Year of Elvis

EPE pulls out stops for 35th anniversary of singer’s death

RICHARD J. ALLEY | Special to The Daily News

When describing the upcoming 35th anniversary of the death of the King of Rock ‘n’ Roll, Kevin Kern of Elvis Presley Enterprises said 2012 could bring more fans to town than ever before.

Visitors line up to visit the Lisa Marie airplane at Graceland last week. The 35th anniversary of Elvis’ death comes in August 2012 and it’s going to be a big year for Graceland. (Photo: Lance Murphey)

“Obviously this is an Elvis Week times two,” Kern said.

The New Year promises to be bigger and busier for Graceland, one of Tennessee’s largest tourist attractions, averaging 600,000 visitors annually, but which can see those numbers escalate during a major anniversary year. During Elvis Week alone in 2007 – the 30th anniversary of Presley’s death – Graceland saw 75,000 visitors.

With such high expectations, Kern said, the planning for the 2012 festivities began two years ago. “We traditionally have music events at the Orpheum or the Cannon Center, but this year they’ll be at the FedExForum, that’s the size and scope of a major anniversary year for us.”

“When you get to that milestone date, it becomes bigger,” said Wayne Tabor, chairman of the Metropolitan Memphis Hotel and Lodging Association. “That fifth year, there’s always a bump.”

The end of 2011 saw a great number of visitors and the holiday season specifically saw numbers that surpassed those from past years, Kern said, despite it being a slow time of year for the popular tourist attraction.

Though seasonal tours are offered with the mansion bathed in holiday lights, Kern said, “Graceland is one of those places that people come and see when they’re in town visiting family, but also Graceland is one of those places where people stop and visit on the way to somewhere else as well, and we know a lot of folks are on the way to somewhere else during the holidays.”

Many Memphians may consider Elvis Week (Aug. 10-18) as a time when people come to pay respects, lining up outside of Graceland for hours to walk past his gravesite. The week, however, extends to a yearlong celebration of the life and influence of Presley, not just in Memphis, but globally.

Tabor makes it clear that, while lodging in Memphis is still a competitive business with groups looking for bids on the best deals, there is plenty of business to go around during any anniversary year.

“I’m pretty close to sold out that week (Elvis Week),” said Tabor, who is general manager of the Holiday Inn Select Downtown. “I’ve got groups coming from the UK, from Europe. You see a large influx of European traffic during that time.”

The birthday celebration – Thursday, Jan. 5, to Sunday, Jan. 8 – kicks off a full year of Presley with people pouring into town and setting sail on the high seas with the Elvis Cruise, a music-themed cruise from Jacksonville, Fla., to Nassau in the Bahamas. It’s the sixth annual cruise and typically sees 2,500 passengers on the Carnival Fascination cruise line.

In addition, there will be special 35th anniversary merchandise for sale domestically and internationally, and Elvis tribute artist contests in more than 30 cities around the world, the winners of which will come to Memphis during Elvis Week for the ultimate Elvis tribute artist contest.

Following Elvis Week, in September, EPE will take a yet-to-be-named exhibit to Brazil. “It is the largest Elvis exhibition outside Graceland ever, anywhere in the world,” Kern said. “We’ll be taking around 500 artifacts from Graceland to Sao Paolo, Brazil. There are a lot of Elvis fans in Brazil. … There is a lot of activity with fans from Brazil on Facebook and, and Elvis records sell well, still, in Brazil.”

Graceland typically opens one to two new exhibits during the year as exhibits are rotated in and out, but it will be unveiling three in three months for the anniversary year. One such exhibit, opening Birthday Week, will celebrate the 40th anniversary of “Elvis On Tour,” one of Presley’s most critically acclaimed films, winning a 1973 Golden Globe for Best Documentary.

Another, “Icon: The Influence of Elvis Presley,” will be put on in partnership with The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and Museum in Cleveland, and is a celebration of artists influenced by Presley.

The third, “Elvis Through A Daughter’s Eyes,” may be the most personal exhibit as it chronicles the relationship of Lisa Marie Presley with her father.

“We’ve got a great lineup of exhibits and our archive staff is very, very busy,” Kern said. “Three exhibits is a massive undertaking.”