“Welcome to my world,” Elvis sings as our shuttle crosses the street to enter the musical gates of Graceland. The former home of Elvis is a strange bubble in time.
It is not near as grand as many visitors think it would be. Rock stars and other entertainers have far more elaborate homes today. It is a tribute that Elvis chose to live in his hometown – and he is still a powerful source of income for Memphis area residents.
Remember that the last time Elvis walked through the door, it was 1977. Times have changed, a Graceland guide points out. Fashions have changed.
It is a blend of the ’50s, ’60s and ’70s. It is a poor boy’s idea of luxury, a gift he promised his parents they would have one day.
Legend goes that when Elvis Presley was a youngster, he told his parents he would grow up to make a lot of money and buy them the finest house in town. He would take care of them and end his parents’ years of poverty and struggle, Elvis vowed.
At age 22, Elvis did just that. Elvis bought Graceland in 1957 for $100,000 in cash after topping his record-breaking music success with the film Love Me Tender. Jailhouse Rock was next up for filming.
Built in 1939 and named for its former owner’s great-aunt, Grace Toof, Graceland had 18 rooms and a four-car garage. Elvis set about making it even bigger and better. This was the American Dream come true for Elvis and his family.
Although he hired an interior decorator, Elvis used his own tastes instead. What you see is what he was.
Elvis created the Polynesian-style Jungle Room with its Tiki-god statues and furry walls. He set up three television sets in his rec room after learning that President Lyndon Johnson used three so he could watch three football games at once.
The tour itself is almost ghostly quiet. Visitors with individual headsets listen to tapes of what they are seeing. The tapes feature music and commentary with the voices of Elvis and his ex-wife Priscilla and daughter Lisa Marie seeming to echo strangely from the past.
As the tapes roll, expressions on visitors’ faces register astonishment, laughter and sometimes grief. It’s not unusual to see tears trickling down some listeners’ faces.
The trip starts off across the street at Graceland Plaza, where visitors buy tickets to the Elvis attractions. Access to the mansion is by the Graceland shuttle system operating in the plaza.
Before you even head to the mansion, you can spend hours at the 18-acre Graceland Plaza. Attractions include the Elvis Presley Automobile Museum, the “Sincerely Elvis” Museum and the Lisa Marie and Hound Dog II planes and much more.
The automobile museum is a neat snapshot of old cars, including Elvis’ purple 1956 Cadillac convertible, his 1956 Continental and his 1955 pink Cadillac. Visitors walk down a tree-lined “highway” in an “outdoors on a spring night in Memphis” atmosphere.
The centerpiece of the museum is a great adaptation of a drive-in movie theater. Visitors can enjoy a brief Elvis video presentation featuring movie vehicles and motorcycles.
On-board tours of Elvis’ two planes show how outdated the aircraft have become. Graceland Plaza also offers several shops with souvenir and gift items. Before heading over to Graceland itself, visitors can stock up on food in the plaza. Offering include an ice cream parlor, the automotive-themed Chrome Grille serving up a Southern-style buffet and Memphis barbecue, and Rockabilly’s Diner with cheeseburgers, hot dogs and pizza in a nostalgic setting.
Although it’s a major tourism mecca, the Graceland company allows nothing to be sold or advertised on the grounds of the mansion. All tickets, souvenirs, film, food and other items are sold only in the visitor center across the street. Once you cross Elvis Presley Boulevard and enter the mansion grounds, you see Elvis’ home the way he enjoyed it.
“It was his sanctuary,” Priscilla says on the tape.
First on the tour is the formal part of Graceland — the foyer, dining room, living room and music room. Not too glitzy, but rather cool and elegant.
Just off the dining room is the kitchen — the heart of the home. Up to 14 members of the “Memphis mafia” might be in residence at Graceland and Elvis wanted his friends and himself well fed. Southern dishes like fried pork chops and collard greens were popular fare, but Elvis also went through spells of favorite foods. He devoured grilled banana and peanut butter sandwiches. Meatloaf was once served every night for six months.
A night owl, Elvis enjoyed breakfast at 4 in the afternoon. The kitchen reflects Elvis’ last remodeling in the ’70s — dark wood cabinets and paneling, appliances in stainless steel or in classic harvest gold and avocado green.
In the poolroom, the walls and ceiling are covered in pleated cotton fabric of reds, orange, blue, gold and green. The 8-foot pool table still has a rip in the felt where a friend made a bad shot with his cue.
One of the most infamous rooms, of course, is the nicknamed “Jungle Room.” This room has prompted the most snickers and labels of poor taste that Elvis picked up along the way. In actuality, the room is fairly representative of the ’60s, except it has a full-wall stone waterfall at one end. The story goes that Elvis went on a 30-minute shopping spree to decorate this room. He bought a bunch of dark, heavy, hand-carved furniture, upholstered with fake animal fur.
Here in the Jungle Room, Elvis recorded his 1976 album, From Elvis Presley Boulevard, Memphis, Tennessee. He also recorded over half of his last album, Moody Blue, in this room. In that last sad year, Elvis had RCA bring their equipment to him rather than going to a Nashville studio as usual.
In the back yard, visitors pass by the pasture where Elvis kept horses. An addition Elvis made to Graceland now houses his awards and mementos, along with telling the story of Elvis’ life and career.
You can see childhood and teen photos of the man who would become King. On display is such diverse memorabilia as Elvis’ high school diploma and maybe the most famous performance outfit in rock ‘n’ roll history — Elvis’ gold lame suit from 1957.
Also exhibited are guns and badges from Elvis’ famed collection, his eighth-degree black belt in karate and the famous lightning bolt TCB (Taking Care of Business) ring made of gold, black onyx and over 16 carats in diamonds.
The tour continues back outside, past the swimming pool to the racquetball building. It features a two-level lounge and racquetball court on the ground floor. Elvis was in this building just hours before his death.
He had been out for a late-night dental appointment and had come home shortly after midnight. Later on, he and several others played a few games of racquetball and relaxed at the piano in the lower lounge.
Elvis reportedly was anticipating the next portion of his 1977 tour schedule, which would leave the next day. Gathering around the piano with his buddies, Elvis sang “Unchained Melody” and “Blue Eyes Crying in the Rain,” among others.
He went back to his private suite upstairs at the mansion. Within a few hours, Elvis lay dead on his bathroom floor.
Too many years of a high-pressure career, excess weight, chronic health problems and a dependency upon prescription pills had taken their toll. The cause of death was listed as heart failure.
At the last tour stop, visitors walk quietly through the Meditation Garden. Consisting of a curving brick wall with stained glass windows, a fountain and a semi-circle of Greek-inspired columns, Elvis used the area as a private retreat through the years. It is now where he is buried.
Elvis never expressed an intention to be buried here but in October of 1977, after Elvis’ death on Aug. 16, Vernon Presley had the bodies of his son and his wife, Gladys, moved from Forest Hill Cemetery. Gladys had died in 1958.
All the paparazzi, curiosity seekers and overzealous fans who continually converged on Forest Hill had created management and security problems for the cemetery. Vernon thought it was logical to move the remains to Meditation Garden at Graceland.
In 1979, Vernon Presley was laid to rest between his wife and son. In 1980, Elvis’ paternal grandmother, Minnie Mae, was buried next to Elvis. Also in the garden is a memorial marker for Elvis’ twin brother, Jessie Garon Presley, who died at birth and whose grave is still in Tupelo.
Half the reason for a Graceland tour is sharing it with die-hard Elvis fans. Even the most dignified can sometimes go shivery and gasp at the realization that Elvis once trod these same grounds, that he lived and died within these walls.
One time when I visited Graceland, a light rain was falling as we left Meditation Garden. Leaning over Elvis’ grave was a group of Japanese visitors. Solemnly, they bent as close as they could to Elvis’ final resting place, splashing the water from his grave up onto their faces.
I don’t know why they did it. The Graceland guides didn’t stop them. No one said anything. After a few minutes, the visitors straightened up and took leave of Elvis, the rain mingling with their tears.
Photos by Jackie Sheckler Finch