Suspicious Minds: The Bizarre, 40-Year History of Elvis Presley Sightings

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On August 16, 1977, something momentous happened in Memphis, Tennessee. It was either the death of Elvis Presley at the age of 42, as more than 80 percent of Americans believe, or the start of the most spectacular disappearing act in the history of mankind.

"Elvis is alive” theories are as varied as they are plentiful, and they’ve been circulating since just after his death. He’s left the realm of popular entertainers and joined the ranks of Bigfoot, the Loch Ness Monster, and to some, Jesus. What follows is a brief history of why some people refuse to let this American icon rest in peace.

THE FIRST SIGHTING

On the afternoon of August 16, 1977, a man bearing a striking resemblance to Elvis is said to have purchased a one-way ticket from Memphis International Airport to Buenos Aires. He supposedly gave the name Jon Burrows, a pseudonym Elvis used when checking into hotels. Patrick Lacy, author of the book Elvis Decoded, claims to have debunked this popular and wholly unsubstantiated story by interviewing airport officials and determining that international flights weren’t available from Memphis in 1977. There’s also the question of why the most famous man on the planet would risk going into a public place in his hometown in order to book airfare for the purpose of faking his own death. Maybe Elvis figured his acting skills would help him avoid suspicion.

THE FUNERAL

A great deal of “Elvis is alive” intrigue centers on August 18, 1977, the day of Presley's funeral. Footage of the service shows pallbearers struggling to lift a 900-pound copper coffin. The King had packed on a few pounds in his later years, but there’s no way he was pushing a half-ton. One explanation: The casket was outfitted with a cooling system—the kind you’d use to keep a wax dummy of a beloved celebrity from melting on a hot summer day. Sound crazy? Presley’s cousin Gene Smith thought the body looked a little strange. “His nose looked kinda puggy-looking, and his right sideburn was sticking straight out—it looked about an inch,” Smith said in the 1991 special The Elvis Files. “And his hairline looked like a hairpiece or something was glued on.” Smith was also troubled by the smoothness of Presley’s typically calloused hands and the sweat on his brow.

Attentive fans were further spooked when they saw the King’s headstone. The inscription reads “Elvis Aaron Presley,” even though he’d been given the middle name “Aron,” possibly in memory of his stillborn twin brother, Jesse Garon. The theory here is that Elvis used the incorrect spelling to signal fans that he was still alive. Another one of Elvis’s cousins, Billy Smith, claimed the singer simply preferred the more common double-A spelling, as legal documents bearing Presley’s signature attest.

THE DEATH ITSELF

Traditionally, you can’t have a funeral without a death, and what killed the King is another major source of controversy. The medical examiner’s official cause of death was “hypertensive heart disease associated with atherosclerotic heart disease.” Elvis weighed at least 250 pounds in his final days, and one Baptist Memorial Hospital staffer told Rolling Stone, he had “the arteries of an 80-year-old man.” So a massive heart attack isn’t exactly far-fetched. But toxicologists found more than 10 drugs in Presley’s system, fueling speculation that “polypharmacy” played a role in his death.

The general confusion surrounding these and other jargony cause-of-death explanations has undoubtedly helped to foster conspiracy theories. So have issues concerning official paperwork. Elvis’s death certificate will remain under wraps until 2027, 50 years after his passing. While this may seem like further proof of a cover-up, it’s actually a matter of Tennessee law. As for Presley’s autopsy report: It’s a private family document unlikely to ever see the light of day.

THE POOL HOUSE PHOTO

The second major Elvis sighting came in the form of a photo snapped on December 31, 1977. While visiting Graceland with his family, a man named Mike Joseph took some random pictures of Presley’s pool house. A few years later, while studying them with a magnifying glass, Joseph spotted a shadowy Elvis-like figure sitting in the doorway. Experts at Kodak verified that nothing had been doctored, so it seems someone was peering out the window. In an interview with Larry King, Elvis’s good buddy Joe Esposito suggested it was another Presley associate, Al Strada, in the photo. That explanation was good enough for Joseph, but not everyone is satisfied.

A similar case of mistaken identity led to some excitement a few years later, when sports agent Larry Kolb was captured looking uncannily Elvis-like alongside his client (and Elvis’s pal) Muhammad Ali and Jesse Jackson in a 1984 newspaper photo. Kolb came forward with an original color version of the image proving that it was him—not Elvis—in the shot, but that’s hardly laid the matter to rest. Asked in an interview to identify the man in the background, Ali reportedly said, “That’s my friend Elvis.”

THE KING OF KALAMAZOO

In the late ‘80s, the epicenter of the “Elvis lives” universe shifted to Kalamazoo, Michigan, a city Elvis played four months before his death. In 1988, a woman named Louise Welling from nearby Vicksburg claimed she had seen Presley standing in line at the local Felpausch supermarket. He was rocking a white jumpsuit, naturally, and purchasing an electrical fuse. Welling’s daughter later spied him scarfing Whoppers at Burger King. "What gives this account eerie credibility,” expert David Adler told the Los Angeles Times in an interview promoting his Presley-themed cookbook, “is that Burger King was by far Elvis's favorite fast food chain.”

BACK ON THE BIG SCREEN?

The Kalamazoo hullabaloo spawned a rash of late-’80s Elvis sightings, many of which involved the King doing un-regal things, like pumping gas or buying junk food. These were consistent with the notion that he’d faked his own death to escape the public eye (or the mafia, as one theory holds) and return to his humble roots. But Elvis loved movies—he starred in 31—and Christmas, so it almost makes sense that he would risk blowing his cover by appearing in the 1990 holiday comedy Home Alone.

Believers of this bizarre theory contend that a 55-year-old Presley turned up in the background of the scene where Catherine O’Hara’s character is stuck at the Scranton airport while trying to get home to her son. There’s a bearded guy behind her who looks a little like Elvis in Charro! (1969) and cocks his head in a manner that conspiracy theorists swear is identical to Presley’s onstage mannerisms. Curiously, director Chris Columbus went into Home Alone having just made Heartbreak Hotel, a 1988 flop about some kids who try to kidnap Elvis. Columbus and Home Alone star Macaulay Culkin laugh about the theory in the DVD commentary, but the identity of the extra remains unknown. Even if the real bearded man were to come forward, it probably wouldn’t kill the story.

GROUNDSKEEPER PRESLEY

In the summer of 2016, video of a Graceland groundskeeper purported to be Elvis got the internet all shook up. In the clip, a gray-haired dude in a baseball cap and Elvis Week T-shirt fusses with some wire and holds up two fingers—apparently some type of numerological clue—as he walks past the camera.

The video has been viewed more than 2 million times on YouTube—far more than the one where a clever Elvis fan debunks the whole thing by chatting with the actual Graceland employee, an affable gentleman named Bill Barmer. “I’m not really 81,” says Barmer, who then compares himself to a Pokémon Go character.

THE FUTURE

“Elvis is alive” theories can’t go on forever. The man would now be in his 80s, and the oldest person on record only lived to 122. That means we've got maybe another 40 years of stories about the King chilling in Argentina or sipping coffee at Tim Hortons or doing whatever you do as an elderly man who’s been in hiding since the Carter Administration. Unless it turns out Elvis is immortal.


Hulton Archive/Getty Images

In an interview accompanying The Beatles Anthology DVD, George Harrison likens a brief 1972 encounter with Elvis at Madison Square Garden to “meeting Vishnu or Krishna or something.” His hair was black, his skin was tan, and his aura left the Beatle feeling like “a snooty little nobody.” Harrison may have been hinting at something Mojo Nixon and Skid Roper said rather deftly with their 1987 single “Elvis Is Everywhere.” Alive or dead, Presley is one pop culture deity we’ll never stop worshipping.

The Massive Elvis Festival That Rocks One Tiny Australian Town Every January

Ian Waldie/Getty Images
Ian Waldie/Getty Images

For one weekend each the year, Elvis Presley is alive and well in Parkes, Australia. The tiny town hosts the Parkes Elvis Festival during the second weekend of every January to mark the music legend's birthday on January 8. In 2019, the event attracted a record 27,000 guests to the showground—more than twice Parkes's usual population of 11,400, Smithsonian reports.

Elvis fans Bob and Anne Steel held the first-ever festival in 1993 at their restaurant, Gracelands. On top of being an excuse to throw a birthday party for their favorite celebrity, they set up the festival to draw tourists to Parkes during the region's brutally hot off-season. (During a record heat wave in January 2017, Parkes experienced a high temperature of 114.6°F.)

While the first festival lasted one night and had an attendance of just a few hundred people, it has since grown into a five-day affair with an international reputation. Visitors come from around the world to celebrate the music, fashion, and dance moves of The King. It's a large enough event that festival-goers have the option to travel to Parkes from Sydney via special trains dubbed the Blue Suede Express and the Elvis Express. On board, they're treated to the company of Elvis impersonators and performances by Elvis tribute artists for the six-hour journey.

Guests who made it to this year's Elvis Festival from January 9 to 13 took part in ukulele lessons, Elvis-themed bingo, "Elvis the Pelvis" dance sessions, and a Q&A with Elvis impersonators. This year's Northparkes Mines Street Parade, one of the festival's main events, included more than 180 floats, vintage vehicles, bands, and walking processions paying homage to the icon.

Competitions are usually a big part of the festival, with both Elvis Presley and Miss Priscilla look-alikes facing off on stage. This year, the "Ultimate Elvis Tribute Artist' crown went to 22-year-old Brody Finlay, the youngest winner in the event's history.

Each year, the Elvis Presley festival returns to Parkes with a new theme, giving Elvis fans an incentive to keep coming back. This year, the theme "All Shook Up" celebrated the 1950s era. In 2020, festival organizers are preparing to celebrate the 1966 Elvis comedy Frankie and Johnny.

Can't make it to Australia? Grab a bite of Elvis at one of these American eateries inspired by The King.

[h/t Smithsonian]

12 Larger-Than-Life Facts About Carol Channing

Carol Channing circa 1970.
Carol Channing circa 1970.
John Downing/Express/Getty Images

Legendary Broadway star Carol Channing died January 15, 2019, just two weeks shy of her 98th birthday. Her long, storied career includes her hit Broadway shows Gentlemen Prefer Blondes and Hello, Dolly!, and her lovably wacky roles in Thoroughly Modern Millie and Alice in Wonderland. Her 70+ year entertainment presence has garnered a Tony (plus two honorary ones), a Golden Globe, and an Academy Award nomination.

1. AS A YOUNG GIRL IN SAN FRANCISCO, CHANNING FELL IN LOVE WITH THE THEATER.

Carol Channing in her 'Hello, Dolly!' costume in 1979.
Carol Channing in her 'Hello, Dolly!' costume in 1979.
Monti Spry/Central Press/Hulton Archive/Getty Images

Born in Seattle on January 31, 1921, Channing moved with her family to San Francisco shortly after birth. Her father worked as editor-in-chief of several Christian Science newspapers, and as a young child, she accompanied her mother to the Curran Theatre to help distribute these newspapers backstage. Channing recalled a powerful feeling that overcame her as she felt the theater was a sacred place. "I stood there and realized—I'll never forget it because it came over me so strongly—that this is a temple," she told The Austin Chronicle in 2005. "This is a cathedral. … This is for people who have gotten a glimpse of creation and all they do is recreate it. I stood there and wanted to kiss the floorboards." She used her weekly allowance of 50 cents to buy tickets to see live theater in San Francisco.

2. HER FIRST BIG STARRING BROADWAY ROLE WAS IN GENTLEMEN PREFER BLONDES.

In 1949, Channing landed her first lead role in a Broadway musical, playing Lorelei Lee in Gentlemen Prefer Blondes. "Bye Bye Baby" and "Diamonds Are a Girl's Best Friend" became the most well-known songs from the show, though Channing often performed another of her character's big numbers, "I'm Just a Little Girl from Little Rock," throughout the years. The part made her a star. In the 1953 film adaptation, Marilyn Monroe played Lorelei Lee, a role that also cemented her celebrity status.

3. SHE PERFORMED HELLO, DOLLY! MORE THAN 5000 TIMES.

In January 1964, Channing originated the role of matchmaker and general busybody Dolly Gallagher Levi in the Broadway musical Hello, Dolly! The show was a huge success, and Channing later starred in Broadway revivals and in touring productions, performing the musical more than 5000 times. Even if she was sick, she almost always chose to go on stage, feeling healed by the audience’s positive energy.

4. CHANNING WAS INCREDIBLY BITTER WHEN BARBRA STREISAND WAS CAST AS DOLLY IN THE FILM VERSION.

Streisand's performance on Broadway as Fanny Brice in Funny Girl is legendary, but one musical swept the 1964 Tony Awards, and that was Hello, Dolly! Channing's musical won 10 Tonys (out of 11 nominations), including a statuette for Channing's Dolly over Streisand's Fanny. A few years later, however, when casting for the movie version, the screenwriter felt Channing's outsized personality (as evidenced in her performance in 1967's Thoroughly Modern Millie) wouldn't play well for an entire movie. Streisand, who was only 25 at the time, was cast as the middle-aged matchmaker. "I felt suicidal; I felt like jumping out a window," Channing told a newspaper years later. "I felt like someone had kidnapped my part." In her 2002 autobiography Just Lucky I Guess, Channing admitted that even though she views Streisand as a great creative force and that she admires her, the bitterness remains. "Her movie of Dolly was the biggest financial flop Twentieth Century-Fox ever had," Channing wrote. "There! I said it."

5. HER SUCCESS IN HELLO, DOLLY! ALLOWED HER TO BEFRIEND PRESIDENTIAL FAMILIES.

A year after JFK's assassination, Jackie Kennedy and her two kids saw Hello, Dolly! and met Channing backstage. In the summer, Channing would visit the Kennedy family in Hyannis Port every other weekend on her days off. After Channing sang an adapted version of "Hello, Dolly" for Lyndon Johnson's 1964 election campaign, she became friends with Lyndon and Lady Bird Johnson, later visiting the Johnsons' family ranch.

6. SHE PARTNERED WITH DESI ARNAZ FOR HER OWN TV SHOW.

In 1966, Channing filmed a pilot episode for The Carol Channing Show with Desilu, Lucille Ball’s production company that she had originally founded with ex-husband Desi Arnaz. Directed and produced by Arnaz, the episode never turned into a series, which Channing attributes to the mismatch between her comedic style and the I Love Lucy writers who wrote the episode.

7. CHANNING APPEARED ON TV SHOWS RANGING FROM THE LOVE BOAT TO SESAME STREET TO THE ADDAMS FAMILY.

Channing guest-starred on TV shows like Sesame Street, singing a "Hello, Dolly" variation called "Hello, Sammy," as well as The Red Skelton Show, The Muppet Show, The Love Boat, Magnum, P.I., and The Drew Carey Show. She also appeared on classic TV game shows What's My Line? and Hollywood Squares, and voiced characters on The Addams Family and The Magic School Bus.

8. SHE THOUGHT SHE WAS PART AFRICAN-AMERICAN FOR MOST OF HER LIFE.

In Just Lucky I Guess, Channing revealed that before she went to college, her mother told her that her father was born in the south and that his mother was African-American. Channing hadn’t revealed that she was part black until 2002, but eight years later she backtracked on Wendy Williams's talk show. She explained that she doesn’t know for certain if she’s part black or not because when her mother claimed her father was half black, she was angry at him and may have wanted to get back at him for something. Plus, the census records from 1890, which should hold the key to her father's parentage, were destroyed in a fire, so that portion of Channing's heritage may always remain a mystery.

9. SHE RELEASED A GOSPEL ALBUM IN MEMORY OF HER FATHER.

Carol Channing with her memoir in 2003.
Carol Channing with her memoir in 2003.
Jessica Silverstein/Getty Images

In 2009, Channing released a gospel album, For Heaven's Sake, in memory of her father, who sang gospel songs to her when she was growing up. Channing included spirituals like "Joshua Fit' the Battle of Jericho" and classic Americana songs that her father had taught her. "I can hear my father's voice harmonizing with me every time I sing them although he's long gone," she said in 2010.

10. AT 82 YEARS OLD, CHANNING MARRIED HER CHILDHOOD SWEETHEART.

Carol Channing and her husband Harry Kullijan in May 2003.
Carol Channing and her husband Harry Kullijan in May 2003.
Jessica Silverstein/Getty Images

In 2003, at 82 years old, Channing married her fourth husband, Harry Kullijian. The couple had met in middle school but lost touch over the decades. In her autobiography, Channing devoted a passage to describing her "first love" experience with Kullijian, whom she "went steady" with for two years. "I was so in love with Harry I couldn’t stop hugging him," she wrote. He heard about the passage in the book and contacted her, and they got engaged two weeks after their reunion. They remained together until his death in 2011.

11. SHE FOUNDED A NON-PROFIT TO SUPPORT ARTS EDUCATION.

Carol Channing in 2004.
Carol Channing in 2004.
Kevin Winter/Getty Images

In 2004, Channing received an honorary doctorate from California State University, Stanislaus. Inspired to support arts programs in schools, she founded the Dr. Carol Channing and Harry Kullijian Foundation for the Arts with her husband. Now called the American Foundation for Arts Education, the non-profit works to make arts part of schools' core curriculums. Channing herself visited schools and taught master classes.

12. JOHNNY DEPP’S DREAM ROLE IS TO PLAY CHANNING.

Carol Channing performs in 2003.
Carol Channing performs in 2003.
Giulio Marcocchi/Getty Images

Johnny Depp has mentioned a couple of times that he'd love to play Channing in a biopic; in 2009 he called it a "dream role," and in 2013 he reiterated that point. "I mean it. She's fantastic," he told reporters. Depp's appreciation runs deep: he also revealed that he used to dress up as her as a kid. Channing, for her part, loves the idea. "Men have been imitating me for as long as I can remember," she quipped. "In fact, most of the impersonations I have seen have had a five o'clock shadow."

This story first ran in 2016.

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