa., shivering in the cold. "I own rocks and twigs from the grounds. I brought a jar today I aim to fill with water from his pool. In stores, they try to sell you scarves with Elvis' sweat. But I only get what I can verify as genuine."
"A birthday is such a happy time," said Ken Brixey, marketing manager for Graceland, as he thanked the morning crush of about 300 fans at the front door for coming. Then the mayor proclaimed it Elvis Presley Day. Next came the governor's emissary. At last it was time for cake.
It was delicious, only most fans chose not to eat it, carrying it about the grounds gingerly, a sacrament on a white doily. Terry Drawhorn, 28, a fried-chicken restaurant manager who moved here with his son after a Houston divorce so they could be closer to Elvis, aimed to park his souvenir in the freezer, alongside pieces from three previous Elvis birthday parties.
"This is about love and memories and seeing your friends," he said, as his boy, Anthony, 8, scarfed his cake with gusto a few feet from Elvis' grave. "One day there will be an old-folks home for Elvis fans and I'll be in it. We'll still get our wheelchairs up here for birthday parties. I'm a Christian, but I don't worship Elvis. The Lord put him here for a reason. But nowhere in the Bible does it say, 'You can't be an Elvis fan.' He was a big Christian."
Indeed, all about there were guardians of decorum and interpreters of the faith.
"Don't you think this kind of talking so close to his grave shows no respect?" an angry German fan growled at a reporter.
It was a big day for Elvis, a big day for Graceland. His six-bedroom monument to bad taste on 13 rolling acres one block from Glenn Rutherford's Carburetor Clinic on Elvis Presley Boulevard was packing them in. Attendance passed the half-million mark last year at $6.50 a head, and officials were staring at January projections of a 25 percent jump over that. The undisclosed profits go into the estate, which The Princess, Lisa Marie, 16, Elvis' only child, stands to inherit at 25.
Though TV specials and repackaged albums were timed for the big day, Graceland remains atop the Elvis hit parade, with visitors pumping an estimated $55 million a year into the Memphis economy. As one Hollywood agent is reported to have said when Presley died, "Good career move."
And so they came to where he lived and died, a one-time sex symbol who fell to stuffing himself with cheeseburgers and french fries in a house full of smoked-glass mirrors and shag carpet on the ceiling, an overweight legend who is believed to have accidentally overdosed on drugs at 42.
For nearly 25 years, he symbolized America's apple pie virtues as rock's favorite gentleman redneck, a young rebel who wiggled his hips, said "yes, ma'am" to ladies, gave Cadillacs to strangers, hired cripples off the street, read the Bible and embodied romantic hope for millions of teen-age girls who still yearned for him here today as grandmothers.
"I've got Elvis in my heart and Elvis on my mind," said Muriel Swoboda, 63, of Baltimore. Elvis lockets dangled from her ears. His charms dangled from her arms. An Elvis sweatshirt embraced her. And from her pocket she pulled a photograph of herself at 28, a voluptuous beauty in a swimsuit. It was superimposed over a teary shot of Elvis.
"If I'd had a son, I'd want him to be just like Elvis," she said. "A boy who thought as much of his mother as he did could do no wrong." Indeed, he showered his mother with gifts, a pink Cadillac among them, and never recovered from her death in 1970. Swoboda has memorialized him at home with Elvis dolls that play "Loving You" and "Blue Hawaii."
"I go to bed every night with Elvis singing hymns on a tape by my bed," she said, trekking through the trophy room with her sisters from Baltimore, then past the gold albums on the wall, pausing at "Don't Be Cruel," a 5 million-seller, and moving on to contemplate his rhinestone jump suits and gold jewelry. All jumped to defend his overeating and his drug addictions.
"He never hurt anyone but himself," said Shirley Barrick, a Baltimore housewife. "It just makes me feel sad he had to live that way."
As for his food, "he had no different a diet than we do. We stuff ourselves."
"I can eat a whole box of Popsicles at one sitting," interjected another housewife.
"You go out on the street and show me another 42-year-old man who isn't overweight," added Shirley. "Most men are overweight, but they're not Elvis. So nobody takes a second look."
Souvenir sales were brisk across the street in a shabby shopping center that is de rigueur on any Elvis pilgrimage to this Deep South home of the blues, where the King mated white country music with black R&B. "Business couldn't be better," said shop owner Les Tubbs, diamonds glinting off his $15,000 gold Rolex as he rang up the sales. His shop began as a hobby seven years back and now grosses $1 million a year.
Indeed, fans were snapping up everything in sight: Elvis license tags, Elvis salt and pepper shakers, Elvis blankets -- and T-shirts, of course. "There will never be another Elvis," said Vicki Russell, a San Pedro, Calif., housewife, brandishing an Elvis garter belt and sweatshirt.
Only a $2,495 Elvis doll had no takers. It stood 16 inches high, with a diamond in its belt, and a red cape made from one of Elvis' scarves about its neck, all encased in a glass box.
A number of fans confessed to some rather unusual experiences. Judy Aumon, 43, a housewife from Hampton, Va., wearing an "Elvis the King" blue jacket, said the King once appeared to her in his karate outfit when she was doing the dishes. And later, when she was talking to a friend on the phone, pining for a sign of him, her satin Elvis jacket fell from a hanger in the hall where it had been perched for a year.
"I was excited," she said. "My daughter-in-law ran out the door screaming."
Aumon found two women to take her place at Bernie's, a restaurant back home where she works as a waitress, and drove down with a friend. The first time she made the drive, in 1977, when Elvis died, her husband had doubts. "He said, 'It's me or Elvis,' " she recalled. "And I said, 'Bye.' "
But he came around, an understanding man, and gave her $100 for the trip. Everything is just fine now that he understands. "God comes first, Elvis second," she said.
She was one of the privileged ones who said they had actually met Elvis. It was in 1956 in Newport News. He'd come to play the Paramount theater. She was 14 and muscled her way into sitting with him while he drank a cup of coffee. "You sure do sing good," she said.
Well, what did he say back? She hesitates. "He said, 'Shit, it's nothing.' But that was just Elvis. He was so cute."
At one point at the gravesite, fans' heads suddenly jerked up, experiencing what at first appeared to be an apparition, Elvis come back to life. But it was only Artie Mentz, 40, an Elvis impersonator from Dubuque, Iowa, his black hair dyed and pompadoured just like the King's, his belly similarly paunchy.
"I've had a problem gaining weight just like Elvis," he said. "When you travel, you eat junk food. It's not like being at home."
His son, Aron, appeared to have a tear in his eye. But it was only from a runny nose from the cold.
"When Elvis died, we had to explain that he went to heaven like a birdie that hit our house and died, that I buried in the back yard," said Mentz, looking down at the next generation of Elvis fans. "We just told him that Elvis went to be with the birdie."
"Just makes you want to melt inside," added Joanie Miller of Utica, N.Y., who calls Elvis her "hunk of burning love." "God gave him a special gift. But now he's in the mansion in the sky, playing lead singer for a band of angels."