Graceland’s makeover

THE GRACELAND MANSION: The two windows at the upper right are where Elvis’ bedroom was, and the windows at the upper left are where his dressing room was. Photos courtesy of Graceland.com

By Gillian G. Gaar

One of the best things Graceland does for its visitors is the free morning walk up. Every morning, from 7:30 a.m. to 8:30 a.m., you’re allowed to walk up the long and winding driveway to the Meditation Garden. It’s where Elvis and his family members are buried, and it’s the last stop on tours of the mansion, where visitors stop to pay their respects before boarding the shuttle that takes you back across the street to the Elvis Presley’s Memphis complex.

But for this one golden hour, you’re on your own. You can stroll up the driveway at your own pace, and with so few people around, you can pretend that you actually live there. Indeed, it’s easy to believe that Elvis himself might return at any moment. After all, the swimming pool sits there ready and waiting for someone to take a dip. The fountains at the Meditation Garden are flowing. And despite the early hour, the groundskeepers are busy at work, touching up paint, mowing the lawn, attending to the shrubberies.

And visitors to Graceland today will find the property a little more like it was when Elvis was actually living there. A recent revamp has restored the Racquetball Building, which previously displayed Elvis’ gold and platinum records and his jumpsuits, to its original state. And the Trophy Building, which formerly featured an extensive display that covered Elvis’ career, now has displays about the history of the Presley family and Graceland itself.

It’s all part of the most extensive redevelopment of Graceland since it opened to the public in 1982. And it’s not just the mansion. The entire Graceland Plaza and Graceland Crossing area across the street is being replaced (Graceland Crossing, still standing when I visited in June, is slated for demolition). In their place is the Elvis Presley’s Memphis complex, with a new array of museums, shops, and restaurants, which opened on March 2, 2017. And just down the road from Graceland is a new hotel, the Guest House at Graceland, replacing the Heartbreak Hotel, which was across the street next to Graceland Crossing; now closed, it too awaits demolition.

Which means touring Graceland will be a new experience, even if you’ve visited before. For while the mansion tour is largely the same, Elvis Presley’s Memphis is, at 200,000 square feet, five times bigger than the Graceland Plaza area. Meaning that more artifacts than ever are on display. “Prior to opening the complex, we were only able to display about 10 percent of the archives,” says Libby Perry, Public Relations Coordinator at Elvis Presley Enterprises (EPE). “With the new complex it’s safe to say we’ve grown to about 20 percent.” That still only scratches the surface of Elvis’ archives, with the number of artifacts running into “millions, because we include things like gas station receipts from when Elvis was touring in 1957; that’s an artifact,” says Perry. “And I know they’re still cataloguing a lot of artifacts.”

Tours still begin at the ticket office. After watching a short film about Elvis, you board a shuttle that takes you across the street to the mansion. Your best time to take a picture in front of Graceland is while you wait in line to enter Elvis’ home. Look up as you face the mansion. The two windows at the upper right are where Elvis’ bedroom was, and the windows at the upper left are where his dressing room was.

The Elvis legacy

When Graceland first opened, there were in-person tour guides who provided information as you moved around the grounds. They were later replaced by portable cassette decks, and now iPads. I found the iPads cumbersome to use; my headphone jack didn’t work properly, and people were constantly asking the staff how to operate the devices. Another drawback; people spend more time looking at their screens than at the rooms. I later spoke to one Memphis tour guide who doesn’t bother taking the iPad when he goes to visit Graceland; if you’ve been to Graceland before, you might consider doing the same.

The first part of the tour takes you through the mansion itself (you only tour the ground floor and basement in the mansion; upstairs, where Elvis’ bedroom was, is off limits). On the ground floor, you’ll see the living room, with its elaborate stained glass panels leading to the music room. The dining room, with its table set for six. The bedroom used by Elvis’ parents, Gladys and Vernon, and then the wood-paneled kitchen, which is a real 1970s-era time capsule (check out the microwave on the counter; the first such device in Memphis, it cost $1,000).

Downstairs are the rooms with the most distinctive, and colorful, personalities. In 1974, Elvis had his TV room (with its three TVs) redecorated in yellow, dark blue and white, with his “Taking Care of Business” lightning bolt logo prominently featured on one wall. The pool room is draped with 400 yards of patterned fabric on the walls and ceiling, with vintage-styled billiard lamps. Back upstairs on the main floor is the most famous of these vibrant rooms, the “Jungle Room,” which was actually given its name by Graceland staff after the mansion opened to public. The room features thick green shag carpet on the floor and ceiling; heavy, carved wooden furniture; a wall with a waterfall gently trickling down; and a variety of animal figures (a tiger, an elephant). In 1976, RCA installed recording equipment and Elvis recorded the albums “From Elvis Presley Boulevard” and “Moody Blue” in this room.

Out back is the small building Vernon Presley used as an office, where he oversaw his son’s business; a stern sign on the door warns, “NO LOAFING IN OFFICE.” Next door is a smokehouse, used by Elvis for target shooting. Horses still roam the grounds as well, as they did during Elvis’ “ranch period” in the late 1960s.

The Trophy Building is the area that’s changed the most. I miss the “Hall of Gold” — a hallway lined with Elvis’ gold and platinum records — that first greeted you on entry. But it’s been replaced with a fascinating exhibit in its own right. It’s the personal side of Elvis: the family bible, his first box of crayons, his high school diploma, his and Priscilla’s wedding outfits. There’s also a lot of information relating to the Graceland property itself; the check for the down payment on the property ($1,000), and Elvis’ own keys to the house, among other items. “It’s a tribute to his family and what life was like at Graceland during those 20 years he lived here,” explains Perry.

The Racquetball Building now looks bare, stripped of its previous display, but again, it looks like it did when Elvis was living at Graceland. And the final stop at the Meditation Garden brings the story full circle. Elvis bought Graceland in 1957. Twenty years later, his beloved home became his final resting place.

That’s just the start of what there is to see. The area where Graceland Plaza stood was in the process of being newly landscaped during my visit, with the Plaza area being replaced by a green field and trees. The Elvis Presley’s Memphis complex stands behind where the Plaza used to be. “The mansion does such a great job of telling Elvis’ personal story, and the new complex kind of embellishes that,” says Perry. “Giving the history and the career story a little bit more color.”

Unlike the former Plaza, where you needed tickets to enter the other museums but could visit any shops and restaurants you liked, you’ll need a ticket to enter the Elvis Presley’s Memphis complex. So shoppers take note; if you see an item at a shop in complex, buy it — you won’t be able to return to the shops the next day without a ticket (there are three shops you can visit at the complex without having a ticket).

The museums have the expected themes: the Presley Motors Automobile Museum, Presley Cycles, Fashion King, Elvis’ Tupelo, Private Presley: Elvis in the Army, Mystery Train: The Sam Phillips Exhibit. I didn’t feel ICONS: The Influence of Elvis Presley added much; it’s a room of outfits and/or artifacts of famous folk who admired Elvis. Nor did I see the point of the Fairgrounds exhibit, a room with the types of games you might have played at the Mississippi-Alabama Fair and Dairy Show. I’d rather have seen more Elvis items.

Which is what makes the Graceland Archives Experience exhibit so interesting. Instead of placing items in a themed setting, they’re displayed as they would be in the archives, in display cases and drawers. There were a lot of fun items on display during my visit, such as a soda fountain dispenser (serving up Dr. Pepper, Fanta Orange, Tab, Sprite, and Coca Cola), and a television set, its screen shattered by a gun shot (was Robert Goulet on at the time?).

The centerpiece is the Elvis: The Entertainer Career Museum, which covers Elvis’ career from his first Sun releases to the jumpsuit he wore at his last live show (at 20,000 square feet, it’s the largest museum in the complex). Here’s where you’ll find the most iconic items associated with Elvis, such as the gold lamé suit he wore on the cover of “Elvis’ Gold Records Vol. 2” (aka “50,000,000 Elvis Fans Can’t Be Wrong”) and the black leather outfit he wore in his 1968 “Comeback” special (alongside his personal script of the show).

Centerpiece of The Memphis complex: The Entertainer Career Museum covers Elvis’ career from his first Sun releases to the jumpsuit he wore at his last live show.

This museum is really the heart of the Elvis Presley’s Memphis experience. For while it’s fun to see his cars, or the gold-plated telephone he kept in his bedroom, this is the museum that reminds us why we’re interested in seeing those objects in the first place: because of his work. Elvis’ music, his records, his live performances — that’s what made Elvis a legend, and that’s why we remember him today.

The complex also has a large theater (they call it “Graceland Soundstage A”), showing Elvis movies, and which will surely be useful for large presentations. I was too tired to check out the Country Road to Rock Exhibit. I had lunch at Gladys’ Diner, choosing the peanut butter and banana sandwich (just as rich and sweet as you’d expect), a milkshake at Minnie Mae’s Sweets, and I popped in to Vernon’s Smokehouse for a beer (note: the bathroom should be cleaned more frequently). And don’t forget the planes. The new entry way isn’t as fun as the previous set up (you entered a building designed to resemble a terminal, picking up a “boarding pass” with info about the planes), but it’s certainly still worth checking out the custom-designed “Lisa Marie” (with its gold-plated seat belts) and the smaller “Hound Dog II” (mainly used by Elvis’ manager, Colonel Tom Parker).

Now, let’s talk tickets. In my view, the Graceland Mansion Only Tour is only worth doing if you’re short on time; after all, if you’ve taken the time to travel to Memphis, why not see all you can? The best value is the Elvis Experience Tour, which includes the mansion and Elvis Presley’s Memphis complex. Don’t forget to add on the option to see Elvis’ planes for $5.

Then come the packages with the perks. I went on the Elvis Entourage VIP Tour. The main perk is getting to skip the lines; lines weren’t an issue during my trip, but they would be during peak seasons like Elvis Week. You can also go through the mansion more than once. But I wasn’t much impressed with the VIP Lounge at Elvis Presley’s Memphis; a dimly lit room with a few items on display. Though it would be something of a nice refuge on a crowded day.

The Ultimate VIP Tour is the priciest ($159 per person vs. $57.50 for the Elvis Experience Tour), but you’re given more goodies, such as a personal tour guide as you go through the mansion and a meal at Vernon’s Smokehouse. You’re also able to get up close and personal with the artifacts, getting to hold items that belonged to Elvis in your own hands; I met a couple who had this package, and they found that aspect particularly exciting. And if you want to return to the Elvis Presley’s Memphis complex on a later day, there are add-on options for all ticket packages. You’ll find full ticket info at graceland.com, or (901) 332-3322, (800) 238-2000.

Every Elvis fan should visit Graceland at least once in their life. But Graceland isn’t only for Elvis fans; anyone with an interest in popular culture should find a visit entertaining. Is it worth revisiting again if you’ve already been? Yes; the expanded displays at the Elvis Presley’s Memphis complex means there’s a lot more of Elvis to see (though personally, I’d open up the complex area, so those without tickets can still visit the shops and Gladys’ Diner). And for first time visitors, what more incentive do you need? It’s time to put a little Elvis in your life.

Leave a Reply