(Pictured: Graceland. It’s a nice place.)
Here’s the second part of a 1997 piece I wrote about Elvis after a visit to Graceland.
“Sure we’re going to Graceland,” you say. “Gonna have a fried peanut butter and banana sandwich in the Jungle Room.” You’re prepared for a pop-culture hoot primarily because of the cheesiness of Dead Elvis, and at the start of your tour, you see nothing to dissuade you from that notion.
Graceland is located on Elvis Presley Boulevard, a busy commercial street in Memphis. You park the car and buy your ticket: $10 to tour the mansion, $18.50 if you also want to see Elvis’ cars, airplanes, and an exhibit of his personal effects. You get a tape player and cassette, and hop on a tour bus for the ride to the mansion itself. The tour is narrated on tape to accommodate the dozen or so languages most visitors might understand. It makes for a rather weird effect—visitors walk silently, not speaking to one another, listening carefully on headphones.
The first rooms you see are the formal living and dining rooms. The living room is the kind you’d see at a maiden aunt’s house—plush furniture, white carpets, a big piano, a TV in the room—which is never used for living. The dining room is set as it would be for a typical dinner. On the tape, you hear Priscilla Presley waxing nostalgic about dinnertime at Graceland, when Elvis and his friends (at Graceland they’re always referred to as “friends,” where elsewhere they’re called “the entourage” or “hangers-on”) would engage in good-natured fun and eat wholesome, down-home cooking.
You move next into the kitchen. It’s large and functional, filled with 70s vintage appliances in avocado green and harvest gold, which were used until 1993 by Elvis’ elderly aunt, who lived upstairs at Graceland until her death. From there, it’s downstairs to the TV room, painted a loud blue-and-gold, with a bank of three TV sets and Elvis’ famous slogan and symbol, TCB, on the wall. TCB, and the lightning bolt logo which accompanies it, referred to “taking care of business in a flash.” As you are constantly reminded, it’s what Elvis and his friends did for one another, and for others.
Next it’s the pool room, walls covered entirely in fabric, dim lighting, the felt of the pool table displaying a tear where one of Elvis’ friends supposedly tried a trick shot that failed. The tour narration reminds you once again that Elvis was just a regular guy with regular friends who did regular things in his regular house.
From this point, you go back upstairs to the famous Jungle Room. You have always imagined this room was in a secluded part of the house behind an unmarked door, but it’s right on the other side of the kitchen, no more than ten steps from the foyer. It features a small indoor waterfall and rustic furniture that looks as if it were hewn directly from fallen trees. The room is carpeted, floor and ceiling, in an unforgettable multi-tone green shag. You want to linger here; this is where the Elvis of legend is easiest to picture. But you are hustled out the back door. (The upper floor of the house, including the bathroom in which Elvis died, is not part of the tour.)
From the Jungle Room on, there’s a sense of anti-climax. You see the office where Vernon Presley managed his son’s personal affairs, the pasture where Elvis kept his horses, and the “Hall of Gold,” a converted outbuilding filled with gold records, awards, and other memorabilia. You spend more time in this building than any other on the tour, until the parade of honors becomes mind-numbing. From there, you go to an indoor racquetball court which is being remodeled into another gold-record display and where, you are told, Elvis spent the last night of his life playing racquetball and later, singing gospel songs with his friends. And finally you go outside once again, to the Meditation Garden, where Elvis, his parents, and his grandmother are buried side-by-side. “Elvis loved the garden,” Priscilla says in your ear. “It was his place to relax and think.” Then it’s back on the bus. You turn in your tape machine and are disgorged in front of the souvenir shop.
A few minutes later, you sit on a bench writing the postcards you bought, with the famous photo of Elvis meeting Dick Nixon. You start thinking about the different Elvises and how they intertwine, and the conclusions you reach surprise you.
Said conclusions in the next installment.