On August 16, 1977--nineteen years ago this week--Elvis Presley died. But while the general public believes he's at rest on the property of Graceland, his Memphis home, Carol Downey, perhaps Denver's most devoted Elvis booster, knows the truth.
"I don't think he's there," she says. "I don't think they moved him." As evidence, she points out that Elvis, who was initially interred in a mausoleum at Memphis's Forest Lawn Cemetery, never wanted to be underground. Furthermore, his mother, Gladys, had been buried at Forest Lawn before her remains were moved to Graceland several months after her son's death; but when Downey visited Forest Lawn in January 1978, "the ground where they supposedly moved her wasn't even disrupted. And I know what dirt looks like when you dig it up and put grass down in Memphis in winter." Another clue? "If you go to the cemetery in August, there will be flowers at the mausoleum." She adds, "We know where he is."
Of course, Downey, an articulate, youthful-looking woman in her early fifties, can't offer documentation of this claim; she's not part of the Presley family inner circle. She's just a fan--but, oh, what a fan. Her suburban home is a veritable shrine to the late King of Rock and Roll, chock-full of forty years of Elvis memorabilia and memories. His music provides the soundtrack for her life: As she greets a visitor, the whispered plea of Elvis's "Love Me" drifts through the screen door. "That's the song," she says, "that Elvis was singing when he gave me the scarf."
"The scarf" came Downey's way in December 1976 at the Las Vegas Hilton, where Presley was performing. When an attendee asked if she would be interested in paying extra to sit up front, Downey took her up on the offer. As she recalls it, "Elvis came out on stage, and I got up on stage. I held out my arms, and he laid the scarf in my arms." Downey, who saw Presley perform in person "only" eight times, has a cassette tape of that fateful show among her massive collection of live Elvis shows. And while her actual Elvis keepsake is locked away in storage, she proudly displays a scarf similar to it on a wall in the home she shares with Tom, her husband of fifteen years. In a frame with it are autographed photos signed by the King himself, a certified mail receipt, dated August 1, 1977, bearing Presley's signature, and unused tickets for an Elvis concert in Memphis for August 28 of the same year. "I got the tickets in the mail on Monday," Downey remembers, "and Elvis died on Tuesday."
This monument to Presley may seem obsessive to some, but not to Downey. "People say to me, 'You shouldn't worship Elvis,'" she acknowledges, "and to those who don't understand, maybe that's how it comes across. Well, I don't 'worship' him. But God gave him to us for a reason, and he could have brought the whole world together."
God could have?
"Elvis could have," she corrects. "There's a lot more to Elvis than 'Jailhouse Rock.'"
As Downey tells it, her world was changed forever when she first heard Presley's "Heartbreak Hotel" in 1956. A teenager at the time, she was knocked out by the song--especially, she says, "after so many years of songs like 'How Much Is That Doggie in the Window?'" Soon, she and her friends were meeting regularly at the Woolworth's on Denver's 16th Street to buy and listen to Elvis records. Since then, she says, "he's just become a part of life. It's like I've known him forever."
Despite statements like this, Downey says, "I am not a fanatic." However, her Elvis collection is certainly fantastic. Her treasure trove ranges from whiskey decanters, statues and dolls (including a Sixties-vintage Elvis troll) to plates, jewelry, buttons and photographs. In addition, she has preserved tree leaves from Graceland, which Downey has visited over 25 times, and pressed leaves of "poke salad" from Presley's Tupelo, Mississippi, birthplace.
Among the more oddball products bearing Elvis's likeness are bingo markers, "Always Elvis" wine and a set of "Love Me Tender" bubble bath, shampoo and conditioner. "I bet that's probably not any good anymore," Downey says with a smile. She confesses that the need to purchase all things Elvis is a drawback at times. "You see stuff and you just have to have it." She adds, laughing, "It's like a sickness, and there's no cure."
There's also no end in sight to the manufacture of Elvis merchandise. In fact, Downey believes Presley's presence has grown since his passing. "He's always in the paper and on radio and TV." As she speaks over the sound of "Are You Lonesome To-night?" playing on the stereo in an adjacent room, tears sneak from beneath her glasses and her voice cracks. "I cry," she explains, "because he's gone."
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At the time of Presley's death, Downey was a single mother of four working on the production line at the local Coors bottling plant. Her co-workers, aware of her love for the King, broke the bad news to her gently. Her reaction? "I shut down the line," she recalls, "and told my boss, 'I'm going to Memphis.' I wasn't sure if I'd have a job when I got back, but I had to go." The next morning, after borrowing plane fare from one of her teenage sons, Downey was in Tennessee, surrounded by thousands of mourning Elvis supporters. A member of the local "Mile High for Elvis" Fan Club at the time, she spent three days and nights with a few other like-minded sorts, living out of a car parked across the street from Graceland. When she returned to Denver, packing a vase from the cemetery where Presley was buried before his alleged move to Graceland, her job at Coors was waiting for her. "I'm the only person at Coors who got funeral leave for an entertainer," she proudly points out.
Downey's most visible Elvis souvenir is her car's "ELVIS" license plates. She's had the plates since 1983, when an Aurora man who claimed to own one of Elvis's cars surrendered the rights to them. "I knew he was keeping them for money," Downey declares, "and that he'd give it up some day." In the thirteen years she's had them, the plates have been stolen several times, most recently by an eight-year-old elementary school student. "He said he wasn't an Elvis fan," Downey reveals. "I think maybe he was but didn't know it."
Today Downey works as a waitress at a Lakewood restaurant--and her love of Elvis runs as deep as ever. "I just think he's great," she says. "He was good-looking, he could sing and dance and move, he was kind and gentle. And good." And while she's quick to admit that she's one of Elvis's biggest enthusiasts, she knows she's not alone. Quite the contrary.
"There are," she notes, "millions of people like me.