Gary James' Interview With
The Founder Of Elvis FANtasy Fest
You could say Kay Lipps knows a thing or two about Elvis. She saw him in concert more than two dozen times. She was at the Market Square Arena in Indianapolis, Indiana where Elvis performed for the very last time on June 26, 1977. She is the founder of Elvis Fantasy Fest. We spoke with Kay Lipps about her love of Elvis Presley.
Q - Kay, when I hear your name, I think of the movement you were heading to save the Market Square Arena from being torn down. But of course, in the end it was torn down.
A - Okay. So that was an erroneous fact as often happens in the press. I knew there was no way to stop progress, (laughs) of tearing down the arena to build a new a new one. So, what we did is actually put out a call to the fans to donate, so at least we could put up a historical marker at the site of Market Square Arena.
Q - Why would they want to put up a new arena? Was this arena very old?
A - Yes.
Q - Like how old?
A - It was about 35 years old. It was pretty new when Elvis was there in '77. It wasn't brand-new. It was built in the '70s. The problem with it was, even though it was a cool building, 'cause the center of it went over Market Street; that's why it was called Market Square Arena, there weren't a lot of suites like there are now, so that corporate sponsors can have suites, those kind of things that bring in money for the building and franchise.
Q - Why tear it down? Why not remodel it?
A - I think their study showed that because of the way it was built, it was a domed space and it did have some suites, but I think cost factor came into play and it was too expensive to redo it.
Q - Was the Market Square Arena the venue that CBS showed on Elvis' last concert in 1977?
A - That was not. I believe there were some crowd shots from Market Square, but the Special was actually filmed in Rapid City and Omaha earlier in the tour, only about a week ahead. I forget the exact dates. You're not talking to one of the European fans. (Laughs). They would absolutely know the dates.
Q - The Europeans know all that information, do they?
A - Oh, the Europeans are just amazing. I love having friends from over there. They know what studio, which album was recorded in, who the session players were. (Laughs).
Q - 17,000 people attended Elvis' Market Square Arena concert. That's a big place.
A - Well, when it was set up for a concert with floor seating, it held about 18,000.
Q - Had Elvis been there before?
A - Elvis had never played that building before. He'd been in Indianapolis two other times, in June '72, very close to the Madison Square Garden appearance and then he was there again in '74. In '72 he played the Fairgrounds Coliseum, which is a really old venue. I think with floor seating that only held 10,000 or 12,000. Then when he came back in '74, the venue that was available was the Convention Center. It was great, but it wasn't very good at the end of the show. When you are in a hockey arena or basketball venue where the floor seats are on their own, you can't come down from the higher seeds down to the floor, but at the Convention Center you could come straight down from the seats. Quite a few people made it to the floor. At the end of the concert there was kind of a riot actually going on by the stage. All kinds of people were coming down by the end. It was awful.
Q - Did you get a scarf?
A - I didn't get a scarf that night. We were sitting in the first level seats, up close to the corner of the stage. We had really good seats. I was one of the ones that left and went down. I happened to get down in front of center stage. Of course I was wanting a scarf. That's when the riot broke out. Of course I was so enthralled watching Elvis and trying to get his attention that I didn't notice all these people were coming down and all of a sudden the security people, and that included the police officers, were lining the stage, holding people back. I'd been reaching out for a scarf and all of a sudden I found my feet not touching the floor because I was kind of hanging on a policeman who had his arms out holding people back. It actually became kind of scary. I remember looking to see if I could get under the stage for protection. After it was over, it was cleared out. I'd worn a dress and had a little scarf around my neck and I had a little hat on. When I came back to my seat, my husband was waiting and I was all excited. I said, "Did you see me? I was right dead center stage. It was so cool. Elvis was right there." He said, "Do you know you have a footprint on your back?" (Laughs). I said I wasn't aware of that. Later, when I thought of it, it kind of scared me a lot. I kind of had a bad dream actually about getting crushed. When they built Market Square Arena that was available when he came back in 1977, they had what they named The Elvis Wall, which was barriers in front of the stage. It prevented people from getting real, real close to the stage. And it might have been after Elvis appeared at Market Square. I know they weren't there when I was there, 'cause I had a front row seat that night.
Q - Did you see other acts at that venue?
A - Oh, yeah, sure.
Q - Who did you see?
A - Barry Manilow, Neil Diamond, Sonny and Cher.
Q - You are a rock 'n roll fan!
A - I am a rock 'n roll fan, but number one I'm an Elvis fan.
Q - You saw Elvis in total 29 times?
A - That's correct.
Q - We know that you saw Elvis' last concert. When did you first see Elvis in concert?
A - June of '72.
Q - What was the difference in Elvis' sound and appearance to you in that five-year span?
A - Of course, he was heavier. No doubt about that. Vocally I would say in '77 he might have even been stronger. When people ask me about the Market Square concert, a lot of people will say "I could tell he was sick. He looked bad." I did not see that in him. I thought he actually looked better than he had say about six months earlier. He looked really good New Year's Eve in Pittsburgh. I didn't have that feeling at all about him. The song list, he went back and did a couple of songs he hadn't been doing for a while. I specifically remember he did his version of "Bridge Over Troubled Water" that absolutely brought tears to my eyes. It was so good. Elvis had a way with a song that he so owned it and so told the story. I think his vocals were even richer than when he was younger. It was just amazing. The only concert that could come close to the electricity and the excitement of an Elvis concert was Michael Jackson.
Q - You saw him too?
A - I did. Not until after Elvis passed away, but I did see him. That's the only other concert I've ever been to that could even come close. That included the very last concert. There was still such excitement and Elvis was so charismatic. When you even compare Elvis to Michael... In Michael's concerts he does costume changes. He does magic tricks. He has dancers. Elvis just came out and sang and created the same kind of charisma and electricity in the venue. There's no one like Elvis. He went so long without performing 'live' concerts during the movie years, I never dreamed I'd get to see him in person.
Q - At that last concert you never thought to yourself, this is the last time I'll ever see Elvis?
A - Absolutely not.
Q - Did he introduce his father and girlfriend at that last show?
A - He did. He often did that. I had a friend who went to his New Year's Eve show in Pittsburgh and he introduced Lisa. She was eight years old at the time.
Q - At one show, you did get a scarf from Elvis and a kiss from Elvis. You lived your dream.
A - Absolutely. You know what I always relate it to? At first you just want to get a ticket and see the show. We were kind of spoiled from the get-go. I don't know how I missed him in Cincinnati because my parents lived down there. He was there in '71. First you just want to have a ticket. They didn't even have Ticketmaster back then. So, the tickets for that went through the biggest travel agency in Indianapolis at the time. I was fortunate enough that my husband's business partner knew one of the owners of the travel agency and so we called and got tickets. We were lucky enough to be in the sixth row. I kind of got spoiled from the get-go. But you just really wanted to have a ticket and then of course you wanted a better ticket and then you wanted a front row seat. (Laughs) so, that led into finding out when the tickets were going on sale and going and waiting in line. That's the way you did it back then. Actually the Colonel and Concerts West were pretty good about making sure the tickets were available for the fans who waited in line. So then you get the coveted front row and now you know you have a chance to get a scarf. So then after you get a scarf, you want a kiss. Next thing you know you are following him to the airport are coming in early for the show so you can see him when he arrives at the airport.
Q - Do you still have that scarf?
A - Absolutely. I ended up having seven before it was all over.
Q - Do you have any idea how much they are worth?
A - No. I actually gave one away. It was the day before my birthday and I had taken a sign that said, "I need a birthday kiss". When Elvis first came out, I kind of got a scarf right away. He came over to our side of the stage. I walked up and had my sign and he gave me one (a scarf). I laid the sign up on the stage. It was between two of the monitors and later in the concert he came back and pick up the sign. He was looking for who the sign belongs to, so of course I had to get up again, right? So he gave me another one (a scarf) and apologized. The stage was very high for that show. So, there was no way for a kiss. There was a group from the British Fan Club that we ran into over in Cincinnati. We had been in Cincinnati the night before for that concert and we talked to some of them then. This guy from Scotland we talked to the night before in Cincinnati came up to where we were sitting at the end of the show. He was trying to get Elvis' attention. All of a sudden, Elvis is doing "Can't Help Falling In Love", which we all knew is the end of the show. He threw a gift to Elvis on stage. Anyway, he (this guy from Scotland) was so thrilled and I had two scarves. So, when Elvis left the stage, I grabbed this guy's arm and said, "I have two scarves. I know you have come all the way from Scotland. I know Elvis would want you to have this. And so here!" I gave him one of my scars and he went flying off.
Q - Have you ever heard a story that made you doubt that Elvis died on August 16, 1977?
A - Absolutely not. I was fortunate enough to know the inner circle.
Q - You know the Memphis Mafia guys?
A - Well, not so much until after Elvis died. We've made contact with Charlie Hodge before. Felton Jarvis was always really nice. After Elvis died, we got together with our fan club in Indianapolis. We wanted to do some kind of memorial service around the 26 (June 26, 1977). Our original idea was kind of like Elvis: The Concert is right now. We thought it would be really cool to have the original musicians. At the time we had no idea the Elvis tribute world would be as good as it is. We became really good friends with Dick Grob, Charlie Hodge and Billy Smith. They help us out with some of our fundraising to hold our first event that we had on June 26, '78. When you're talking to people who buried him, you're pretty convinced that it actually happened.
Q - You're involved in something called Elvis FANtasy Fest held annually in Portage, IN?
A - Yes, this was our 21st year. Up until last year (2013) it was always an all-volunteer effort and all the proceeds were given to charity in Elvis' name. I always thought Elvis' music legacy would go on forever. His charitable ways and giving nature, I thought, was something for the fans to emulate. The tourism director for Porter County in Indiana (which is very close to Chicago) was looking for something to bring people into the areas and thought Elvis was just the thing. He contacted the folks at Graceland for the names of the Indiana Fan Clubs which is how we got involved. We were always approved by EPE and now we are a licensee and hold one of the preliminary Ultimate(R) Elvis Tribute Artists Contest. Over the years, it has evolved into a great event. We now partner with the Sherry Management team who sponsor many other Elvis Festivals. It is an opportunity to help the event grow and the Special Olympics still benefit quite a bit from the portions of the event. In the beginning we gave to some of the Memphis charities, the Med Foundation and Marian Cocke's annual Charity Dinner but we gave the largest proceeds to the Porter County Special Olympics. Over the years we have become such friends of the athletes and their parents that now they are the sole beneficiary. We have given close to $300,000 to the charities. Even with the change in production with Sherry Management, we still presented them with close to $15,000 on Elvis' birthday 2014. I think Elvis would be very happy about that.
Q - Do you rent a hotel room for this event?
A - Actually it's in a very large community building there, City Park. The first year we had it, they just added on what was basically a big gymnasium. Then there was a ballroom. It's a nice venue. Holds about 1000 people. We have a special guest who were friends or associates of Elvis. We have dealers that have memorabilia. I'm not saying we were the first, but we were one of the first. The first year George Klein came in and did our sock hop. It was one of the first events Joe Esposito attended. We were just thinking of all the things that would attract fans. I said there's a lot of people who enjoyed the Elvis tribute artists. They were called impersonators at the time. So, we started a contest because there were fans who enjoyed the tribute artists. We didn't even have it in the same place. The first year we kind of separated it (the contest) from the Elvis Fest. We had the preliminaries before because we were on a very limited budget. It's always easy to be in the paper after you have the event. So, I thought, we'll just have the preliminaries and that'll get in the paper. Over the years, that's become a popular part of the event. We actually are a preliminary for and licensee of Elvis Presley Enterprises. Our winner goes to the contest in Memphis during Elvis Week. That part has definitely become very popular. Elvis' music legacy will go on forever as long as musicians can play the music. That's something that will never die. You've got the music. You've got his legacy of giving and being a generous person and living the American Dream and I just think it will go on forever.