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King's Memory Lives On for Elvis Week '94

Elvis fans by the thousands make the annual pilgrimage to Graceland

ELVIS sightings may be at an all-time high here in Memphis where thousands of fans have gathered to pay tribute to the ``King of Rock-and-Roll.''

Today marks the 17th anniversary of Elvis Presley's death and the conclusion of Elvis Week '94. Continuing a tradition that started in 1982, about 40,000 Elvis fans traveled to Memphis this year to show their devotion. Some of the 400-plus Elvis fan clubs worldwide hold annual pilgrimages to Memphis.

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Fans of all ages - many born after Elvis died - come to tour the 14-acre Graceland Mansion that Elvis bought for his parents in 1957, when he was 22 and already a runaway success. Several thousand tourists come through the mansion every day. ``But we're expecting 30,000 to 40,000 people this week,'' says Graceland tour guide Angie Hadley. The nine days of festivities during the elongated Elvis Week '94 offered something for every kind of Elvis aficionado.

Beyond Graceland Mansion and tours of the Lisa Marie jet and Elvis Presley Automobile Museum, fans can take bus trips to Tupelo, Miss., to tour the two-room house where Elvis was born.

In suitable tribute to a man who loved to give away Cadillacs and jewelry, many of the Elvis Week events serve as charity fund-raisers. The Elvis Presley Memorial Charity Event benefits the Make-a-Wish Foundation.

Tours of the high school where Elvis graduated in 1953 cost $2 each and benefit school programs. Students conduct tours through the Elvis A. Presley Auditorium where Elvis performed in a student talent show.

Other events offer opportunities to get close to the people who knew Elvis. The third annual Memphis Mafia Reunion featured lifelong friends of Elvis who reminisced and took questions from the audience.

Even Elvis's karate instructor contributed to the action. The Kang Rhee Karate School was open all week for visitors and offered a display of ``Elvis karate action photos.''

About 15,000 people were expected at last night's candlelight vigil at Graceland. Just after 9 p.m., people began filing up the long driveway to Elvis's gravesite, candles flickering in the night. The parade of fans was expected to last until dawn.

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While some of the Elvis Week activities are sponsored by Graceland, many others are not. Despite its unofficial nature, the Eighth Annual Elvis Impersonator Contest at the Headliner Club just down the road from Graceland is a popular event.

``Doc'' Franklin, a veterinarian who took care of all the Presleys' animals for years, runs the impersonator contest. He has a Rolodex filled with 1,200 names of Elvis impersonators around the world and is often called on to help cast Elvis look-alikes for movies.

``Graceland does not particularly like impersonators,'' Mr. Franklin acknowledges. ``They have a good product in Elvis. Why do they need impersonators?''

``It's not in keeping with the image we're trying to project,'' explains Todd Morgan, a spokesman for Elvis Presley Enterprises Inc., which operates Graceland. ``These imitations very often end up being a caricature of Elvis.''

Caricatures or not, Elvis impersonators are a devoted bunch. There are heavy-set old Elvises and sleek young Elvises dotting the audience at the Headliner Club. The 50 competitors each get their 15 minutes of fame during which they perform as many Elvis songs as they can. Many dress up in glittery jumpsuits and sport the flashy gold jewelry Elvis wore. The ultimate goal is to turn themselves into the King for a day.

``Impersonation is the sincerest form of flattery,'' says Don Sims, a performer from Illinois who has been doing his Elvis act for 23 years.

Sammy Lee, a competitor from Hattiesburg, Miss., figures he has an edge over the other contestants. ``Elvis and I are fifth cousins,'' he says. ``Even though I never got to meet him.''

Albert Murphy traveled from Newfoundland, Canada, to do his Elvis act. And Englishman Aaron Kane made an appearance courtesy of an anonymous Elvis fan in Britain.

The winner of the impersonation contest wins $500 and a Caribbean cruise for two. ``But the biggest thing he gets is all sorts of publicity and jobs,'' Franklin says.

Joe Kent, who impersonates Elvis in the current movie ``The Client,'' was recommended by Franklin after participating in the contest.

Now that Graceland and Michael Jackson's Neverland are joined by the surprise marriage of Elvis's daughter, Lisa Marie, everyone is speculating about what Elvis might think.

Franklin isn't sure. But ``if Elvis was alive, he'd be saying something about it,'' he says. ``So that just proves he's dead.''

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