36 Years After Elvis Presley’s Death, Could the King’s Popularity Be Dying?

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An Elvis fan.

Long live the King? By some indication, tourist interest in Elvis Presley is on the decline—which would make sense given that fewer and fewer people with firsthand memories of the King of Rock ‘n Roll in action are around. Yet some say the notion that Elvis interest is dying is nonsense.

A recent article in the Las Vegas Review-Journal claimed that interest in Elvis Presley, at least in Sin City, has taken a hit. The story reported that while there are an impressive 198 Las Vegas-area Elvis impersonators listed at the entertainment-booking site Gigmasters.com, the number of Elvis Presley impersonator bookings fell by over 20% from 2011 to 2012. For 2013, Elvis bookings have remained flat—roughly on pace with last year’s underwhelming numbers. One wedding planner told the paper that at least for younger clients in the market for Vegas nuptials, Elvis has left the building, so to speak:

“The whole Elvisy Vegas red carpet thing is, in my opinion, going out the door,” said Carrie Gaudioso, wedding coordinator for the Mon Bel Ami chapel. “That whole era is getting older. Almost all of our older renewals want an Elvis wedding. Our younger brides do not want cheesy, flashy, Elvis Vegas. They want something nice in their budget.”

Jimmi Ellis, a triple threat who performs tributes to Tom Jones and Elvis and works in Internet marketing full-time, told the Review-Journal that Google searches for “Elvis impersonator” have fallen swiftly over the past few years. “The business is not what it used to be,” he said. “The decline is very apparent.”

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The Las Vegas Convention and Visitors Authority could not offer any statistics testifying to Elvis interest among tourists, but noted that the Elvis-a-Rama Museum closed several years ago and the “Viva Elvis” Cirque du Soleil show was replaced last year. According to the Las Vegas Sun, “Viva Elvis” was the first show that the Cirque troupe was ever asked to replace; host MGM Resorts made the request due to poor ticket sales.

The simplest theory for the seeming decline in Elvis interest is the aging of the fan base. According to a 2012 Las Vegas Redevelopment Agency report, more than 40% of Las Vegas tourists are 50 or under—and likely too young to have strong memories (or any memories) of Presley when he was alive.

Despite the reports from Las Vegas, however, the folks at Elvis Presley Enterprises (EPE), which runs Graceland and licensing for the King—and whose job, it must be said, is to paint Elvis in the most positive light possible—insist that it’s absurd to think for a second that Presley’s popularity is flagging. “The number of Elvis impersonators or Google searches for ‘Elvis impersonator’ aren’t reflective of interest in Elvis,” said Gary Hahn, EPE vice president of marketing and media. “Our business, here at Graceland and around the world, is thriving.”

The private company does not make Graceland attendance statistics public, but the EPE website states that “Graceland welcomes over 600,000 visitors each year.” Occasionally, word does get out about specific attendance numbers from various years. As recently as 2010, Graceland hosted 519,000 visitors, down from 540,000 the year before.

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Every August, fans pay tribute to the King with a candlelight vigil on the anniversary of his death, and this year, police estimated attendance at around 35,000. That’s a sharp falloff from the previous year’s vigil, which attracted 75,000 fans—and 500 people touring the mansion every hour—according to the Memphis Commercial Appeal. The fact that 2012 marked a nice round number for the anniversary (35 years) seemed to have a lot to do with the phenomenal crowd size. Indeed, the big anniversaries regularly draw more and more vigil attendees—35,000 on the 25th anniversary (when it rained), and closer to 50,000 on the 30th.

The theory that interest in Elvis is fading due to an aging fan base is also silly, according to EPE, which estimates that 30% of both Graceland visitors and the nine million Elvis Presley Facebook fans are under the age of 35. (Overall, the average visitor to Memphis is 47, and tourists skew 59% male, according to the Memphis Convention & Visitors Bureau.)

“People are often surprised at the scene at Graceland,” said Kevin Kern, EPE director of public relations, pointing to Wall Street Journal’s Marc Myers, who attended Elvis Week in 2010 and later wrote that his assumptions couldn’t have been more wrong that he would be surrounded by “freaky Elvis Presley wannabes and silly like-minded vacationers stuck in a polyester time warp.”

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“The crowd is younger and more varied than they’d imagined,” Kern said of Graceland’s visitors. “Not everybody is an Elvis fan either. They could be just music enthusiasts, or fans of Paul Simon and ‘Graceland.’ Elvis is a part of pop culture, a part of history.”

And Elvis and his former home are undeniable icons. In fact, the readers of 10Best and USA Today just voted Graceland as the #1 Best Iconic American Attraction. Presley is also a regular at or near the top of the annual Forbes “Top-Earning Dead Celebrities” list, landing in 2012 at #3 (after Elizabeth Taylor and Michael Jackson) with $55 million in earnings.

Surely, the popularity of Elvis and Graceland has ebbed and flowed over the years, and it’s difficult to pinpoint how high (or low) interest is at any given moment. But looking forward, it’s easy to imagine the fascination with the King on the rise.

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The 2017 anniversary of Presley’s death will be the centerpiece of what could be the biggest Elvis Week ever. Not only will the vigil mark 40 years since Elvis’s passing, but by then there may be a whole new generation of fans drawn to the King of Rock ‘n Roll. As Variety reported, Fox has a new Elvis film is in the works: It’s based on the Peter Guralnick’s 1995 best-selling biography, The Last Train to Memphis: The Rise of Elvis Presley, Kevin McDonald of “Last King of Scotland” is on board to direct, and, perhaps most intriguing, another rock legend, Mick Jagger, is one of the producers. In an open casting call for an actor to play Elvis at the ages of 18 to 22, the movie’s story is described as an “against-all-odds success due to his uncanny gift for self-invention, his unstoppable drive, and the new sound he created that changed the music world forever.”