State of Graceland

By Michael J. Legeros


 
Elvis Presley was born in Tupelo, Mississippi on January 8, 1935, the son of Vernon and Gladys Presley.  He moved to Memphis in 1948. Soon after signing a contract with Sun Records in 1954 he achieved tremendous popularity.  His musical and acting career in records, movies, television, and concerts made him one of the most successful and outstanding entertainers in the world.  He died on August 16, 1977 and is buried here at his Memphis house, Graceland.

 - Sign outside His home 

 

Raleigh to Memphis is a 12-hour trip.  The directions are pretty simple:
take I-40 west, and turn left at the Mississippi River.  It's a scenic
route, down a couple mountains, through a handful of cities, and past an
unspecified number of highway patrol officers.  Asheville, Knoxville,
Nashville-- they all pass in a slow blur, as do the signs for such
attractions as Bat Cave, Dollywood, and Opryland.  (The coolest of the
cool, though, is Asheville Die Cast, 1446 Patton Avenue, which lives in
the second half of an office supply store and stocks every manner of toy
car, truck, and fire engine.)  His visage doesn't appear until somewhere
in mid-Tennessee, on a billboard that tastefully promotes a visit to "my
world."

[We have about 250 miles to go.  Four hours.  Maybe five.  No peanut-
butter and banana urges to report.]

Memphis arrives at the end of the day, at the edge of the old
Mississip'.  Directly across the river is Clinton Country, while the
poorest state in the nation-- but where you can find more than a few
casinos as well as a convenience store clerk who noted that yours truly
could pass for Him-- is about an hour south.  Maybe less.  Memphis, the
largest city in the state, is a cotton town that spawned both the Blues
and the Peabody Hotel, where, twice daily, a quartet of ducks still
traverse the lobby to the strains of John Philip Sousa.  Graceland is on
the south side of town, near the airport, near a Holiday Inn that offers
cheap rooms with convenient views of both the Interstate and the planes
on final approach to Memphis International.  The latter fly overheard
about every seven minutes.

[He traveled in the Lisa Marie.  His jet.  A 707.  It's parked across
the street from the mansion.  Right there, right off the street.]

The house is situated in the middle of what's now a commercial district,
populated by banks, motels, and fast-food restaurants.  It could be any
old strip in any old city, save for a single block with a mansion on one
side of the street, and a visitors center complex on the other.  Shuttle
buses provide the transportation across, yes, Elvis Presley Boulevard.
The tour starts with parking, in the rear, in a small lot behind the
visitors center.  The lot looks too small, like it was placed there
because there was no other place to put it.  The whole operation is like
that.  Not huge, not tacky, just "accommodating."  Imagine turning your
house into an exhibit, and within a square block on either side of a
major thoroughfare.  That's Graceland.

The surrounding merchants are very Elvis-friendly.  There's the nearby
Days Inn, that offers "free Elvis movies" and a bust of the King in the
lobby.  Or check out Graceland Crossing, a small mall of souvenir shops,
next door to His house, that offers "free parking for Elvis fans and
customers.  No semi's."  (There you can buy Elvis shower curtains,
playing cards, golf tees, ball caps, street signs, and those clocks that
move the hips that shook the world.)  Even the nearby service stations
get into the act.  Pull into an Amoco and you're likely to see a little
of His stuff next to the peanuts and Pepsi.  And, if your transportation
fails, you can always pay a visit to Graceland Auto Sales.  The sign
notes "buy here - pay here!"

[I think of a pink Cadillac.  His car, though he really bought it for
his momma.  Where are my fuzzy dice?]

The tours start on the hour and run every 5 or so minutes thereafter.
His house is open 362 days year, and with lines of people early even on
a Sunday morning.  The well-dressed staff hands you a portable cassette
player, with headphones.  You play a tape for the duration of the tour,
listening to His story as you wander from room to plastic-covered room.
The inside of Graceland looks like any other home that was furnished in
the seventies.  There's the pool room (with scratch), the TV room, and
the "jungle room."  (The latter featuring a waterfall.)  There are also
a couple of trophy rooms scattered about, with rows upon rows of gold
and platinum records.  You'll see His famous movie and concert costumes,
all under glass, of course.  (The memorabilia favors his earlier years,
before the weight, and the drugs, and the son-in-law.)

[I look for the something stranger, something weirder.  Like a jar
containing His stillborn twin brother.  Or Hitler's brain.  I never find
it.]

Last stop on the tour is the cemetery, where He is buried alongside his
mother, father, and paternal grandmother (Minnie Mae).  The flower and
gravestone arrangements in the Meditation Gardens are tasteful.  Nobody
walks through in a hurry.  Instead, it's a curious procession of
visitors who pause at the graveside to ponder the fate of a King who died
on the throne.  The tour wraps shortly thereafter, with a ride across the
street and a collection of the audio gear.  The attendants, of course,
point everyone in the direction of Graceland's shops, restaurants, and
car and plane museums.  There's even a Post Office, where you can send a
loved one a letter with a Graceland postmark, though no mention is made
of what happens when mail is returned to sender.  Address unknown.

Memphis may be a grimy, depressing town, but Graceland is a small oasis
of imprisoned beauty.  Think of a tiny kingdom where the glories of a
past ruler are forever enshrined in plastic and Plexiglas.  Like the
South itself, Graceland doesn't appear to be destined for change.
Somebody smarter and greedier would tear down the place and have a
replica built somewhere else, with more parking and a bigger lawn.  They
would install robots of the King, strategically operating through the
replica of the Mansion.  His later years would still be a cipher,
though, as children would likely be frightened by a overweight,
sequined, snarling machine.  The owners would then go on to build an
amusement park, make a zillion dollars, and buy a network.  Thank you,
thank you very much.

[I envision a corporate buyout of Graceland.  Mickey meets the Big E.
Or maybe Batman.  With Val Kilmer in a dual role.]

Everyone comes to Graceland.  We must accept this fact.  They come in
all colors and costumes, in all shapes and all sizes.  They come in cars
and buses and motorized wheelchairs.  They come to their "homeland" to
pay their respects.  For this is pop culture's Jerusalum.  Everything
started here.  They know that.  Priscilla made movies with O.J.  Lisa
Marie married the King of Pop.  And everything today is just a footnote
to then.

June 1995

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