Which means it’s the perfect day to get a little weird.
Every week we celebrate elements of Portland’s wonderful weirdness in collaboration with the fine folks at Weird Portland United (WPU).
If you haven’t read them yet — you can find our February Weird Wednesdays here, where we interviewed The Unipiper, local artist Cedar Lee, and The Portland Sleestak. And if you missed our interview with magician Spencer Sprocket, peep at that here, check out our chat with designer Sundari Franklin, read our skating adventures with Carlos the Rollerblader, and get caught up in technicolor fun with artist Strawberry Pickle at Rainbow City.
We’re doing something a little different today, folks. We are going back in time to one of Portland’s OG weird art galleries, a coin-operated wonderland where you could get married for $25, hear a sermon from the King of Rock n’ Roll, buy a t-shirt you probably didn’t need, and so much more. That’s right, we are covering the 24-hour Church of Elvis.
What exactly was the 24-hour Church of Elvis?
Well…it was a lot of things. It was an art gallery that changed locations three times (and its official name was actually “Where’s the ART!! A Gallery of Art for the Smart”). It was a sidewalk-facing wall of ‘80s era screens and gadgets that “included several coin-operated art exhibits that made sounds, moved, and talked in response to pressed buttons,” according to Atlas Obscura. It was also a place where you could get legally married by owner (and ordained minister) Stephanie G. Pierce, and you could also have a novelty wedding — coin-operated of course.
How did Elvis Presley fit into all of this? He had a display at the gallery and for a quarter you could hear the King give a sermon and confess your sins to him.
In 1985, the first location of the Church — which was the brainchild of Pierce, who came to Portland to become an artist after practicing corporate law with AT&T for three years — sprung up. The church first operated out of a storefront on SW Washington Street, with a single fortune-telling machine and art displays from over 300 Portland artists.
The displays at the Church were often a mishmash of ‘70s iconography. (📸: Courtesy of Trout Monroe Flickr)
A year or so later, Pierce moved the display to Ankeny Street where she recreated the window and first introduced the 24-hour Church of Elvis addition at the suggestion of two high school students.
From the Oregon Encyclopedia:
“For a quarter, visitors could hear a sermon by Elvis, confess their sins, receive the Elvis catechism, or get a photo with the King of Rock and Roll. Pierce also offered Elvis-themed wedding services, including legal weddings for $25, novelty weddings for $5, and coin-operated weddings for $1.”
These funds helped Pierce pay her rent, and she eventually moved the gallery to its third location (still on Ankeny) where she would give free tours of the displays and beseech attendees to buy her t-shirts. This third spot made it difficult to install a coin-operated display so Pierce supplemented with an Elvis museum.
The tours mostly consisted of artists describing their displays as quickly as possible to the gathered attendees.
According to Atlas Obscura:
“As part of the tour, those who entered were promptly yelled at for interrupting, or, depending on which part of the tour they interrupted, barked at by others taking the tour. It provided the opportunity to wonder what in the world was going on, and gave those already taking the tour, who had just gone through the same welcome, the chance for a good laugh.”
Remember the 24-hour Church of Elvis when you think of Portland’s weirdness. (📸: Courtesy of The Unipiper)
Sadly, the Church eventually closed due to lack of funding sometime in 2013. During its heyday it garnered local, national, and international acclaim for its full embrace of offbeat strangeness and art.
If you can find your way to one of the old locations, you can still see a “Where’s the ART??” sign displayed in the window. The 24-hour Church of Elvis was one of Portland’s truly weird experiences, in some of the most wonderful ways.
Unfortunately, we weren’t able to connect with Stephanie for a deeper dive on her experience creating the Church, but we would love to do so in the future.