The eyes of the world turn to Graceland today, to honor what would have been the 58th birthday of Elvis Aron Presley. But Graceland is more than the Memphis home of Elvis, more than a tourist magnet, more than a small industry. Washington, D.C., may be the capital of America, but Graceland is its heart.
We live in a country where success equals excess, and Graceland is a celebration of that philosophy. To many throughout the world, the lavish tastelessness of the place is a source of admiration, or confusion, or scorn. But to many in show business who are familiar with megadeals and megastars and megabucks and megabuys, Graceland is simply status quo. Graceland is show business.
For a first-hand look at the site, ask anyone in Memphis how to get to 3717 Elvis Presley Blvd. Park in the lot, then go to the central terminal, featuring ticket booths, auxiliary Elvis museums and gift shops (Elvis toothpick holders, Elvis pens, Elvis sweatshirts, T-shirts, sun visors and caps, Elvis kitchen magnets, Elvis watches, Elvis shotglasses, etc.). Large speakers continuously pipe in Elvis tunes.
A tour of the 23-room, 18,000-square-foot mansion can be purchased for only $ 8. For $ 16, you get a Platinum Tour: the Elvis Presley Automobile Museum (including dune buggies and golf carts), the Sincerely Elvis museum (containing personal items, such as books he’s read, Lisa Marie’s toys and Elvis’ gun and knife collection), a 22-minute film on Elvis in the Bijou Theater and his two airplanes, Lisa Marie and Hound Dog II.
Though these attractions are adjacent to the terminal, visitors to the mansion must take a bus across Elvis Presley Blvd., past the huge gates with wrought iron music notes, and up the driveway. In each room is a guide who gives a spiel to a group of about 15, then sends them on to the next room and the next guide. As one of them informed, the place gets around 650,000 visitors a year (“We’re second only to the White House!”).
Highlights include the dining room (“Elvis sat here, partly because it was the head of the table, but also because it afforded him the best view of the TV, one of 14 RCA sets in the house”); the TV room, done entirely in black and canary yellow, with the mirrored ceiling reflecting the overstuffed sofa, ceramic monkeys and three TVs, which Elvis often watched simultaneously; and the jungle room, featuring handcarved wooden chairs and tables, giant tikis and chartreuse shag carpeting on the floor and ceilings (“Elvis got the idea in California in the ’70s”).
One 60ish woman, not knowing what else to say, turned to her friend and said, “Very unusual.”
But that’s the spirit of Graceland, where seldom is heard a discouraging word. “Elvis installed surveillance cameras in every room of his house,” smiled a guide as if there were no darker implications, “because he sometimes had so many guests, he wanted to keep an eye on them.”
His divorce from Priscilla is never mentioned and the name of Col. Tom Parker–his mentor who spent years in litigation with the Presley estate–is spoken only once in passing. It’s emphasized that Elvis never drank; drugs are never referred to.
It’s only said that he participated in a vigorous game of raquetball on Aug. 16, 1977, played some songs on his guitar and then died, at age 42, of cardiac arrest.
After years of speculations, the rumors can end: it wasn’t the Mafia that killed Elvis, it wasn’t suicide and it wasn’t drugs. No, Elvis died of racquetball.
But the triumphs are trumpeted. Visitors are reminded that Elvis sold more than 1 billion records, enough to circle the equator–that’s “e-quator,” with the accent on the first syllable–and his gold and platinum records are in the display cases in the 80-foot “Hall of Gold.”
The adjacent trophy rooms are kept near freezing and in dim light to preserve the precious relics such as his awards, oil paintings and jeweled costumes. The highlight, of course, is the belt given to Elvis–it’s never “Mr. Presley,” we’re all friends here–“when he broke the world’s attendance record in Las Vegas.” With a six-inch buckle, it’s made of silver dipped in gold and studded with diamonds, sapphires and rubies.
Outside the house is your typical back yard: patio, swimming pool and, just beyond them, graves. Elvis, his parents and paternal grandmother are laid to rest in the area called the Meditation Garden, featuring lavish floral tributes from fans, some of whom are visibly moved by the sight of his grave.
They’re probably crying less for the death of the 42-year-old Mr. Presley than for the loss of the young and innocent Elvis. But how did a simple, talented country boy get to be a bloated, lonely, paranoid man? And how did those two personas turn into a cultural icon?
Hollywood certainly didn’t kill Elvis. Hollywood’s goal is to give people some fun and glamour and excitement.
However, sometimes things get out of control. Opulence was once the sole domain of the privileged, but America helped spread the word that every man is entitled to a fair share. Show business has helped take that further: a fair share is insufficient, and too much is never enough.
We live in a country looking desperately for heroes, where people allegedly embrace religion but aren’t really sure what values are. We love our celebrities , especially the sad ones. We have made the Kennedys our royal family and honor the blessed trinity–Elvis, Marilyn and James Dean–as martyrs of the American Dream.
In Elvis’ Memphis home, you can see a wide-eyed self-tribute of someone who just wanted to be noticed. The tackiness at Graceland is unmistakable, but so are the tears of the fans in the Meditation Garden. Looking for solace, they’ve all come to the U.S. version of Lourdes– pilgrims seeking the state of grace in Graceland.