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Fans make pilgrimage to Graceland

Thousands of Elvis Presley fans braved 105-degree heat as they wound down Graceland’s driveway in a graveside procession Wednesday in advance of the 30th anniversary of the singer’s death.
/ Source: The Associated Press

Under a scorching sun at Graceland, his beloved home, fans streamed by Elvis Presley’s grave on Thursday, the 30th anniversary of the death of the king of rock ‘n’ roll. It was, for most, a time to remember.

“I can’t describe how I feel about him because I’ve loved him since I was a teenager,” said Katie Brown of Crittenden, Ky. “When I would hear him sing, I’d go into like a trance and nothing else around me mattered.”

Pat Hillebrand of DuBois, Penn., said her graveside visit with friend Sandy Bartoletti of Saratoga Springs, N.Y., brought back memories of the Elvis concert they attended together in 1957 as 15-year-old schoolmates.

“We rubbed our hands on the stage and I didn’t wash my hands for a week,” Hillebrand said. “I had gum that I chewed in the air where he breathed and I kept it for like 15 years.”

Tom Vigil, 42, of Denver was determined not to let the heat stop him even though he was missing part of a lung from recent surgery.

Decked out in a black Elvis-type jumpsuit, Vigil pulled an oxygen tank behind him with a breathing tube attached to his nose.

“I’m not in the best of health, but I wanted to be out here and be part of this,” he said.

Mary Powell of Salinas, Kan., said she took up her post at 5 a.m. to be sure to get near the front of the line. “A lot of people would say I’m crazy, but this has to do with my love for Elvis. He did so much for his fans,” Powell said.

Dozens of large floral displays sent by fans from around the world surrounded a walkway leading to the garden. Teddy bears, single red roses and other small offerings covered the grave.

Presley, who died at Graceland on Aug. 16, 1977, is buried in a small garden beside the famous white-columned house.

Graceland was also swarmed Wednesday by fans who turned out for the annual overnight “candlelight vigil” to the garden. Waiting for it to start, many sat or stood for hours in temperatures that hit 106 degrees.

Elvis Presley (1935-1977)

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Elvis Presley (1935-1977)

The rise and fall of the King of rock 'n' roll.

By the time it began at 9:30 p.m. EST, a tightly packed crowd stretched almost a quarter mile, filling all five lanes of Elvis Presley Boulevard in front of Graceland. By the time it finished, the overnight event drew what was estimated to be record numbers.

“According to our guys who do special events, and they’re experts at counting heads, their estimate is somewhere around 40,000,” said police spokesman Vince Higgins.

Jack Soden, chief executive of Elvis Presley Enterprises, the company that runs Graceland, said he was given a police estimate of 50,000 participants and considered that on the low side.

“It was just amazing,” Soden said. “Everything about this week has been bigger and stronger, with more people and more attendance everywhere.”

The graveside procession went on through the night and was still under way when regular Graceland tours were ready to begin at 8 a.m. Thursday, Soden said.

“A lot of fans all over the world had anticipated this would be a big year,” he said, “and that had a tendency to become a self-fulfilling prophecy.”

The city’s Convention and Visitors Bureau predicted up to 75,000 visitors would be in Memphis for the anniversary this year. Almost 600,000 tourists visit Graceland each year, with a capacity attendance of more than 40,000 touring the residence during the anniversary week.

Workers from a Memphis hospital passed out free bottles of water and fans lining up for the vigil could take breaks to stand for a few moments in a misting tent dubbed “Kentucky Rain” after one of Presley’s songs.

Abby Reeves of North Augusta, S.C., said she expected Memphis to be hot, but not quite so hot.

“We had some family here last year and they said it was only in the 90s,” Reeves said.

When Presley died, his finances were in sad shape. Led by ex-wife Priscilla Presley, the estate formed Elvis Presley Enterprises, opened Graceland to the public in 1982 and solidified the legal rights to make money on Elvis’ name and image.

Last year, Graceland took in $27 million in revenue, and the overall Elvis business brings in more than $40 million a year. That made him the second-highest grossing dead celebrity in 2006, behind only Nirvana’s Kurt Cobain, according to Forbes magazine.