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Die-Hard Elvis Fans Descend on Memphis

This is Tribute Week, and 50,000 fans have come here to remember

`BEING an Elvis fan - it's everybody's individual thing,'' says Wanda Eads. ``It's here, honey,'' she says, pounding her heart. Decked out in Elvis T-shirt, buttons, and rings, Ms. Eads proudly introduces herself as the vice president of Elvis Fans of Hoosierland, based in Indianapolis. Eads is one of 50,000 Elvis Presley fans from around the world pouring into Memphis for the eighth annual Elvis International Tribute Week.

Elvis is ``just like family,'' says Martha Coy, here with Eads and friend Betty Glynn. The women estimate they have been to Graceland about 13 times - ``three times one year,'' says Ms. Coy.

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This week's events range from a candlelight vigil to trivia contests, sock hops, video nights, art exhibits, auctions, a karate tournament (Elvis had an eighth-degree black belt), and a 5 km run, as well as tours through the Graceland mansion, Elvis's jet (the Lisa Marie), and auto museum, which opened last year.

For someone from outside the true-blue-suede world of Elvis fandom, the question is: Where does this burning love come from? What is it about Elvis? Bobbie Larson, from Ham Lake, Minn., puts it simply: besides Elvis's talent, ``he was down to earth, a good southern boy, charitable, and my age-range.''

``He's beyond handsome; he's gorgeous,'' says Shirley Johnson of Lima, Ohio, a hard-core fan who says she owns an Elvis clock, Elvis mirrors, Elvis tapestries, Elvis underwear, hundreds of magazines featuring the king of rock and roll, and more.

``He meant so many different things to so many different people,'' says Lori Featherstone, marketing analyst with Graceland's Communications department - a common sentiment from tour guides and fans alike.

A casual fan is someone who might hear an Elvis song on the radio and turn it up, or watch an Elvis movie on a Sunday afternoon. They will visit Graceland on their way to see their Aunt Bonnie Lou, says Featherstone.

Elvis International Tribute Week, however, is ``a whole different ballgame,'' says Featherstone. Filled with people who ``can't help falling in love'' with Elvis, Graceland plays host to an onslaught of hard-core fans and miles of memorial floral arrangements in honor of Elvis Aaron Presley, who died 13 years ago. Elvis trivia grows

``A real small percentage - I'd say 1 percent of [total Elvis] fans - are really hard-core,'' Featherstone says. ``They do something related to Elvis Presley every day of their lives.'' They watch his movies, play his records, go to fan club meetings. A lot of them are female, and a lot are male, though the females tend to get more media attention, she adds.

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Every day brings new dimensions to Elvis trivia. People call up and ask such things as what size shoe Elvis wore (12-D), how much each of the famous Graceland front gates weighs (250 pounds), or whether he lip-synched (no). Graceland publishes the ``Graceland Express'' (circulation: 22,000) which carries news, photos, and classified ads for fans. There's a ``real resurgence of young fans,'' Featherstone notes. Out of more than 280 fan clubs worldwide, the youngest is a group of 8-year-olds in Kentucky. ``All of a sudden, he's just become really cool,'' says Featherstone.

Club activities range from collecting memorabilia to raising money for Elvis's favorite charities to pushing for an official Elvis postage stamp.

``We have a large contingent of foreigners,'' says Featherstone. In fact, the largest Elvis fan club (22,000 members) is in Leicester, England.

Many overseas Elvis fans don't even know English, but can sing the words of his songs, Featherstone adds. Clubs have recently sprouted in East Germany, Zimbabwe, and the Soviet Union.

Jean-Marc Gardiulo is president of ``Treat Me Nice,'' a 5,800-member Elvis fan club based in Paris. This is the fifth trip he's led to Graceland, with several of the club's ``very, very big'' Elvis fans. One fan, Yvon Luco, displays an Elvis tattoo on his arm.

Everything and everyone in Memphis seems to have an Elvis story to tell: In the basement of the mansion (upstairs is off-limits; the home is still occupied by Elvis's Aunt Delta), visitors learn that a tear in the pool table was made by a friend trying a trick shot. The king would sometimes fly to Denver in the Lisa Marie just for a peanut butter and banana sandwich. A rumor holds that Elvis chose the color of his 1956 Cadillac convertible (originally white) by squeezing grapes on its hood. He also bought a 1955 Fleetwood Cadillac for his mother, who did not drive.

Then there are the stories from fans: Flight attendant Janie Bruno from Irving, Texas, had a front-row seat in an October 1976 concert and caught a scarf thrown into the audience by Elvis.

``My mother dated him,'' says Memphis resident and Elvis impersonator Joe Kent, who remembers swimming in the Graceland pool once as a child. ``He took her roller skating and bowling ... but no `funny business.'''

``My ex-husband's uncle was in the service with him,'' says Shirley Johnson. ``That makes me wish I was in the service.''

Zeke DeVane lived across the street from Graceland for a while, on Michael Street. ``We tried not to intrude on his privacy and treated him more or less like a neighbor,'' says Mr. DeVane, a retired air traffic controller now from Como, Miss.

``I liked Elvis's music, though I wasn't the kind to run screamin' and hollerin','' DeVane continues. ``Some people come to Graceland for what we call `showin' out''' (putting on a crying act). `Sexy, but not vulgar'

``He lived the American dream,'' says Billy Dowdy, intern at Sun Studio, where Elvis (and many other rock and blues artists) first recorded. ``He started out poor - his family had nothing.''

His kindness made a lot of people happy, says Sue McClure, a longtime fan from Southaven, Miss., whose nephew is an Elvis impersonator: ``Elvis just had something about him that showed people that he cared. He was always saying `Yes ma'am, No ma'am'; he respected everybody.''

``His gospel singin' gives me chills,'' she says. ``He was very sexy, but he was not vulgar.''

Conspicuously absent from Graceland is the Elvis in the '70s - his divorce, drug abuse, and death. Post cards, movie clips, and souvenirs depict the young Elvis. Understandably, fans want to remember Elvis ``For the Good Times...'' as the tribute week's theme says.

As far as Memphis is concerned, the more visitors, the better. Other than the White House, Graceland is the most visited house in the United States, says Featherstone.

``You gotta admit, the biggest draw [to Memphis] is Elvis - it helps the city financially,'' says Danny Adams, a Memphis resident competing in the Elvis Presley Memorial Karate Tournament. Adds Adams: ``It's great that we remember him.''

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