Untold Arizona: How The Elvis Chapel Landed In Arizona

By Christina Estes
Published: Wednesday, February 7, 2018 - 5:05am
Updated: Wednesday, February 7, 2018 - 8:44am

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(Photo by Christina Estes - KJZZ)
The Elvis Chapel at the Superstition Mountain Museum in Pinal County.

More than 50 years ago, Elvis and Priscilla Presley exchanged wedding vows in a small, civil ceremony in Las Vegas. Their nuptials spawned a Vegas industry of Elvis-themed weddings. But it’s an area east of Phoenix that has a unique chapel connection to the King of rock 'n' roll.

About a mile from the Superstition Mountain, there’s a large dirt lot, home to a white, wooden structure. It’s the Elvis Memorial Chapel.

“Some people consider this sacred,” said Charlie LeSueur, Arizona’s Official Western Film Historian. “It really is a piece of Elvis here.”

A look inside the Elvis Memorial Chapel in Apache Junction, Arizona.
(Video by Christina Estes - KJZZ)

The chapel played a prominent role in the 1969 Western, "Charro!" Out of 31 movies Elvis starred in, "Charro" is the only one where he did not sing on-screen. His only song played during the opening credits.

The chapel was part of the Apacheland Movie Ranch in Gold Canyon — a full Western set that hosted more than a dozen TV series, nearly 30 films and even more commercials. A fire devastated Apacheland in 2004. The barn and the chapel were the only buildings left standing.

“They literally took the buildings apart and rebuilt them here,” LeSeur said.

Plank by plank, volunteers helped resurrect the chapel on the 15-acre grounds of the Superstition Mountain Museum. The pews are original, but the stained glass window is new. And, the steeple had to be replaced because not even Elvis could stop the bad guys from blowing it off.

“It’s interesting,” said Carrol Knutson as she looked around. “I knew nothing about it. I remember seeing the movie but didn’t realize the chapel was here.”

Knutson doesn’t recall much about "Charro!" “Well, I was more of an age where I was looking at him than worrying what the movie was about,” she laughed.

Knutson preferred movies with a singing Elvis — something actor Michael Dante experienced in another film: "Kid Galahad." But before he could sing with Elvis, Dante had to fight him.

“Elvis gets in the ring with me and hits me, and after I pummel him quite a bit, he hits me with a shot and knocks me out," Dante said.

TOP: The chapel walls are lined with "one sheets," which highlight Western films and shows shot at Apacheland Movie Ranch. LEFT: Elvis Presley starred as a former gang member wrongly accused of stealing a cannon used by Mexican revolutionary forces.RIGHT: Actor Michael Dante, who worked with Elvis Presley in "Kid Galahad," recalls the singer wanting to play more serious roles. (Photos by Christina Estes - KJZZ)

In a scene that followed, Dante approached Elvis and encouraged him to join the others who were singing on the porch. He still remembers the words, “This is living, this is living,” he sang. “It was a lot of fun. I enjoyed it immensely.”

Dante filmed several movies at Apacheland Ranch and appreciates the care that’s gone into preserving the Elvis Chapel.

“There are a lot of what they call one sheets here,” he said.

One sheets — or movie posters — line the walls. And, center stage reveals a life-size statue of the King: black collar flipped up, blue guitar slung over his shoulder, hips reinforcing the nickname "Elvis the Pelvis."

Dante said Elvis wanted to take on more serious roles, “He said, ‘Michael I want to do the things you do.’ And the studios wouldn’t finance him to do a serious picture after he had done 'Charro.' They just wanted to do musicals because they saw the dividends, the profits were tremendous.”

According to IMDb, an online database, "Charro" grossed $1.5 million. Elvis played a former gang member falsely accused of stealing a cannon from the Mexican revolutionary forces.

Phoenix native Ron Nix played one of the soldiers. During his 52-year career, Nix performed stunts in just one Elvis movie.

He recalled Elvis being friendly and getting along with everyone but, “When Colonel Parker (Elvis’ manager) showed up, it was like ‘Stay away from Elvis, don’t bother him, Parker’s here.’”

The frontier chapel didn’t feature a wedding in Elvis’ movie, but couples make the pilgrimage now.

“It’s like going to Vegas and go be married by Elvis in the Elvis chapels there. But this is the honest to goodness chapel that he actually shot in.”
— Charlie LeSueur, Arizona’s Official Western Film Historian

“It’s like going to Vegas and go be married by Elvis in the Elvis chapels there,” LeSueur said. “But this is the honest to goodness chapel that he actually shot in, not some façade that they made in Vegas.”

It’s unlikely a single chapel in the shadow of the Superstition Mountain will ever match the wedding business from dozens of chapels near the Vegas strip. But, that’s OK. Only Arizona can claim the chapel where the King of Rock 'n' Roll played the King of the Western.

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