Dot Gonyea had been warned by other fans there’d be rumors.
She was first cautioned in April 1977, when she stood in line with hundreds of other fans for tickets to an Elvis Presley concert at the Augusta Civic Center. That concert came and went, on May 24, and Gonyea was thrilled to see her favorite singer.
That summer, Gonyea waited in line for two days and two nights for tickets to see Presley again, this time at the just-opened Cumberland County Civic Center in Portland. The show was scheduled for Aug. 17.
So when someone told Gonyea on Aug. 16 that Presley had died, she didn’t believe it. She figured it was just the kind of rumor other fans had warned her about.
“Other fans told me that before a concert, you’ll hear this happened to him, or that happened to him, so I didn’t believe it. I couldn’t believe it,” said Gonyea, 67, of South Portland. “But when it was on the news, I had to believe it. I was stunned.”
The news stunned the world. On Aug. 16, 1977, it was reported that Presley had died at age 42 at his fabled Graceland home in Memphis, Tenn. The cause of death was heart failure after years of prescription drug abuse. The news of the King of Rock ‘n’ Roll’s death had special significance in Maine, where he had been scheduled to give two concerts at the civic center on Aug. 17-18. The Portland shows were to be the first of a new leg of his 1977 concert tour.
The anniversary of Presley’s death this Monday has been getting attention nationally as fans try to wrap their minds around the fact that the King, the man who electrified audiences and shocked parents, would have been 75 this year. But it has even deeper meaning for the thousands of fans who saw him in Augusta and bought tickets for his Portland shows.
Some of them, who met waiting in line for Presley tickets that year, formed a group called True Fans for Elvis. The fan club became known for its charity work and is still functioning today with more than 150 members. Gonyea, the group’s president, says it has raised more than $200,000 for charities during the last 33 years, including Camp Sunshine, a camp for seriously ill children and their families in Casco.
Many fans, including Alice Dickey of South Portland, still have their tickets and are very active in their love of Elvis. Dickey, 81, is a member of True Fans for Elvis and is also the manager of a nationally-known Elvis tribute performer, Robert Washington of Auburn.
“At least we got to see him in Augusta. I thought he looked bad then; I guess I was expecting him to still be young and trim. But he sounded great,” said Dickey. “When he died I was working in the auditing office at Sears, and I was horrified. I didn’t believe it. The guy wasn’t old enough.”
When news of Presley’s death started to spread, people showed up spontaneously at the civic center and milled about in the lobby.
“People were leaving notes, flowers, pictures — all sorts of stuff,” said Mark Warner, the box office manager, who has been with the civic center since it opened. “Then a few days later, we had a memorial service at the civic center, with a big portrait of him on stage. His music was playing in the background, and people just came in and sat.”
The civic center, which opened in March 1977, sold more than 12,000 tickets to the two scheduled shows. When Presley died, the venue was left with more than 200 of the $15 tickets, because more tickets were printed than were needed for the show. Over the years, Warner has given the tickets to performers who’ve played the civic center, especially if he knows they are Presley fans.
Some people eventually brought tickets in for refunds, Warner said. The civic center only kept a portion of those, so people could keep the rest as mementos. At one point, True Fans for Elvis held a fundraiser at which people got their refunds from the civic center, then donated the money to the American Heart Association. That event raised about $5,000, Gonyea said.
Today, for people who still hold tickets to those Portland shows, the greater value is emotional, not monetary. Last week, a pair of tickets for the Aug. 17 concert were being offered on eBay for $29.95, a nickel less than they would have cost at the civic center in 1977.
Lea Frydman, manager of an Elvis Presley Web site, elvispresleynews.com, said while tickets from any of the scheduled 1977 Presley shows “hold a special place in the hearts of Elvis fans,” tickets from his early shows in the mid-’50s are the most valuable.
“In the past, we auctioned some of those tickets off for charity and got maybe $150 per ticket, but that was quite a while a go,” said Gonyea. “I’ve kept my ticket, and there’s no way I’d give it up now.”
Staff Writer Ray Routhier can be contacted at 791-6454 or at: [email protected]