SIKESTON -- Today marks the 25th anniversary of the death of Elvis Presley, and while he may be gone, his admirers are not.
Approximately 75,000 visitors flocked to Presley's home, Graceland, in Memphis, Tenn., this week to pay their respects to the late entertainer who died from a heart attack at the age of 42.
"Fans certainly enjoy coming here," Graceland Tour Operations Manager Jennifer Vescovo, formerly of Sikeston, said. "It's wild here (this week)!" she laughed.
It's estimated about 700,000 people from around the world walk through the gates of Graceland every year, Vescovo said. Next to the White House, Graceland is the most visited home in the United States, she added. The week of the anniversary of Presley's death is known as Elvis Week.
First-time visitors remain the highest percentage of Graceland's yearly crowd, although there are repeat visitors. Elvis fan Darrell Ray of Bloomfield has been to Graceland about 15 or 16 times, but never to the candlelight vigil, he said. Until now. Ray left Thursday for Graceland and expected to make it in time for the candlelight vigil.
"I'm not an expert on Elvis," Ray, 44, said. "I just like to listen to his music."
Ray also appears as an Elvis impersonator at several locations in the area. Last year he won best Elvis look-alike at Casino Aztar in Caruthersville, he said. He has a collection of Presley's records, statues, books and plates, and saw Presley in concert in December 1976 in San Diego, Calif.
Vescovo's an Elvis fan, too. "I lived half a mile west of Blodgett and I would sit in my pink shag-carpeted room and play his music so loud," she recalled. "Back then, I didn't know what a concert was. The only experience of a concert I had was the (Sikeston Jaycee Bootheel) Rodeo. I thought if I was ever going to go to a concert, it would be Elvis'."
These days Vescovo, 38, is doing the next best thing to seeing Presley live in concert -- she's working at his home. After nearly four years working at Graceland, she continues to be in awe of her surroundings, she said. Currently those surroundings include thousands of fans coming together for the 25th anniversary of Presley's death.
"What's made something memorable about this anniversary is that Disney's movie 'Lilo and Stitch,' which opened at theaters in June, wasn't even planned to come out this year. It just happened that way," said Vescovo about the movie which has introduced Elvis' music to a new generation.
And most recently putting the King back on the music charts is the song "A Little Less Conversation" from his "Live A Little, Love a Little" movie. On Monday RCA presented Graceland with a plaque for the song's success. It's No. 1 in 24 countries, including England. Before this song, Presley and the Beatles were tied for the most No. 1 songs in England, with 17 each. "A Little Less Conversation" made his number 18.
More important to fans than anything is the kind of person Presley was. "He was just a giving person," Ray said. "He poured his heart out in his performances."
Elvis fan Fara McDonald of Sikeston was only 6 years old when Presley died, but she remembers that day. She was lying in a hospital bed after her tonsils were taken out, when her mom came in and told her Elvis was dead.
"My whole family is Elvis fans," McDonald, 31, said. "I've been to Graceland several times and I love it. He's the most gorgeous guy that ever lived. He was so generous."
Throughout Elvis Week, Graceland and the City of Memphis offer several Elvis tributes, but it's the candlelight vigil that symbolizes the respect and admiration Presley's fans continue to have for him.
"The candlelight vigil is really one of the serious and somber events," Vescovo said.
Fans began lining up at Graceland long before the candlelight vigil started at 9 p.m. Thursday. Around 10 a.m. Thursday, fans were already lined up halfway down the gate, Vescovo said as she gazed out her office window behind the mansion.
Vescovo said Presley's ex-wife, Priscilla Presley, and their daughter, Lisa Marie Presley, are expected to make an appearance Friday at Elvis: The 25th Anniversary Concert at The Pyramid arena in Memphis.
Vescovo has seen her fair share of Elvis fans and one thing Vescovo is certain about is there is no stereotypical Elvis fan. "Elvis affects so many people in a personal way," she explained. "Everyone relates him to different aspects of their lives. But when they come here, all the fans have a common denominator."
Presley's music carries on because it's so diverse, Ray said. Everybody can relate to it in some way or another, he added.
The way people fell over him and followed him. And the fainting -- it's just amazing, McDonald marveled.
Vescovo assured: "Whether they're a true Elvis fan or not, visitors have an appreciation for Elvis as a man and how he changed the world."
Elvis Presley, the man, is gone, but it's obvious his spirit lives on. Viva the King of rock 'n' roll!