Date of Trip: October 2006
My dear friend Joan emailed me in mid-September to say, “Well, we’re almost 50. It’s time to go,” and she gave me a couple of dates to choose from. Having just returned from 9 days in Mexico and planning 9 days in Spain for early November, another trip seemed like the height of indulgence. So, I said, “Yes!”
I’m 50 and I’m going to Graceland. It was decided many years ago, on a cold evening in NYC when Joan and I were listening to the gospel side of the original Blue Christmas vinyl LP bought at a church rummage sale. At first we entertained ourselves by mimicking Elvis’ gospel style, but we came to truly love his beautiful and smooth tenor, with a sound more tender than the King is generally known for. This was a few years before Paul Simon’s Graceland came to be and even a few years before I owned a copy of the Sun Sessions, Elvis’ first recordings at the Sun Studio in Memphis. But why did we want to go? What did Graceland mean to us, a little too young for the real Elvis mania, and now, at 50, perhaps a little too old for frivolous trips planned on a whim 25 years ago.
I searched www.Elvis.com to learn more about Graceland and what a visit might entail. Information is plentiful and my interest and curiosity were intensified. I was able to purchase tour tickets and I found Heartbreak Hotel, part of the Graceland complex and just down the street on Elvis Presley Boulevard from Graceland, but it was booked up. We settled for Courtyard by Marriott, which was close the airport, and only 20 minutes from downtown Memphis and Beale Street.
After arriving at the airport and greeting each other in person for the first time in too many years, we climbed aboard the shuttle to Budget Rental Cars, where much to our mutual dismay, but then with great laughter and merriment, we picked up our mobster mobile, a creamy white PT Cruiser. Two middle-aged rock-n-chicks on the loose, in a really stupid looking car, on the way to pay our respects to Elvis. It felt just right.
Our Graceland tour reservation was for 10:30 a.m. the next day. We left plenty of time for the short 4 mile drive, which was good because we found ourselves going the wrong direction on the highway. I’m used to this in new places, do it all the time, and so have learned to leave 10 minutes for turning around. We found our way to Elvis Presley Boulevard, passed car dealerships, appliance stores and finally passed Heartbreak Hotel and went into the parking lot of the Graceland complex, where exhibits and shops that include his cars and planes augment and enhance the house tour. You start there to get your ticket and a shuttle bus across the street and up to the house. Sirius radio is there at the complex blasting the Elvis station, all Elvis, all the time. It gets you in the mood. I was glad that I had bought our tickets online, and didn’t have to wait in the long line to buy one.
Graceland sits up on a small hill, and the drive up is sheltered by beautiful tall trees, now just starting to turn and flashing orange, gold and lime green in the sun that glitters through. We are equipped with digital audio players and a prerecorded tour and have listened to the introduction on the way across the street and up the hill. There is even a traffic light on Elvis Presley Boulevard that allows the buses to cross the 4 lanes of traffic.
We climbed off the shuttle and congregated at the front door of the Colonial revivalist mansion. And then there we were, in Elvis Presley’s house. I had been cautioned many times not to expect a huge mansion. It is, however, a large house, on about 16 acres of land. The upstairs is off limits and still a private family space, but we saw the living room, with the music room beyond an entranceway featuring a pair of peacocks in floor-to-ceiling stained glass on either side. A grand piano takes up a better part of the space, surrounded by gold curtains that shut out the daylight. We are allowed to take all the photos that we wanted, but without a flash. Too much flashing could fade the colors of the artwork and upholstery. For the most part, a flash wasn’t needed.
The next stop is Vern and Glady’s bedroom, where one wonders how they got any sleep because of its proximity to the music room and other common rooms on the first floor. The room is attractive with very little of the glitz and glam that distinguishes much of the rest of the house.
Joan and I were pushed along by our audio guides, and the group jostled for good positions to view the rooms where Elvis lived his personal life, out of the spotlight but still surrounded by friends and admirers.
The dining room is set for dinner for six, complete with crystal chandelier and gilt-trimmed table and chairs. Personally, I didn’t feel that the blue of the curtains matched the chairs and that detracted from the otherwise fancy and festive feel of the room. It seemed ready and waiting for a celebration and our digital tour guide recounted Elvis’ love of sitting around the dinner table with family and friends. The adjacent kitchen, is unremarkable with fairly staid wooden cabinets and appliances. What caught my attention was the wall to wall carpet–no pile, but still I wondered how much of a pain it must be to keep clean.
Now down to the basement. Joan and I were sticking together but lost in our own thoughts and reactions as we went along.
The TV Room is decorated in yellow, black and white and features a very large couch and a bar upholstered in yellow. Three TV screens gave Elvis the ability to monitor his entertainment in an age before remote control.
Next, the pool room has lively-patterned cotton panels on the walls and accordioned in a circle on the ceiling. Another cleaning nightmare for sure! Two Tiffany-style lamps hang over the pool table looking downright plain next to the patterning of the wall and ceiling fabric. Joan and I exchange glances that seem to say,”rack ’em up!”
Upstairs again, we see the Jungle Room with carved wood and faux fur furniture and a waterfall at one end. This room has a shag rug on the floor–and on the ceiling–and I am left wondering once again, how did they clean it? Joan looks at me as if to say, doesn’t everyone have a green shag on their ceiling? Get with it girl!”
The rest of the tour is special exhibit areas with a recreation of Elvis’ office and memorabilia that included everything from the clothes Elvis and Priscilla were married in to a turquoise handled hand gun. It was all great fun to see. The clothes, the guitars, the furniture, photos, even Lisa Marie’s crib and toy chest.
What caught my interest the most, however, was a book that was open in a case, and had notes and underlining by Elvis. I couldn’t tell what the book title was, but it was open to the chapter entitled, “The coming Aquarian Age and the Emancipation of Women.” Besides underlines, there were cryptic notes and numbers. This may have been the most revealing item I saw that day.
Then we were outside, and walking to the small outbuilding that was the office. The office was pretty much as it was in the 70s. A time before computers and when copiers were massive. There was nothing fancy there: fake leather couches and metal desks. And some really bad fan portraits of Elvis. It would be an understatement to say that Graceland has an eclectic style.
Often in the informal rooms we were treated to tv clips of Elvis on variety shows or interviews. There are also framed newspaper clippings that tell the story of the controversy that those swingin’ hips created.
The next stop on the tour is an addition to the house that contains more memorabilia, more old fashioned TVs playing the clips from various shows, and then a long hallway with walls covered top to bottom with gold records and awards. This man did a whole lot of shakin’ in the 21 years that spanned his career.
You turn the corner and there are more glassed exhibits of movie memorabilia, clothes and lots of Elvis souvenirs. The merchandising of Elvis is nothing new. Then, at the end of this hallway of exhibits, you see the first of the jump suits. They are quite something up close and clearly made of quality materials and adornments. The style is pure Vegas. And by the size of them, he started wearing these stage outfits while he was still slim. Out the door, and passing by some more really bad fan paintings of Elvis and family, we proceeded to the racquetball court, a very expensive addition that Elvis had built behind the house, and that now has yet even more memorabilia, including the later and more flamboyant jumpsuits. More TV clips and lots of memorabilia from the later years. It was here that my digital camera battery died, just before I could snap the most absurd of the jumpsuits.
Our audio tour keeps us moving right along, and we are back outside by the small, kidney-shaped pool. It’s very appealing with just enough trees for a little shade. Then we are pulled to the meditation garden, where Elvis, his parents and grandmother, Minnie Mae are buried. It is very small, and has rectangular bronze plaques memorializing each one. Flowers, silk and real, and stuffed animals are placed all around, and come from fans. The garden is embraced by a curving wall made of Mexican brick and antique Spanish stained glass. The group is quiet and reflective as we pass slowly through, reading the inscriptions on the graves. I am moved more than I expected to be. I have a strong feeling that this was a real home and a happy one. Something I hadn’t even really considered, as it is now really a museum. The feeling from years past still lingers and gives Graceland a true grace.
I still wonder why we came and what we were looking for. Clearly it is more than a lark, because we have waited 25 years and rekindled a friendship that was very close but dormant. I think that maybe we planned this trip to make sure that as the years went by, we would have a touchstone. A time and place to find our friendship again. The one past and the one being lived, right there at Elvis’ grave site. I’m proud of us for keeping this pact. For making the effort when it would have been all too easy to give in to other pressures of time and resources.
Then suddenly, the tour is over, and we are waiting behind a rope for an empty bus to pull up and take us back across the street to the complex. More exhibits await us there, and though we’ve been touring Graceland for an hour and a half, we haven’t reached saturation. Onto the cars! The planes! And all 9 gift shops.