By Chris Kieffer
TUPELO – On Thursday night, Adela Martinez and Debbie Ponce began a 15-hour car journey from Albuquerque, N.M., to the Mid-South.
On Saturday morning, they emerged in the parking lot at the Elvis Presley Birthplace Park.
“I’ve been an Elvis fan since I was 4,” said Ponce, 49. “Nothing was going to stop me from coming.”
The two were among hundreds of Elvis fans from around the world who came to the birthplace on Saturday for the 36th Fan Appreciation Day. The event begins activities for Elvis Week, which remembers the anniversary of the artist’s Aug. 16, 1977, death.
Like most of those in attendance, Martinez and Ponce will spend much of next week in Memphis, where several activities are planned. Martinez, who lived in Memphis for years, foot the bill for Ponce’s first trip here.
“This is perfect,” Ponce said. “I had a rough year last year. This is so needed. She is fulfilling one of my dreams, my only dream really.”
Lesia Marcum, 46, of Birmingham, Ala., drove to Tupelo with her husband and two nieces to celebrate her 30th Elvis Week. Written in white chalk on the back window of the family’s Pacifica was “Elvis Week 2013 Rock & Roll TCB.”
“I come because he is Elvis,” she said. “…No matter the mood you are in, he can cheer you up.”
This is the first year the Fan Appreciation Day was held entirely on the grounds of the birthplace, except for the evening concert by Ben Portsmouth that was moved to the Civic Auditorium at the last minute because of threat of rain.
In the past, entertainment and food was in the church across the street. This year, they were able to utilize an amphitheater and theater opened on the grounds last August.
“Every year we come, it has gotten a little better,” said Les Horne of Oxford, England. He was making his 13th trip to the birthplace.
Among the fans who visited on Saturday, was Joe Makowski, 61, of St. Petersburg, Fla., who saw Elvis perform in person 81 times between August 1971 and June 1977.
“He had such charisma and the most dynamic voice I ever heard,” he said. “Every song, he put so much into it.”
Vickie May, who founded the Elvis Tampa Bay TCB Fan Club, was there, as was Linda Crouch, who leads the Elvis Friends South Florida Fan Club.
“I always come here,” said May, 59. “I tell everyone to go to Tupelo. It is the icing on the cake. You can’t see Elvis in Graceland without coming to Tupelo.”
David Smock, 29, of Jonesboro, Ark., makes a special jumpsuit every year before attending Elvis Week. This year, the black suit featured metal stars and butterflies.
“It is how I pay my respect to Elvis,” he said.
Michael Franta, 47, of Huntington Beach, Calif., became an Elvis fan after a visit to Graceland in 2005 and has attended Elvis Week yearly since.
“The fan goes to Graceland,” he said. “The real fan goes to Tupelo.”