Elvis got slicker over time. Pressed into long-term contracts in Las Vegas, he ordered himself bejeweled $2,800 jumpsuits and hid those heart-stopping blue eyes behind aviators because the world had gotten too bright. For eight years, he did month-long stints of two shows a night for audiences that applauded spectacle, not edge. He did it—was cajoled into doing it—because the money was so good.
Graceland, the home Elvis proudly bought when he was twenty-two years old and fresh from his first movie, presenting the key to his beloved momma with a flourish—has gotten slicker, too.
An investment counselor in Missouri opened it for the Presleys in 1982, mainly because all those people around Elvis had added their own greed to his impulsive generosity, and the fortune he should have left his family was gone. Wisely, Elvis Presley Enterprises removed his last décor (drapes, upholstery, almost everything downstairs glowed police siren red) and kicked back to the previous color scheme.
There was a ticket window, and you could amble across the street to the mansion, maybe leave for lunch at Marlowe’s (Elvis liked the corner booth in the back) and come back again later. Now, you pay $10 to park and if you leave, you will pay $10 all over again to return. You have to park in that lot, because there is no other access to the complex. Everything Elvis has been scooped up from other parts of Memphis and concentrated in this complex, and there is no longer anything free you can see just by parking there. You need a ticket for all of it. A single ticket to see the mansion and the complex of exhibits is $77, and the Ultimate VIP tour is $196.
From the preshow, we are ushered out a different door to line up for the shuttle bus, and before we board, we are to step in front of a backdrop (“Step forward. Smile! Enjoy your visit. Step forward. Smile! Enjoy your visit.”) for a $40 photograph. Then we are handed iPads and headphones (there are no longer personal tour guides, just guards stationed at various points to keep us polite) and shuttled across Elvis Presley Boulevard to the mansion, a journey of two minutes. I feel like a cow wrangled onto a conveyor belt.
Still, the magic that follows is real. One woman bursts into tears when she sees Elvis’s living room. Others manage to remain composed until they reach the Meditation Garden and see all the flowers and photos on his grave sending love from Finland, Switzerland, Australia, Japan, Northern Ireland, France, Germany, Italy, Holland…. “Elvis brings everybody together,” says Sarah Hanselmann, clad in a hot pink jacket, black pants, and hot pink shoes, with an Elvis haircut and a boyfriend she met in an Elvis group. “It doesn’t matter who you are. You step into that house and you just feel welcome.”
Graceland was a party house, open to all his friends, all the time. Its decor was luxury and comfort as imagined by a twenty-two-year-old who was born in the nation’s poorest city, Tupelo, Mississippi, and grew up in public housing in Memphis, then made millions fast, the way 1950s America promised everyone they could.
The only house in America that is more famous than this one is the White House. Were there no place of pilgrimage, Elvis might not be, forty-five years after his death, known all over the world by first name only.
But I have to wonder what he would make of this place.
“The first time I was here, I was about ten,” Memphis resident Mitch Glasgow tells me, “and Elvis was still alive. There were no tours. But if he was out of town, lots of times the gates would be open, and the guard—somebody told me it was his uncle—would say, ‘Sure, you can drive up.’”
Today, that could never happen. Graceland receives roughly half a million visitors every year. In 2016, it hit a cumulative total of 20 million. That was the year the Guest House opened, ostensibly “fulfilling a dream of Elvis’ to build a state-of-the-art guest house for visitors to his home.” The guy who had three trailer homes parked behind his mansion? Maybe. He was hospitable. But the Heartbreak Hotel that ran for the previous seventeen years had been far simpler, nothing like the Guest House, with its overbright white faux neoclassical façade like a giant plastic model of a fancy hotel. Would Elvis have wanted a retired couple to save up all year to spend $2,800 on lodging for Elvis Week?
The year after the Guest House, the 200,000-square-foot Memphis exhibit and entertainment complex opened.
“They tried to make it a Main Street vibe, like Disneyland,” says Jeff Zepatos, the fourth-generation owner of the Arcade Diner in downtown Memphis. “They kind of replicated everything downtown that was Elvis. You don’t have to leave Elvis Presley Enterprises to have the full experience. Used to be, the tribute artist contests were all down Beale Street, and the final show was at the Orpheum. Now they have their own theater. It’s very concentrated.” He looks away, watching a waiter carry a fried peanut butter and banana and bacon sandwich to another table. Maybe he has said too much. “You should ask Sun Studio about it,” he finishes quickly.
No need; I know exactly why he says this. Before, visitors made a second pilgrimage, this one to the studio where Sam Phillips discovered Elvis Presley and where Elvis and Johnny Cash and Carl Perkins and Jerry Lee Lewis all happened to stop by at the same time one day and start jamming for the hell of it, and Phillips recorded it, pinching himself at how great they were together, and called the newspaper, and a reporter noted that these four could make a million, and thus the Million Dollar Quartet made music history without even trying. But hey, fans can now stay inside the Graceland complex and see a reproduction of the studio instead.
Or they can see entire exhibits about Elvis’s love of football or Lisa Marie’s childhood. Elvis Presley Enterprises took pieces of the story and a few bits of memorabilia and stretched them like taffy, creating an entire mini-museum of each one. The exception I would make is the floor-to-ceiling display of Elvis’s jumpsuits—that exhibit is stunning, multiplying the effect he craved. The cars, too, belong—Elvis loved cars above all, but he also loved motorcycles (they have their own exhibit) and golf carts and snowmobiles, anything to propel some of that restless energy. Cars were always part of Graceland, but nonchalantly, with less polish. Now they gleam. Assuming the giant quotes on the wall behind them are Elvis’s words, I start reading and realize with a sick jolt that they are sales schtick: “Nobody is perfect but if you drive a Mercedes you’re pretty close.” “The key to happiness is the keys to a Rolls Royce.”
That would be consumerism, the love affair with acquisition that kept Elvis throwing money, because it was the dream he grew up on, and he never quite grew up. You can see it in the fourteen television sets, the waterfall wall, the fifteen-foot custom sofa, the 24k gold sink, and seatbelt fasteners on his airplane. Excessive, sure, and idiosyncratic, and garish. Yet none of it feels as slick or profit-driven as its packaging does now.
Like Elvis in his later years, there is still something real here, beneath the bloated, shiny surface. But the added trappings make the place easy to caricature and dismiss. It is trying too hard, glossing up what should be a casual and homey visit and charging for the pleasure.
Read more by Jeannette Cooperman here.