The King is Dead. Long Live the King!
When Dot Gonyea heard that Elvis Presley was coming to the Cumberland County Civic Center in Portland, she knew she had to be first in line for tickets. "I grabbed my daughter and two lawn chairs and we jumped in the car," Gonyea says.
The concert hadn't been announced yet, but word had leaked to a friend of Dot's who worked at the Porteous, Mitchell & Braun department store opposite the civic center. By the time Dot and her daughter Debbie made the drive downtown from their home in South Portland, the news was on the radio."I said, 'Debbie, beat feet!' " Dot recalls. "We ran up - and there was a guy standing at the ticket office."
The man who beat her, Pete Cloutier, introduced himself. He had just had a haircut on Meetinghouse Hill. His barber was Art Gonyea, Dot's husband.
Small world. But it got bigger in a hurry. Before long the line had stretched out of sight. Tickets wouldn't go on sale for two days.
The response didn't surprise Dot, who had first experienced the devotion of Elvis fans just three months earlier, when she waited overnight during a cold spring rain for tickets to the King's first-ever concert in Maine, at the Augusta Civic Center. Those 7,200 tickets sold out in two hours. "That's when I saw the magnitude of the whole thing," says Dot, who at the time was a thirty-four-year-old mother of three who had never been to a concert in her life. "All the Elvis fans came out of the woodwork."
Debbie, who was only ten, wanted to see what made Elvis so special, but there weren't enough tickets for the Augusta show to go around. Dot promised to make it up to her someday.
And so it seemed that someday was coming much sooner than she'd expected when Dot's friend called with the scoop that the King was coming to Portland. "When Debbie and I ran in [to Portland] that day," Dot says, "I said, 'See, I told ya. You're gonna have a front-row-center seat to see Elvis.' But then, of course… "
Dot was just a kid herself when she discovered Elvis. Her name was Dot Stetson then, and she was enjoying an idyllic childhood on a farm in Waterville. Then, in one jarring moment, her adolescence arrived. It happened on January 28, 1956, during a broadcast of Stage Show, hosted by bandleaders Tommy and Jimmy Dorsey. "He came on TV," Dot recalls, "and I went, 'Holy smokes! What's happening here?' I fell madly in love."
With incendiary performances of "Blue Suede Shoes" and "Heartbreak Hotel," Elvis Presley introduced himself to America. Dot had found the man of her dreams - as had millions of other young girls.
Older girls, too. Up in Orono, Lionel Dubay's mother, Edith, was the resident Elvis fan. And when Lionel, a UMaine grad, became director of the new Augusta Civic Center in December 1972, his mother pressed her agenda. "Every time I would go back home to visit her," Dubay recalls, "she would say, 'Lionel, when are you going to get Elvis?' "
It took almost five years, and lots of cajoling, to make it happen. "About a year prior to our date we even offered to fly him in and put him up in a summer home on the coast," says Dubay, now the manager of the O'Connell Center at the University of Florida. He laughs at his naivete. "As if we needed to fly him in."
By then Elvis was a megastar with a private jet, the Lisa Marie, and an entourage of eighty. But he was on the dark side of forty and struggling to stay relevant. From Jimmy Page to Johnny Rotten, rock 'n' roll had gotten a lot heavier.
So had Elvis. One report claimed that he hadn't released a new publicity photo in five years.
His fans in Maine couldn't have cared less. "My husband said, 'He isn't gonna look anything like you remember him,' " Dot says. "I said, 'Art, I don't look anything like I did either.' "
That Augusta Civic Center concert, on May 24, 1977, was "a fabulous performance," Dot says. "When he walked out on stage, it was like the place blew up with all those [camera] flashes. The energy was unbelievable - he just knocked the socks off ya." In his review, Kennebec Journal reporter Paul Betit wrote that Elvis "didn't have to sing. All he had to do was stand there and move something - a finger, a leg, his head. It was all the same. Every time he struck a different pose, moved something new, the screams and the flashbulbs would go off again."
The experience overwhelmed Dot. "When we got home that night," she says, "I told my husband, 'I can't stand it. I'm so wound up.' So I dropped him off at home, and I went out to the Sheraton."
It was no secret where Elvis was staying. The Portland Press Herald reported that about two hundred fans had gathered at the South Portland Sheraton before the concert for "a game called 'Which door is Elvis going to come out?' " (Answer: the service entrance, after a limo pulled up out front as a decoy.) The Presley entourage had secured the top two floors. "I just parked in the parking lot and looked up at Elvis' room," Dot says. "I sat there for I don't know how long."
The Augusta concert also inspired Dot to join a brand-new fan club. Called True Fans for Elvis, the club was founded by Mechanic Falls resident Dick Edwards, who was impressed by the outpouring of enthusiasm his fellow Mainers had displayed during Elvis' first visit to the state. Apparently Elvis' handlers were impressed by Maine's reaction, too, because they decided to bring the King back just three months later for two concerts on consecutive nights at the Cumberland County Civic Center. In advance of those shows, the Maine Sunday Telegram ran an article headlined "The Second Coming."
The Presley charisma is difficult to explain to anyone who never experienced it. But Dot tries: "You always felt like Elvis was singing just to you, even when he was on TV or in a movie."
That's why she was so intent on being first in line in Portland. She wanted to be closer to the stage than she'd been in Augusta. "I was thinking I would be right there in the front row to have that eye contact." On the afternoon of August 16, Dot was imagining just that scenario and listening to Elvis' latest album, Moody Blue.
Then the phone rang.
Because it fell on the eve of what was to be his first Portland concert, Elvis Presley's death hit his fans in Maine harder than many elsewhere. At first Dot responded with denial. "I said, 'He couldn't have passed away - I'm gonna see him tomorrow,' " she recalls. But the phone calls just kept coming, "like a member of the family died."
Suddenly, instead of sharing their enthusiasm, True Fans for Elvis shared their grief. Dick Edwards persuaded the Cumberland County Civic Center to open its doors for a combination memorial service and fundraiser. It netted five thousand dollars. And because heart disease was the culprit that had killed Elvis,
True Fans donated the money to the Maine chapter of the American Heart Association. "That gave us some closure," Dot says.
It also forged a bond that has kept the club together through thirty years and many more fundraisers, such as their annual retreat to benefit Camp Sunshine [see "The Sun Sessions"]. And unlike most Elvis tributes, which are held in August to mark the anniversary of the King's death, True Fans holds its retreat in May. "It commemorates the only time Elvis came to Maine," Dot says. "We prefer to celebrate his life."
Still, some Mainers carry permanent scars from Elvis' death. For example, Dot's daughter, Debbie, still smarts over the memory of twice being denied the chance to experience the Presley magic. "She'll never forgive me that I didn't give her a ticket to see Elvis in Augusta," Dot says. "Daughters being daughters, she still tells that story, thirty years later, as if it was yesterday."
A King's Ransom?
Mainers can't put a price on their Elvis memories, but they can put a price on their Elvis memorabilia.
Unrefunded tickets for the two ill-fated concerts at the Cumberland County Civic Center have great sentimental value for Maine's Elvis fans. Unfortunately they don't have a particularly high monetary value, according to Gary Sohmers of Wex Rex Collectibles in Hudson, Massachusetts. Sohmers, who appraises pop-culture artifacts on the popular PBS series Antiques Roadshow, estimates that those tickets are worth just ten dollars to thirty dollars above the fifteen dollar face value (although some people have paid as much as $150 for a single ticket on eBay). "When celebrities die, [collectibles from] before their death have great value," says Sohmers. "Everything after their death has considerably less value."
So memorabilia from what turned out to be Elvis' last concert - in Indianapolis on June 26, 1977 - is worth ten to fifty times more than memorabilia from what was to have been his next concert, in Portland. And because so many people kept those Portland tickets, their value is further diluted. In 1984, when the statute of limitations on refunds expired, the civic center still had about eighty thousand dollars in revenue - more than five thousand tickets' worth. The Presley estate had sued other arenas over unrefunded money, but settled the issue in Portland without going to court. "We did what all smart people did," says Cumberland County Civic Center manager Steve Crane. "We split it."
Even after the settlement, the civic center continued to honor refund requests - including one just last year. Untorn tickets from Elvis' only Maine appearance are rare and are worth about twice the value of Portland tickets. Even a torn ticket from Augusta is worth twenty to forty dollars, provided Elvis' name is legible. A program from the Augusta concert, complete and in excellent condition, is worth twenty-five to fifty dollars.
A few lucky fans also went home from Augusta with the souvenir scarves that Elvis was famous for tossing into the audience. "Elvis scarves sell for between $50 and $250 at auction," Sohmers says, "depending on the year and the sweat stains."
Elvis' Maine shows sold out so quickly that advertising posters weren't necessary. And Crane, who has been at the civic center since 1978, says that any other memorabilia related to the Presley concerts "has long since disappeared into history."
With one exception. Crane says the civic center has kept records of every event (or nonevent, in the case of the Presley shows) since it opened on March 3, 1977, with a Z.Z. Top concert. "They're in the dark dungeons of the parking garage basement," Crane says. And although Sohmers estimates the value of those Elvis documents at up to a thousand dollars, Crane says the civic center isn't interested in selling. "We would rather retain them as part of the rich history of this building." -R.S.