Part 2 of a Real Southern Men Adventure
Last time, I left off as RSM Kris Wheeler and I were heading down to the Graceland area to a trade show of Elvis memorabilia. (You can check out the previous post here.) When Kris came to Elvis Week four years ago, the tar show was in one of the convention halls for the civic center. This time we were told it would be at the Clarion, but the Clarion was now a Cedar. Cedar, huh? Woodsy, refreshing. This could be good.
We missed the place the first time we drove past, even though the GPS was actually accurate for the first time this trip. I’m not sure what threw us off. Maybe it was the prison-like black iron bars surrounding the entire parking lot. Then again, it could’ve been the dilapidated shells of abandoned strip clubs along both sides of the highway. If a neighborhood full of strip clubs is bad, what to think of one where even their owners have abandoned all hope?
If one were trying to create the most negative stereotype imaginable of Elvis fans, they couldn’t have done better than what awaited us at the Cedar. We spot a few aging fans lurking around outside the place, grabbing a quick smoke in the oppressive Memphis heat. Inside the lobby, hardly anyone is to be seen, save one old guy sitting near the entrance of the meeting hall. He didn’t bother to wake as we passed.
To say the lobby was dank and oppressive would be an insult to dankness. This place looked like it had been abandoned for years and, in their haste to accommodate the Presleyterians, the owners had shooed out the rats, mopped and put a quick coat of paint on the lobby ceiling and walls. We wonder if the place is even up to code. I’m feeling less like a documentarian and more like a war correspondent. We pass the crumbling remains of what used to be a brick fountain or planter, past the sleeping old guy at the door and enter the trade show.
I had expected hundreds of merchants and collectibles dealers peddling their wares to throngs of Elvis fans from around the world. What I found was a room of maybe a dozen vendors with their items strewn about folding tables and hung upon the walls of the small-ish meeting room. More dank. Musty old carpet. More of the ceiling tiles were water-damaged or missing altogether than were intact. Six or seven Elvis fans milled about. I realize this isn’t a Graceland-authorized event, but we’re talking about The King here!
Welcome to the Elvis Flea Market.
Before we met with one of the vendors, a photographer who is helping us out with the documentary by licensing us some of his images from Elvis concerts in the early ’70s, we decide to peruse the other offerings. That’s when I realized there was more here than what it seemed at first glance.
I found collections of memorabilia from some of Elvis’ shows in the period we’re covering – even ticket stubs of shows mentioned specifically in the film. There were Vegas Hilton show cards and ads, the same for the Sahara Tahoe.
There were movie theater standees, tons of vinyl albums and singles and all sorts of trinkets from that and other periods of Elvis’ career. The more I looked, the more impressed I became. This was a documentarian’s dream, a goldmine of Elvisness. And the vendors, most aging Elvis collectors themselves, were friendly and helpful.
I’m not a collector of anything, really. I have accidental collections, at best. But being here, seeing all these little esoteric bits of Rock ‘n’ Roll history made me want to spend some serious dough and get in on the game.
One vendor had nothing but hundreds of snapshots of Elvis taken by fans at airports, hotels, backstage at shows and at the gates of Graceland. It was refreshing to see images of the biggest star the world has ever known outside the tightly-controlled marketing machine created by Colonel Tom Parker, Elvis’ long-time manager. One series showed Elvis greeting the fans at Graceland looking every bit the millennial hipster with his small, grey fedora and full, shaggy beard.
Perhaps most striking – and of most use to us – were the snapshots of Elvis’ funeral procession leaving Graceland, the road lined with thousands of fans trying to get one last glimpse of their fallen King. Of a similar grim tone were the two vendors who had unused concert tickets – all dated August 20, 1977 or later – for the shows that would never be.
The longer we stayed, the more fans showed up. (It seems most of these people know each other, which leads me to wonder … How can they make money just selling to one another?)
There were more Elvises, too. There were older, bloated Elvises with mutton chops milling about. A young twenty-something Elvis swiveled his hips with abandon in the hotel restaurant. (Please tell me no one ate there.) Another tall, young Elvis waited in the wings for his turn at enthralling the adoring tens of women.
The day was growing long and more glamorous events than these awaited the masses at other venues. Yet they came. Despite the crumbling interior of the Cedar, they came. Despite the sudden and overpowering funk of backed-up sewage that filled the hotel, they came. Fans young and old, tribute artists and fan club presidents filled the public areas of the hotel.
Our photographer chatted with some friends about the place. One lady offered, “I hope they plan to renovate.”
The photographer snappily replied, “I hope they burn it down,” then quickly added, “but not until after this weekend.”
Next time, I’ll catch you up on our adventures on Beale Street, including a possible run-in with a bona-fide has-been reality TV star.