Record crowd attends vigil for 30th anniversary of Elvis' death

Friday, August 17, 2007

An overnight "candlelight vigil" to the burial garden drew a record crowd estimated at 40,000 to 50,000.

MEMPHIS, Tenn. -- Visits to Elvis Presley's grave Thursday brought back teenage memories for fans paying their respects on the 30th anniversary of his death.

"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."

Presley died at Graceland, his former Memphis residence, on Aug. 16, 1977, and is buried in a small garden beside the famous white-columned house.

Visits to the grave continued throughout the day Thursday following an overnight "candlelight vigil" to the burial garden that drew a record crowd estimated at 40,000 to 50,000.

Pat Hillebrand of DuBois, Pa., said a 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."

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.

Ignoring temperatures hitting 106 degrees, thousands of fans turned out Wednesday to spend the day at Graceland awaiting the graveside vigil.

When it began at 8:30 p.m., a tightly packed crowd stretching almost a quarter mile filled all five lanes of Elvis Presley Boulevard in front of Graceland.

Estimating crowds for the graveside procession is difficult. Many fans spread out through the tourist complex to await joining the procession, while others show up throughout the night, hoping the crowd has thinned.

But for longtime observers of the annual procession, it was clear the 30th anniversary crowd was a record-breaker.

"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 underway 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.

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