As it does with the death of a Jedi, the Force only grew stronger with Elvis Presley after his untimely passing on Aug. 15, 1977.
Thirty-one years after his death, he's now virtually omnipresent, like Santa, and with just as much ground to cover. Elvis' ghost has been spotted on the steps of Graceland and in the streets of Las Vegas. Movies such as "Mystery Train" and "True Romance" reference the supernatural phenomenon that Elvis has become. A perennial tabloid presence, he appears in unlikely places, sometimes lost and bewildered, sometimes doling out advice.
To some, Elvis is a religion unto himself. Gregory L. Reece, author of "Elvis Religion: The Cult of the King," came up with his topic after meeting a fan who'd moved to Memphis, Tenn., to be closer to the King.
The singer's own fascination with world religions and death's mysteries entices pop scholars and psychics alike. In her autobiography, Priscilla Presley complained about all the mystical books from his hairdresser Elvis would pile on the bed, which resulted in far too many deep talks. It was the closest she ever came to life in a college dormitory.
Tommy Foster is possibly Memphis' foremost expert on homemade Elvis shrines. Years ago, he built one at a coffee shop. Put a quarter in the slot and it lights up and plays music. Foster called it the "Church of Elvis Impersonator," and he even officiated weddings in front of it. Foster now works for the Center for Southern Folklore and builds blues shrines professionally.
He stuffed his cabinet-size shrine with Elvis artifacts: blue suede shoes, a silver pistol, toy cars and a folk-art likeness of a jumpsuit-clad Elvis wearing sunglasses and sporting sideburns. It collected about $200 a month in quarters. Elvis Presley Enterprises tried to sue Foster three times.
"I was breaking all the rules," he said. "I respect Graceland's need to protect the copyright, but it was more of an artistic statement."
Two weeks ago, I asked Memphis artist Dwayne Butcher to consider creating an Elvis shrine that would highlight the artistic aspects of a memorial. Butcher was the right guy for the job; his second date with the girl he'd later marry was to a Graceland candlelight vigil.
He called a few friends, also artists, to help come up with a concept. Their first brainstorm was to have a mobile puppet theater that would depict scenes from Elvis' life: karate lessons with Red West, Robert Goulet getting shot out of a television, etc. But there was some disagreement as to which person would have to perform the show.
By the end of the evening, they agreed to put their individual skills to work on a more shrinelike creation. There would be a collage of Elvis pictures, a bust of the King, and possibly something that used the dripping of paint Butcher's trademark. The result will debut soon on GoMemphis.com.
Meanwhile, I began work on my own shrine.
I'd hoped to create something that expressed the view Memphians have toward their hometown hero, so I started by asking a number of locals what their personal Elvis shrines would look like.
But some don't share the reverential attitude toward the icon that true fans do. When they missed the distinction between shrine and satire, they were asked simply to free-associate to the word "Elvis." The list was familiar: karate, blue suede shoes, gold records, jumpsuits, pink Cadillacs.
I visited local thrift stores in search of appropriate relics, with little success.
And then, one night, I found a battered guitar case on the side of the road.It was the ideal starting point for my shrine. And, encircled by candles, it will represent my own evolving homage to the King.