Since opening up Elvis Presley’s mansion in Memphis to the public in 1982, Priscilla Presley has strived to keep the grace in Graceland. Most recently, she’s seen a Graceland-related dream come true with the opening of a 450-room hotel and museum-like complex across the street from the couple’s old digs. As she prepared to fly out to Memphis for the annual Elvis Week gathering, taking place, as always, around the anniversary of his death, Presley spoke with Variety about what the revitalization of Elvis fans’ ground zero means to her.
For you, involved with Graceland as you are, probably every week is Elvis Week. But in Memphis, where Elvis Week is going on right now, and certainly in the media, we focus on these big, round numbers for anniversaries.
Priscilla Presley: I can’t believe it’s the 40th. It doesn’t feel like the 40th. On all these anniversaries I tend to go, “My God, where did all the time go?” But this is one of our biggest ever, with the amount of people coming from all over the world. I believe that he is the most iconic individual on the planet, really, after traveling all over Great Britain with the tour that we’re doing with the “Wonder of You” concerts. They were packed arenas. Watching it from the sidelines, I saw people crying, laughing, people in the aisles dancing, as if he was performing on stage, and this is a big screen of him with parts of his shows, with the London Philharmonic Orchestra. I think what was so touching was when I heard a man yell out “Elvis! Elvis!” like he was there on stage.
Looking back on your own expectations for what would happen in the future, was this something you foresaw going this far, 20 or 30 years ago?
No, not at all, not at all. Jack Soden was our CEO, and it was the two of us that opened Graceland (in 1982). This is actually his quote: “We were passing out invitations, but we never got an RSVP.” We had no idea if we would be successful, or if anyone would even show up. Because in my search and my wish to open up Graceland, I was told by my cohorts that Elvis would be forgotten in six months.
There weren’t many precedents for you to look to, of entertainers from earlier eras who inspired massive contemporary tourism. It’s not as if Al Jolson had a mansion that had thousands of people visiting every week.
Nothing. In my search to have someone help me open it and help me organize it, I went to different places all over the States, and there really wasn’t anything comparable.
This is the first Elvis Week in Memphis since the opening of the new hotel (called the Guest House at Graceland) and adjacent complex. Is that purely coincidence, or was it important to have everything up and running before the 40th anniversary?
It’s not coincidence. But Elvis Presley Enterprises and myself had always planned on opening up a hotel. We had actually spoken to three other architects to help us with this project, but none of them seemed to quite get it — the ones that were hired by Mr. (Robert) Sillerman, who was our first partner out of Las Vegas. He got it all wrong. He looked at it as maybe an Italian type of setting with cobblestone streets and fountains and park benches, and boy, it was so staid. So we had a few of those. And then with our new partners, we were able to create what we felt would be the right setting, and that was to have a place that was built very Southern in feel and look, to complement Graceland. And we had the acreage to do that. It’s not large to where you look at it and go, “Oh my God.” But it’s 450 rooms, and fans seem to like it. The decoration was done to put the feel of Elvis there. I knew all his colors that he liked. I knew the type of furniture that he would go for. It could not be common, that’s for sure. It would have to be Elvis’ feel all the way. I got a great compliment from George Klein, who was a DJ and a longtime friend of Elvis. When we opened it, he said, “Priscilla, you know, if Elvis were here today, he wouldn’t be at Graceland, he’d be here,” because it is so much the feel of him. (The same for) the place across the street, the complex we’re calling Elvis Presley’s Memphis. Elvis always wanted and envisioned that area (across from Graceland) to stay that way (as it was in the 1950s). But when he came back from the army, that little mini-mall was up, which we used as our complex for the car museum, for the ticket office, and the planes, Elvis always said, “I wish it was all a grassy area” (again). And that’s what we did, to give that feel of the sanctuary all around. We got rid of all of that, and put the complex in back, larger. I think the fans are enjoying it.
So nobody’s saying, “Hey, we want the mini-mall back”?
No. And of course the grass still has to grow; the trees have to grow. But it is a setting, when you look at it from the front porch of Graceland, that will come back to being just that little grassy area with trees. We try to really keep Elvis’ DNA in everything. I used to call it “the culture of Elvis.” But it’s the DNA, really, of who he was, and trying to keep it a sanctuary, and trying to keep it why he came back to Graceland in the first place, leaving Hollywood, leaving Vegas, and coming back to his home, where he felt the most comfortable.
As for the new complex, you’ve avoided calling it a museum, right?
Well, it’s called Elvis Presley’s Memphis. It kind of combines a little bit of everything that involved Elvis. The Lansky Brothers, where he bought all of his clothes, we have clothing he bought from them that he wore during this period of time. We have a car collection and motorcycle collection. It’s much easier to go through, and much bigger to where you can stay around and enjoy it. We have a choice of restaurants there, whereas before we didn’t. We have a few restaurants of choice, that you can have choices. It’s much easier for people to stay around and look around and be comfortable and socialize.
When it comes to which dates to remember someone by, it sometimes comes down to a debate over which day to use for a commemoration. The birthday seems more celebratory in a way, but it’s hard not to say that the anniversary of his death should be the thing with Elvis, because everyone of a certain age remembers where they were when they heard he was gone, and no one remembers where they were when he was born.
It’s true. We call it the celebration of his life. How can I say it — it just sounds better than “the death.” [Laughs.] A lot of people get together, and you’re absolutely right, it’s a time that’s more appropriate for the gathering, because everybody remembers where they were. The same people have been coming there for years, and of course they have new ones as well. They talk about Elvis and feel his presence. We have our vigil where they walk from the gates all the way up to the gravesite, and have a few moments that they can spend there, and can do with that time what they want.
For those of us who were around in 1977, even if we were too young to completely get it, there was something about the news of his passing that felt earthshaking in a way that even the deaths of former presidents usually don’t.
Elvis had such an effect on all of us, and I don’t think people today always realize that he opened the door for other rockers, from the Beatles to Robert Plant to Bruno Mars. Ted Neeley was quoted as saying that he opened a door providing the threshold through which the rest of us could follow our dreams. Even the way people dress today… Elvis had such an impact on style during that time. Even before he was a performer, he changed the thriftiest look into a stylized rocker look. Today, with the clothing people wear, they don’t realize that he changed the way people dress.
You think there are ways in which Elvis is underrated?
I went around and I asked [some older fans] — because I am around the public — I said, “What drew you to him? Was it him as a performer, or a dresser, stylized in his own way?” And most of them said they were connected to his voice, which made them want to know more about him. And then I asked, “Okay, when you saw the whole package, what did you think?” [Laughs.] And they were like, “Oh my God, it was so gorgeous.” But it started out with a voice. Then they saw him on Ed Sullivan, and that was it.
What was it for you?
His voice, too. Before I even saw Elvis, I was attracted to “Jailhouse Rock” and “I Met a Woman.” Even in the song “Don’t,” I was attracted really by his voice. Then when I saw him in “Love Me Tender,” I thought, “Wow, he’s really cute.” [Laughs.] And then when I met him, I met him at a time when he had just lost his mother, and he was in the army, and I saw a different side. Because I didn’t recognize all the music that he played. You know, he played country, he was listening to Brenda Lee, he was listening to a lot of the very popular Patsy Cline music of that time, and also gospel music and love songs. So I saw a whole other different side of him. And then he came back and changed his voice a little bit with “It’s Now or Never,” which was more powerful. I usually talk about the diversity in his voice, but that came out of the diversity in his own music — he had opera, he had Mozart, he had Beethoven.
How do you steer the conversation about Elvis to the things that matter most?
We have a project with HBO that’ll be out next year that I think will be very eye opening and gives a much better idea of his journey. [The three-hour HBO Documentary Films production, directed by Thom Zimny and written by rock scribe Alan Light, was announced in late 2016.]
Is it a challenge to make younger generations into Elvis fans, since we’re at the stage where their parents also had to have gotten it secondhand?
What’s interesting at Graceland is that we’ve updated our tours where we have iPads now for children and teens. They really get it. I think being able to work it themselves and not having to be with their parents or a tour guide telling them has been a real opening to the door in introducing Elvis. Even the shows over in Europe were filled with kids. I was a little concerned about going over, thinking, “Oh, boy, are we going to be able to fill a stadium,” or the arenas or any of the places we went. But they were packed, and he was alive. It brought tears to my eyes after every show.
Do you have a favorite record and movie of his that aren’t necessarily the ones everybody thinks of first?
I pretty much agree with what he said and how he felt, which is that his first four movies were really what he thought the rest of his movies would be like — a lot deeper, and a lot more diverse subject matter. As everyone knows, he was very frustrated with the movies that he got after he came out of the army, and I agree with that and had talks with him about that. His favorite movie was “King Creole.” I happen to like all four of them, and I’m partial to them because those were the first four I ever saw. As far as the songs are concerned, that’s very difficult. I tend to go with “If I Can Dream,” especially when you watch him sing it. And I do love “American Trilogy” because I brought it to him. I brought it to him because it was how he felt about his country, how he felt about the South, and how he felt about his maker.