It was the sweetest hour and a half long moment of ecstasy one could ever hope to experience. The electricity in the Orpheum Theater as the lights went down and the opening montage of the film exploded on the screen could have shorted out the city of Memphis that August Saturday night. Ten year-old Lyndsey wasn't even born when he was alive, but she was screaming and jumping up and down in her seat as soon as his image lit up the screen. Her pretty mother Shantay, who's 39 and was lucky enough to see him live several times as a child, came as close as you can get to losing complete control and still being able to breathe. After forcing the man and woman sitting in front of her to move, she almost tore the chair in front of her out of the cement floor. The other 2,000 males and females in the audience were all experiencing their own moment they would never forget. He was back. He was, for the 97 minutes the film lasted, vital and alive and real, and the high still hasn't gone away.
"It was," Shantay would say later, when she was calmer, "like not having had a drink of water for 23 years, then someone giving you a gallon of it."
"Elvis, That's The Way It Is," the new special edition film marking the 30th anniversary of its initial release, blew us away that night. And for 4 and 1/2 days, this is how it was for one fan down in Memphis, visiting one man's home that has become open house to the world.
My name is Alex and this was my fourth time down there. The first was when I was 18, in 1980, with my family, before the house was open. The second time was in '82 just after it opened, and the tours had begun. Neither visit was made during Tribute Week. Then last year, 17 long years later, I would make it down alone for a part of Tribute Week, determined to be there for the anniversary. Although I've been a fan for 23 years, last year's visit opened up a whole new world. I was only down there for 2 1/2 full days but came away with wonderful memories and the inspiration for what would become writings that would be sent all over the world. Still, as memorable and special as Sun Studio, Beale Street on a Saturday night, the Mansion Tour and the Candlelight Vigil were that last tribute week of the century, it was not enough. This year it would be 4 1/2 full days, more activities, a greater insight and understanding, and new friends and experiences. I thought last year was something. Nothing could have prepared me for Graceland 2000.
I was worthless the entire week at work the week before I left. As aggravating as this was to my bosses, instead of firing me, they were good about my distractions. Friday, the 11th of August, I worked a full day, praying it would go easy. I survived the week and was ready to rock and roll when my dad came for me that evening to take me down to the Greyhound bus station here in Chicago. This year I was going down to Memphis more prepared. I knew better what was going on down there and what it was all about. I knew what I wanted to accomplish. Unlike last year, I didn't allow any personal issues to get me down. This time I was ready to drink it all in. And I was guarding my "Elvis, That's The Way It Is" movie ticket like it was the key to Fort Knox. The bus would leave Chicago about 10 p.m. that Friday night for a nine- hour all night ride spanning 550 miles over open highway. I'd be getting in at 7:00 a.m. Memphis time. This would give me enough time to settle into the motel, refresh myself, and be on my way to Graceland to meet Brandon, one of my new "friends through Elvis" I'd come to be acquainted with over the Internet just this year. He'd be there with his friend Timmy, another avid fan. Later, we would go together to the movie. Looking forward to this first day, I knew that the nine-hour ride would be a good one. I was going to Graceland.
I boarded the bus and saw that it was almost full. There were about 50 folks on board. It took only one glance to realize that I was the only white person on the bus. It instantly seemed somehow appropriate. I sat down next to an older gentleman who was traveling to somewhere else, back on his way to Mississippi. We talked a bit on the way down, and he seemed like a wise traveler. He said he liked to ride the bus to different places. "I'll have to go to Elvis town one of these days," he said.
Memphis had been deathly hot that week, but luckily the 105-degree heat broke that Friday and when I got into Memphis that early Saturday morning, it was the beginning of a mellow, sunny, breezy pleasantly warm day. This time I didn't feel like I was in a strange town. This time I wasn't coming as a stranger.
Getting myself over to the "Travelodge" on Springbrook, the same place I stayed last year, I was pleased to see the same manager there. He instantly recognized me. "Ah, you said you'd be back!" he said, and I immediately felt at home. The "Travelodge" was only a mile and a half from Graceland, and the price was right. I settled into the room and was determined to take a nap before my afternoon and big evening out in Memphis that Saturday night. The air conditioning worked like a charm. Only a couple of hours later, the phone rang, and it was another friend I'd met via e-mail and my projects. It was Margie, who'd come down from Canada with her husband Lance. We set a time to meet on Sunday for lunch. What a difference it was already. The year before I had known no one down here, had not known how to use the Internet, had not even began using e-mail, or begun work on Elvis projects that had introduced me to people all over the world. What a difference a year makes in the Elvis world.
A driver for the motel came around 2:00 p.m. to take me to the beginning of my adventure. Destination Graceland Plaza. I wanted to be there a bit early before meeting Brandon and Timmy at the ice cream shop, so I could gaze at the house for a while and take in the atmosphere at the Plaza. The driver turned off of Brooks Road, onto Elvis Presley Boulevard, and just like before, it was that street that struck me first. Old Highway 51 had been renamed "Elvis Presley Blvd" back in 1972, and the green metal street signs hung, swinging lightly from the light pole wires stretching across the intersections.
As we rode up the street I kept shaking my head and smiling. "You'd think it was paved in gold, but it isn't, is it?" the driver said, laughing. "No, no it isn't." I answered back. It was the first taste of all the ironies in the Elvis world. A perfectly ordinary street, outside of downtown, somewhat between city and country, with gas stations and fast food shops and miscellaneous businesses on either side. There were no tall buildings. No congestion. And it was so ordinary.
"It's a shame that they closed down that old 'Shoneys'," the driver said as we passed a small family restaurant, a 'Denny's'-like box of a building that was boarded up with slabs of wood, leaving only the light blue roof standing out in the sun. Well, that was too bad. I'd heard this was a favorite hangout for the fans and even for some of the EP insiders that came to town. I'd missed hanging out here last year when it was still open, and now I wouldn't have the chance. Well, there was always Graceland.
Just a few more blocks and there it was, the stone wall and the gates. It catches you by surprise. And there, steadfast, beautiful, and majestic, stand the oak trees that keep guard over the lawn and mansion set back on the hill, its white columns shining in the sun. The driver let me out at the Plaza across the street, and there they were: the familiar shops, the local band "The Dempseys" playing their hearts out, and the folks from all over. "Have fun," the driver said. This was going to be good. I just knew it. And it would be, never once, ever letting me down.
That Saturday afternoon I'd meet two young guys from Arkansas, Brandon, 23, and Timmy, 28, both diehard fans who immediately humbled me. These