By Jon Waterhouse
For the first time in my life, I’m a best man in a wedding. A best man for a groom I have never met.
At the altar inside Graceland’s Wedding Chapel in the Woods —it’s located behind the Elvis Presley Enterprises corporate office and next door to Graceland— I stand next to Berend Peters. He and his girlfriend of 12 years, Naomi Quijs, traveled all the way from the Netherlands to tie the knot on Elvis’ property. In an effort to have a better understanding of the Graceland wedding experience, I asked the couple if I could participate in the ceremony. Surprisingly, they obliged, and I broke out my best Lansky Bros. jacket for the occasion.
Awaiting his bride to walk the aisle, Berend looks calm and cool in his rockabilly hipster wedding duds. His short sleeve shirt reveals a mass of tattoos, including an Elvis portrait and the label of Elvis’ first Sun single, “That’s All Right.”
“Are you nervous?” I ask.
His shakes his head “no.” Struggling with his English, Berend does his best to explain this is he and Naomi’s third trip to Elvis Week, and Graceland means a great deal to them both.
Others couples certainly feel the same. Savannah Faircloth, one of Graceland’s special events facilitators, says 20 weddings have been scheduled throughout Elvis Week 2017. Pairs from the UK, Australia, Japan, Canada, and elsewhere have or will do the deed at Graceland’s Chapel in the Woods. And Elvis Week 2017 marks the first time a Chilean couple have exchanged vows at the chapel.
Faircloth said Graceland has been in the wedding biz since 2000 and hosts approximately 125 weddings annually. Depending on the price, the all-inclusive package can range from simple to all-out extravagant. A couple can have a basic ceremony in the intimate chapel with a photographer and a faux cake for photo ops. Or they can shoot the moon with various add-on options including a catered reception in the Presley Motors car museum. Sometimes celebrities from Elvis world drop in as surprise guests. During an Elvis Week 2017 wedding, Elvis’ bodyguard Dick Grob crashed a ceremony.
“It’s kind of a one-stop shop,” Faircloth said. “We do everything for the brides; everything from booking the vendors to bustling them up in their dresses. We help them with anything they need. So it’s a stress-free experience where you can enjoy the presence of Elvis in a southern atmosphere.”
Berend and Naomi opt for a more low-fi experience. A videographer and a photographer immortalize the ceremony as Naomi, wearing a white lace dress with a blue ribbon around her waist, walks down the aisle with her brother, Ian. Of course, Elvis croons in the background.
Presbyterian pastor David Bayer of South Fulton, Tenn. begins speaking. Today marks wedding number 1,533 for him. But for Berend and Naomi, it’s their first. As Bayer talks of love and devotion, waterworks emerge from Naomi’s eyes. After a brief exchange of vows in English, the couple delivers their own to each other in their native Dutch. Although I have no idea what they’re saying, the love and warmth emanating from the couple proves undeniable.
After a passionate smooch, the newlyweds walk to the back of the chapel and pose for pictures by the prop cake. Images of Elvis and Priscilla Presley’s wedding ceremony hang on the wall behind them. Soon, we’re all off to Graceland for more photos.
Faircloth explains we’ll be taking a secret pathway from the chapel to the mansion, a nice wedding day perk. A brick walkway leads to a white picket fence with a door. Faircloth then opens the door and we emerge on the side of the mansion next to Graceland’s car port.
“This gives them something unique that normal guests don’t get to experience,” Faircloth said.
Berend and Naomi pose for a series of photos at the mansion’s entrance. They lean up against a column, pretend they’re opening the front door, and pose on the front steps.
I begin chatting with Naomi, who explains the couple met on an Elvis fan chat room more than a decade ago. It was the king who actually brought them together.
“We love his music, and we love the man,” she said, her eyes moistening. “So to be here today at Graceland and to have our wedding here is so special to us.”
Although Naomi and Berend were complete strangers to me an hour earlier, I can’t help falling in love with both of them.
Last night the first 10 winners of the Ultimate Elvis Tribute Artist Contest joined forces for an unprecedented, sold-out concert at Elvis Presley’s Memphis. Each of these guys share an unspoken bond. They know firsthand what it’s like to hold the most significant ETA title in the world.
On the eve of the 2017 finals, I posed the following question to five previous winners: “What advice would you give this year’s winner?”
Here are their answers:
Dwight Icenhower, 2016
“It really does change your life, but never lose sight of what it’s all about. Yeah, we get recognized for what we do, but it all boils down to the fact we’re all Elvis fans. That’s the common denominator. We just need to keep his legacy going. That’s the main goal of any tribute artist.”
Cody Ray Slaughter, 2011
“I would tell this year’s winner to keep doing what you did to win. When I was 16, I was backstage and asking a guy for some advice. He just said, ‘Cody, do you what you did to get where you are right now.’ Don’t be a jerk, don’t lose yourself, and don’t expect too much. Your world is going to change, because it’s a big achievement. Just be a nice guy.”
David Lee, 2015
“Grab ahold of something, because it’s quite an adventure. I thought I was ready for it. It’s a wild ride; just the experience of dealing with the fans and everybody congratulating you; extra shows that you pick up; traveling places that you’ve never been. It’s going to be a great time for whoever wins. I won in ’15, and the past two years have been great for me. It’s continued and is showing no signs of slowing. The Ultimate stamp is something that I think is going to last for a lifetime. To have EPE behind you and the endorsement, if you will, is great. The new guy is going to be one lucky fellow.”
Shawn Klush, 2007
“It opens a lot of doors. It’s a fast-paced way of life, and you have to be on your toes. Be on your game, and be ready for it. You have to wake up when you’re not used to waking up, and run around doing things you’re not used to doing. If you love Elvis the way you say you do, he’ll carry you through.”
Bill Cherry, 2009
“Try to hang on to that money and don’t spend it so quickly like I did. (Laughs) I took my winnings and put it towards a Stutz Blackhawk like Elvis’. …In hindsight, I’d do it a little bit differently. And I wouldn’t let winning the competition go to your head. Just remember, there’s only one Elvis, and we’re all tribute artists. It’s a great honor to win this competition. In my opinion, it’s the highest you can get. It’s almost as if Elvis Presley said, ‘You did a great job.’ It’s a great honor and privilege, but just remember it’s all about Elvis.”