MEMPHIS, AUG. 10 -- At sunrise Sue Ireland wept, and her friend Cheryl Bott sobbed, as they prepared to place an offering of flowers and letters on Elvis Presley's grave.
"My Dearest Elvis," one message began. "No words can express how much I love you and how very much I miss you ... You have been my inspiration, my comfort and my joy."
Ireland, a short, plump Canadian of 32, cried freely as she worked her way past a rail enclosing the grave site at Presley's Graceland Mansion, hard by his kidney-shaped swimming pool in what he used to call his "Meditation Garden." An eternal fountain of tears, she knelt beside the eternal flame and deposited her gift. Then Bott, 19, repeated the procedure. The two cried some more, hugged each other, and Bott's boyfriend Ken Heintzman snapped a picture.
It was a tableau that will be re-created countless times during Elvis International Tribute Week, marking the 10th anniversary of Presley's death at age 42 on Aug. 16, 1977. Some 50,000 fans from around the world have descended on Memphis to pay homage to the King of Rock 'n' Roll, and to pay millions of dollars to the vicars of tourism, in a nine-day spectacular. It's part wake, part festival and part circus sideshow -- perhaps mostly the latter as the week wears on.
The fans, including delegations from Sweden and Japan and 1,200 loyalists from Great Britain, who seem largely to be women of middle age, come dressed in Elvis T-shirts, festooned with Elvis buttons and bedecked in Elvis jewelry -- notably the TCB insignia with lightning bolt ("Taking Care of Business in a Flash") that Elvis wore in his later years as he became increasingly preoccupied with mysticism and numerology, dependent on prescription drugs and, perhaps because he sensed that the end was near, hellbent on satisfying every appetite and whim at the speed of light.
He exploded onto the world in 1956, a burst of energy at once wholesome and dangerously erotic. He fizzled out 21 years later, an overweight Las Vegas act with aspirations to stolid respectability, corresponding with Richard Nixon and J. Edgar Hoover. But he died suddenly in his bathroom -- "good career move," said a Hollywood wag -- and now he lives forever as an American folk hero nonpareil. The faithful will be visiting his Memphis haunts, such as the recording studio where he became a first-degree phenomenon and the karate studio where he became an eighth-degree black belt; buying and selling his records and relics; singing and dancing to his rock 'n' roll; and reliving the sweet sorrow of his rise and fall.
The festivities feature talent and trivia contests, tours of his high school alma mater and his birthplace in Tupelo, Miss., a laser show titled "Elvis Legacy in Light," personal reminiscences of the folks who knew him when, open-air rallies to glorify his name, an "Elvis Window Decorating Contest," a nostalgia concert presenting his preeminent backup band the Jordanaires, the "Fifth Annual Elvis Presley International 5K Run" and an "Elvis Presley Memorial Karate Tournament," and the inevitable appearances of Elvis impersonators.
The week will culminate with a memorial service Saturday at Memphis State University -- hosted by local disc jockey George Klein, one of many who claim the honorific "Elvis' Best Friend" -- and an all-night vigil on the Graceland grounds, with a candlelit procession to Elvis' grave.
It is this spot, with its burgeoning profusion of memorial wreaths -- enough expected by week's end to fill the racquetball court where Elvis played his last -- that is the focus of everyone's attention. Here he lies, beside his devoted father Vernon, his adoring mother Gladys and his doting grandmother Minnie Mae. "He had a God-given talent that he shared with the world," reads the bronzed inscription on his cool marble slab, "and without a doubt, he became most widely acclaimed, capturing the hearts of young and old alike ... He became a living legend in his own time, earning the respect and love of millions."
"When he died," said June Poalillo, fortyish, of Pembroke Pines, Fla., who has been visiting the grave daily to leave a single red rose, "that was the most disastrous thing that ever happened in my life, or will ever happen in my life again. The worst thing. I have come to terms with my father's death. I will never come to terms with Elvis' death."
"Elvis," said Sandy Poalillo, along for her mother's sixth pilgrimage to Memphis, "represented the ultimate good in human beings."
Fran Whipple, a factory worker from Utica, N.Y., visiting the grave for the first time, had difficulty completing a sentence. "I've been crying all morning like this," she said with a sniffle, in a brief moment of composure. "I'm in a state of shock."
When she heard that Elvis had died, three days before he was to give a concert in Syracuse, N.Y., "I didn't believe it," Whipple said. But now, 10 years later, she finally does. Despite rumors to the contrary, Elvis is deceased.
And yet he is also forever young -- in contrast with his admirers -- in posters and snapshots, paintings and statues, that grace every nook and cranny at the hotels where the fans are ensconced.
"There was an electricity about that guy that just lit up the camera," said Memphis photographer William Speer, who snapped the now-classic first publicity stills of a 20-year-old, shirtless Elvis. "It just comes off the dead screen, bang! You know, he had a twin brother who died at birth. So maybe Elvis just received a double charge."
Speer was holding court at a sock hop thrown by the Memphis Bop Club in a hotel ballroom decorated with posters offering ample proof of Elvis' electricity -- a suggestive snarl here, a melting gaze there. The hop was held over the weekend to raise money for the soon-to-be dedicated Elvis Aaron Presley Auditorium at Humes High, where Elvis floored his classmates in the talent show of 1953. Now the ballroom thumped to the beat of "All Shook Up" and "Blue Suede Shoes" -- and overflowed with the memories of those who had been fleetingly touched by fame.
Glenda Polzin remembered going roller-skating with Elvis. Jean Petrick recalled sitting just a few seats away from him at the Toddle House restaurant. And Richard Osborn once played touch football with him, or rather against him, on the opposing team. "He played a little as receiver and he didn't impress me at all," Osborn recalled. "He had real thin arms and small hands. He couldn't whup a pissant."
"I've just seen Elvis one time in my life," said Ray Parkinson. "He was riding one of his motorcycles. I never met the man -- and I'm probably the only one here who'll tell you that."
Outside in the hall, an Avon Lady was hawking Elvis statuettes at $34.95 apiece. "This," she said, caressing one, "is pure porcelain."
In the tradition of Elvis' longtime manager Col. Tom Parker -- who, along with Elvis' ex-wife Priscilla and daughter Lisa Marie, is not expected for Elvis Week -- Elvis Presley Enterprises is capitalizing on the gala by offering a wide selection of Elvis paraphernalia for sale at appropriate premiums. To give an idea of the inflation rate hereabouts, a tiny bottle with Elvis' face on it, and a penny in it, can be had for $1.79 at the shopping center across Elvis Presley Boulevard from Graceland -- that's a 50-cent increase from last week's price, according to a Graceland employe.
"We move that merchandise all year round," said Jack Soden, executive director of Graceland, which is being held in trust for 19-year-old Lisa Marie. "But if there are 4,000 people coming through here every day, instead of 2,000, we're going to move twice as much."
Asked whether prices were increased in anticipation of Elvis Week, Soden said, "That's an absolute, flat no."
If cold commercialism is abundantly in evidence, it seems not to bother the fans, who show warmth and enthusiasm for every aspect of Elvis Week.
"We even have our own Elvis lingo," said Beverly Rook, 36, of Little Rock, Ark., president of the Elvis Arkansas Style Fan Club. "For instance, when I'm at home, and my husband's got the TV on, my son's got the tape player going, and the phone's ringing off the hook, I might say, 'My God, this jailhouse is rockin' tonight!' Or if I'm in a sentimental mood, I'll say, 'Love me tender, honey.' "
Rook, like every Elvis fan, has vivid memories of her idol's death. "I was watching 'Sesame Street' with my kids when my next-door neighbor called to tell me, 'Elvis is dead.' And I don't know why, but I looked at my kids and said, 'You will never watch "Sesame Street" again.' And it was never watched again in my house."
"He was like my big brother," said Jerry Schilling, who at age 11 met Elvis and later worked as his closest personal aide. "It's still a little hard for me, to be truthful, to celebrate. I'm glad to see he's still causing so much commotion, but for me it's also the anniversary of his death."