July 5, 2013
Features writer Bill Spurr gets all shook up in Elvis’s hometown of Memphis
Having waited for several decades to travel from Union Square, Lunenburg County, to Memphis, Tennessee, Linda Demond didn’t mind waiting in line a few minutes more for the shuttle bus that would take her and her husband Rodger to the king’s palace.
“Always an Elvis fan, and always wanted to come to Graceland,” she said. “I’m tearing up, can’t believe I’m here. My brother had a lot of Elvis records, and introduced me to Elvis in the 60s. We didn’t have TV, and I remember walking a mile to a friend’s house to watch Elvis on the Ed Sullivan show.”
No visit to Memphis is complete without a visit to Graceland. At least, that’s what the 38 Nova Scotians on the tour bus the Demonds were travelling on thought; them and 600,000 other folks each year.
Elvis Presley died 36 years ago but at Graceland, the mansion he bought for $100,000 when he was just 22, he still has a slim build, a full head of jet black hair and a curl to his lip. As soon as a visitor walks in the front door, two things become evident: Elvis had fun spending his money, and his taste in decor was not subtle.
The living room is decorated with two large stained-glass peacocks, the bedroom where Elvis’s parents stayed has a purple bedspread and headboard, and the family room is carpeted with green shag. On the ceiling.
Every visitor is given headphones to listen to a tour guide who imparts fun information, like the fact more Americans viewed Elvis’s 1973 satellite concert special from Hawaii than watched the first moon walk.
In the basement is the king’s record collection, with a Mario Lanza album on top of the pile, and the three TVs Elvis had installed when he learned President Lyndon Johnson watched the evening news on all three networks at once.
The tour takes you through much of the house and grounds, but doesn’t go upstairs.
“No one gets to go upstairs, not even employees. It was a very private thing to Elvis. Unless you were specifically invited upstairs by him, no one went up there. It was his only place of privacy. He could never even step outside his front door and not be bombarded with people,” said Alicia Dean, a Graceland employee.
“Lisa Marie, his daughter, owns everything you can physically touch, the artifacts, the home itself, but she sold 75 per cent of her share in the company to Core Media Group. So if she wanted to come in and have dinner at the mansion, she could, but it would be after the tours are over. We don’t ever shut down tours, we didn’t even shut down tours when President Bush came with the prime minister of Japan.”
Out in the back yard, next to the pasture where horses still roam, the racquetball court where Elvis spent his last evening has been converted, and now holds gold records and other memorabilia, like the tux and wedding gown Elvis and Priscilla wore when they were married, and a couple of fantastic jumpsuits. To think that someone could walk on stage wearing a mini-cape and carry it off speaks to Elvis’s charisma.
About 20 per cent of the people that visit Graceland each year are from outside the United States, though the three performances Elvis gave in Canada were his only concerts not in the U.S. For most, the mansion is the highlight, and the tour of it ends by going past Elvis’s grave, which has an eternal flame, like JFK’s. There are also several other exhibits, gift shops and restaurants in the complex, but I was most looking forward to the car museum and the plane.
“Elvis bought this huge Con-Air plane and completely gutted it, and actually spent more money on redoing the inside of the airplane than he did purchasing it,” Dean told me.
Elvis actually had two planes, and named the larger one Lisa Marie, after his daughter. It’s a monument to extravagance. One time, when he realized that Lisa Marie had never seen snow, he loaded the family on the plane, zipped up to Colorado where she frolicked in the snow by the runway for a few minutes, then the whole party headed back to Tennessee.
The plane’s bathroom has 24 karat gold fixtures. The seat belt buckles are also gold. Elvis wasn’t much of a drinker, imbibing mostly Mountain Spring water and Diet Dr Pepper, and the plane’s stewardess stocked 15 different sodas so guests were likely to find their favourite.
The car museum has on display not only cars, but also motorcycles, golf carts and a snowmobile on which Elvis had the skis switched to wheels due to the lack of snow in Memphis, and while you wander around, you can watch clips from his movies playing on a large screen.
The car display includes two Rolls-Royces, two Stutz Blackhawks, a pink Cadillac, a six door Mercedes Benz limousine and a ’62 Continental with suicide doors and a gold alligator skin roof, a vehicle that reminded me of something Alicia Dean had told me earlier in the day.
“I remember Priscilla saying that when she met Elvis for the first time, he was so excited to tell her about Graceland, he was like ‘You have to come see this place.’”