Elvis Presley's Graceland
After running from Central Tennessee and 18 hours of tornado warnings, we arrived in Memphis to perfectly blue skies. That we arrived in one piece is notable because the citizens of Memphis are the second worst drivers in the nation next to the citizens of Nashville, in our experience. What the hell is, or isn’t on the drivers test in Tennessee? On the surface streets people drive like they’ve been drinking, which is fine if you just distrust the motives of all cars in the vicinity. The freeways though are insane, if you forget and use your indicator, there’s no way they are letting you in, in fact they speed up. So you end up doing what the locals do, which is swerve into whatever lane you need without signalling, which will piss off the guy behind you in that lane, but at least you don’t miss your exit.
Graceland is on Elvis Presley Boulevard in a part of Memphis that was probably semi rural when he bought the place, which was already named Graceland after the previous owner’s daughter. The road had another name then, but in the early 1970’s the city changed it, which must have been handy for Elvis when he needed to give people directions. The area now is mostly run down strip malls, used car dealerships, BBQ joints that look seriously dodgy, basically the area is not what you would expect. I imagine tourists coming from either downtown or the airport probably lock their doors a long time before they get to Graceland.
We stayed at the Graceland RV Park and Campground across the street from the house, and on the side of the street behind the museum complex. It was pretty convenient, I have to say. We left the dog in the coach and just walked over. You can choose the package you want, they do a house only tour for $31, or you can get the whole deal and see the various exhibits for $35. There’s also a VIP tour that’s $70, but I couldn’t tell the difference from what was on that tour vs. ours. They hand you a ticket and a set of headphones and what looks like a walkman, and point you towards a bus which will drive you across the road to the front door of Graceland.
Opened to the public in June 1982, from the outside the house looks like “Mr. Blandings Builds His Dream House”, but inside, it’s pure Elvis. Usually described as tacky, garish, gaudy or white trash, but maybe the style has come around, because I totally loved the living room, the TV room and the billiard room. While I thought certain elements were insane, I could totally see doing up my house like that. It was certainly less horrifying to me than any house ever featured on MTV’S Cribs, that’s for sure. It was definitely out of early 70’s home decorating magazines, the type where the wallpaper is the same print as the curtains, and the couch and carpet are also the same color. The living room was all low white couches and mirrors, stained glass peacocks and portraits of the family. (Priscilla was a total fox, by the way.) The TV room had 3 TV’s running ABC, NBC, and CBS, just like President Johnson did, as well as a mirrored ceiling. The billiard room had probably 100 yards of fabric covering the walls and ceiling, giving it an insane 70’s Moroccan feel. Also, and I probably don’t even need to mention this, but there is shag carpet everywhere, and the jungle room looks like a Hawaiian themed fern bar that features more shag carpeting than in all of my friends houses when I was a kid combined. Plus teddy bears. And a waterfall. I’m pretty sure you’ve seen something very similar in early 70’s Playboy Magazines. Even though Elvis only drank Dr. Pepper and Gatorade, Elvis was a good host and pretty much every room had a built in bar. The kitchen was only added to the tour in 1995, as Elvis’s aunt lived in the house until 1993, which must have been weird, with over half a million visitors a year. The kitchen looks like all 70’s kitchens, and if you can’t picture it, it’s just like the one on the Brady Bunch. Elvis had a standing order for brownies and banana pudding (not mixed together, fortunately) to be made fresh every night. He was clearly a southern boy of a specific era, and his favorite foods mostly contained peanut butter and, uh, well, regular butter.
The tour is on the walkman thingies, and there’s no tour guide, so you can stand and gawk as long as you like, and you can take pictures, as long as you don’t use a tripod or the flash. The audio tour has interview snippets from Priscilla and Lisa Marie Presley, mostly about what it was like living at Graceland. Mostly it sounded like a non stop party.
The upstairs is off limits, so no, you don’t get to see the bathroom where Elvis died. The tour explains that upstairs was always for family, and even Elvis’s entourage, who mostly lived at the house, weren’t allowed upstairs. Which is sad because if the interior decoration downstairs is any indication, Elvis’s bedroom must have been insane.
The audio tour continues outside to Vernon’s office, the carport, the stables, Elvis’s shooting range, which was once Vernon’s smokehouse, and the indoor racquetball court, now an overflow room of gold records. The rest of the gold records are in an adjacent museum tacked on to the back of the house, which has 2 hallways lined with gold records, and gold cassettes, as well as the timeline of his early career. Also on display are a bunch of excellent jumpsuits from the tours in the 70’s, including the insane beaded Mayan and phoenix ones. There’s also lots of memorabilia from his movies, pictures of his and Priscilla’s wedding and check’s he sent to various charities over the years. He donated a ton of money. Notably absent except in the timeline, except for one mention is Colonel Tom Parker, which I guess was the family’s wish? But for someone who played such a big part in Elvis’s career, good or bad, it’s odd to see him almost written out.
The final stop on the tour is the meditation garden that was Elvis’s place to go and relax. After he died he was buried in Forest Hill Cemetery in Memphis but his grave was almost immediately vandalized, (apparently someone tried to steal his body). The family quickly realized a public grave wasn’t going to work, so his father, Vernon, had Elvis and Elvis’s mother, Gladys, who died in 1960, moved to the garden. Vernon died a few years later, and Elvis’s grandmother soon after, both are buried alongside Elvis. There’s also a marker for his twin brother who died at birth, but who is buried in Mississippi.
The graves and the house are off limits unless you take the tour, but the walls lining the street are not, in fact the city has added a pull out so you can park and gawk at the house from a distance. Mostly though people write on the walls, or write over other people’s writing, as there isn’t an inch of available space left. I was amazed at how many people were from Ireland.
Across the street from the house is the main museum, which has both permanent exhibits and temporary ones. When we visited we saw an exhibit of Elvis’s cars, including a Lincoln Continental with a gold crocodile roof, a Mercedes 600 limo, a Stutz Bearcat and a Blackhawk, one of which he bought out from under Frank Sinatra at the dealership. Frank apparently had it on hold, but the salesman couldn’t say no to Elvis, and let him have it instead. Also on display are all of Elvis’s toys, including a snowmobile that ran on grass, with an awesome home video of him taking it over some sweet jumps. They also have a couple of dune buggies and his (now full restored) favorite tractor, which he frequently drove down the driveway when greeting fans at the gate.
Another exhibit is on Elvis’ style, and they have a large number of outfits, with narration by Priscilla. She told how Elvis wanted a logo, so one night on the plane they came up with the lightning with “TCB”, or “taking care of business,”. She said Elvis called the guy who did stuff for him at 3 am, so that guy could call a jeweler in Los Angeles so Elvis could have his necklace by the next day. The clothes themselves are pretty awesome, lots of cravat’s, and no denim, Elvis said he grew up poor and had worn enough pairs of jeans. They had some interviews with local rappers about his style, and basically they think Elvis was a total pimp. It has a bunch of his jewelry, and police badges which he collected from fans in law enforcement who made him honorary members, and it also told the story of how he got a DEA badge from Nixon himself. While wearing a jumpsuit and a cape.
The other exhibit we really wanted to see was the display of Elvis’ jets. They are parked outside, since they are much too big to be parked inside. Elvis owned two planes, the Hound Dog II and the Lisa Marie, and both are on display. Elvis hated flying, since early in his career his plane almost crashed, so for years he drove to all his engagements. When he made his comeback in the late 60’s, it was just too much driving so he decided to do flying right. He sent one of his fixers out to Tucson to pick out a plane. Elvis was sure he’d like whatever he picked out, and fortunately he did. He then set about gutting the inside to make it more like Elvis’s flying mancave with a design budget of $600,000. When they were done it was basically one big green and brown early 70’s lounge, with built in bars, TV’s, record players, and a bedroom, which had a couple of the gold plated seatbelts that were on all the seats. I’m pretty sure the sink in his bathroom is gold too. The tail has his “TCB” logo as well as a custom call letters, N880EP. (they don’t usually let you customize those.) They had some interviews with staff, who had pretty great stories about travelling with Elvis. Once he decided he wanted what he thought was the best peanut butter and jelly sandwich he’d ever had. Which was in Denver. And it was 1 am. So his guy (there he is again) called the pilot and the whole entourage went to Denver and a waiter with a tray of sandwiches met them at the airport. Another time he realized that since it was so warm in Memphis in the Winter that 5 year old Lisa Marie had never seen snow. That of course wouldn’t stand so off they went to the Rockies, where she played in the snow for half an hour, and then did what all 5 year-olds do, which is got bored, and so they went home again.
I’m glad we went when we did, apparently a few years back Lisa Marie sold a big part of the business to a company that wants to turn it into something closer to a Disneyland for Elvis fans, and the company has been buying up lots of land around the house. While I think there definitely could be a ton of improvement on the museum side of the road, since the museum is basically in a strip mall, and you have to move from store to store to see the exhibits, I kind of liked the crappiness of it all. I hope they don’t mess with the gift shops, which are actually rather good, unless they make the “TCB” lightning bolt into a bottle opener, the one thing I was looking for but couldn’t find. The hotel options are pretty poor, so maybe they will fix that.
Side note, if you stay in the area, a pink limo will come and pick you up to take you to a local BBQ place. While that is super awesome, we had some of the best BBQ of the whole trip across town at Central BBQ, so go there instead, as the reviews for the limo place are so-so.