He’s been gone for almost 40 years. But Elvis never really left the building.
Instead, the immediate surroundings of Graceland, the Memphis home he occupied from 1957 until his death there on Aug. 16, 1977, have received a major upgrade, one that Elvis Presley Enterprises — and Elvis’ ever-devout fans — are counting on to keep his legacy rocking for decades to come.
As an EPE executive put it, “There’s nobody like Elvis, and there’s only one Graceland in the world.”
With 20 million tourists passing through since it was opened to the public in 1982, Graceland is the second most-visited house in America, after only the White House. It hosts commemorations of not just his birthday, but also the day he died, and inspires hundreds of active tribute artists (don’t call them impersonators).
But legends fade. And with an aging fan base (just 20 percent of Graceland visitors were born since Elvis died) and annual attendance flat for the last decade (600,000, down 100,000 from the peak 20 years ago), something had to be done.
That’s why the Guest House at Graceland, a $92 million 450-room Elvis-themed resort-style hotel, opened next door last October. And March brought the debut of Elvis Presley’s Memphis, a $45 million museum/entertainment complex on the other side of Elvis Presley Boulevard, from which visitors board shuttle buses to the mansion.
Elvis Presley’s Memphis
Elvis Presley’s Memphis is a leap into the 21st century with state-of-the-art sight and sound, the centerpiece of which is “Elvis: The Entertainer,” a 20,000-square-foot celebration of his music with an emphasis on the performances, from the early days to Las Vegas to the touring years. It features cases full of artifacts, most formerly in warehouses, as concerts play in endless loops.
Where else can you get a 360-degree view of more than 80 glass-enclosed jumpsuits?
It’s a fitting, albeit sanitized, monument to an entertainer who remains a global icon even if he never performed outside the United States. Indeed, an estimated 20 percent of those who tour Graceland are international visitors.
Along with “Elvis: The Entertainer” there are areas focusing on his movies, time in the Army, his cars, the influence of country music on his life, the history of Sun Records and a 2,000-seat “soundstage” which can be used for concerts and Elvis Week events.
There are two restaurants, one featuring fried peanut butter and banana sandwiches (made with bacon drippings), Elvis’ favorite treat, and the expected retail outlets with souvenirs ranging from refrigerator magnets to $2,500 custom-made jumpsuits.
What you won’t see: anything negative about Elvis, including pictures of the bloated Elvis in his final years. EPE doesn’t license any images beyond 1973.
In fact, one is hard-pressed to find any evidence that Elvis ever died, or even that he wasn’t still married to Priscilla, the public face of EPE, even though she and Elvis divorced in 1973.
“It’s a little commercial, but we came for the music,” said Claes Brattberh, who with two friends from Sweden was taking a first-time tour of the South which was to later include New Orleans. “Elvis is the King. He always has been and always we will be.”
Added Linda Strong of Henderson, Nevada, whose proximity to Las Vegas allowed her to attend more than 100 Elvis concerts: “It brings back the feeling of seeing him.
“You can just look at one of the jumpsuits and remember what it was like that night. It makes me feel young again.”
Guest House Blues
While Elvis Presley’s Memphis and the mansion tour are worthwhile, the Guest House at Graceland may leave paying guests disappointed. The check-in time of 4 p.m. is late in the industry, but would be tolerable if the lobby staff processed arrivals promptly. On our visit, however, guests waited, some more than an hour, to check in. Rooms weren’t ready and the staff seemed exasperated.
According to an employee, the hotel had recently experienced steep turnover in its housekeeping staff.
To his credit, Keith Hess, the hotel’s vice-president and managing director, came to the front desk to pitch in. He blamed the delays on spring break and the normal Friday afternoon rush. When pressed later, he said, “Have we had some staffing problems? Absolutely. That goes with the business, and in the Memphis market especially. But we’re ramping up the staffing and pushing ahead.”
On the other hand, guests won’t be disappointed with the looks of the place. The outside has the same Southern colonial ambiance as Graceland, just a little grander. The interior has touches of Elvis, such as the sunburst lobby ceiling reminiscent of a famous jumpsuit.
The rooms are modern with striking Elvis-themed artwork and four TV channels dedicated to the King. There are 20 suites (sorry, none modeled after the Jungle Room).
‘Elvis Makes You Smile’
At age 69, Eliza Worthington of Morehead City, North Carolina, was making her first trip to Graceland with her husband, Bob. When we spoke to her at Elvis Presley’s Memphis, she certainly didn’t want to hear about the downward spiral that ended in Elvis’ death at age 42 or any downbeat elements of his life.
“It’s a very positive and upbeat look at Elvis,” she said. “We know what drugs did to him, but that’s not what we’re here to hear about.
“Elvis makes you smile; Elvis makes you feel good. That’s why we love him.”