When the King of Rock ’n’ Roll died Aug. 16, 1977, his ex-wife, Priscilla, was overcome with emotion—and doubts. She worried not just for her daughter, Lisa Marie—Elvis’ only child—but also for all the people around the globe to whom he meant so much. “How is this world,” she wondered, “going to survive without Elvis Presley?”
Thirty-one years later, Presley’s faithful followers keep his memory alive, especially when they visit Graceland, making the ultimate pop-music pilgrimage to one of America’s top five most-visited historic homes. Each year, more than 600,000 people tour the 17,000-square-foot residence on Elvis Presley Boulevard in the Whitehaven section of Memphis, Tenn. Some, like Nancie Craft, 52, of Houston, come twice a year: in January for Elvis’ birthday, and in August, around the anniversary of his death.
“It’s so nice to go somewhere where you do not have to explain to anyone why you’re an Elvis fan,” says Craft, president of an Elvis Presley fan club. “Why all of us want to know so much about this one man is still a mystery to me. But we go because it’s like a family reunion, and we all just feel closer to Elvis at Graceland.”
Built for a doctor
The “mansion,” as the home is commonly referred to, was built in 1939 for Memphis physician Dr. Thomas D. Moore and his wife, and dubbed Graceland for Mrs. Moore’s great-aunt. But today, everything about it, from the famed music-themed gates to the stained-glass peacocks in the living room and the “TCB” (Taking Care of Business) lightning bolts painted on the walls of the TV room, reflects Elvis and his often eclectic decorating tastes.
Presley bought the property for $102,500 in March 1957 as a home for himself and his parents, Gladys and Vernon. Visitors taking Graceland’s “audio tour”—available in eight languages—even hear Elvis’ voice as they walk through the home, grounds, outbuildings and the Meditation Garden where Presley and his parents are buried.
“It’s the most unique historic home tour you’ll find anywhere in the world,” boasts Kevin Kern, media relations manager of Elvis Presley Enterprises. “At other historic properties, you might hear someone impersonating the voice of a president, but our tour offers you the opportunity to hear from the people who lived there—not only Elvis, but also Priscilla and Lisa Marie. And you can listen to recordings of Gladys and Vernon and Elvis singing. When you’re actually hearing the people who lived and breathed inside those walls, it becomes a very real place.”
And how. In this perfectly preserved time capsule of the 1950s, ’60s and ’70s, it’s easy to imagine Elvis cutting up with his friends in the Jungle Room, instantly recognizable for its “fur”-covered, Polynesian-style furniture and lime shag carpet. And in Elvis’ parents’ bedroom, where time stopped with Gladys’ death in 1958, you can almost see her getting ready for the day, with her colorful dresses lined up in the open closet as if she’s trying to decide which one to wear.
The mansion tour also includes the dining room, music room, poolroom and kitchen. But not every room of this White House of Rock ’n’ Roll is exhibited. A downstairs apartment is off-limits to the public, as is the upstairs, including the bathroom where Elvis died. According to Kern, the private living quarters of Elvis, Priscilla and Lisa Marie “will never be opened up,” as “very few people were invited to that inner sanctum” even when Elvis was living. While Priscilla and Lisa Marie do not stay at Graceland when in Memphis, they do enjoy personal time there.
“When the ladies are in town, if they wish to come out to the house, they give the staff advance notice,” Kern says. “We’ll take down the ropes and roll out the white carpet to cover up the black tour path, take the protective coverings off the things in the kitchen, and the house becomes a home again. If it’s Christmas, Priscilla and Lisa Marie will sit on the furniture in the Jungle Room and open presents. This is where Lisa Marie grew up, so it’s very much a special place for her.”
Still, there are changes from when Elvis lived in the home, but most of them are in the outbuildings and grounds, where a horse grazes in the pasture where Elvis once rode Rising Sun, his registered palomino. Presley’s racquetball building now is used to display his floor-to-ceiling gold records, and it houses the piano where Elvis sang his last song, “Blue Eyes Crying in the Rain,” on the morning he died. And his famous gold lamé suit, still an eye-popping wonder after 50 years, holds center court in the now-rechristened trophy building, which Elvis originally had designed to accommodate his sprawling slot-car racetrack.
Room to grow
Graceland comprised about 14 acres of towering oaks and farmland when Elvis, barely 22 years old and not long out of public housing, originally bought it. But the New York-based CKX Inc., which controls 85 percent of Presley’s name, image, and likeness (Lisa Marie owns the remaining 15 percent, along with the house and its artifacts), has, over time, acquired more than 100 acres on the same side of Elvis Presley Boulevard as the mansion. The company’s immediate plans are to build a new 80,000-square-foot visitor center, high-tech museum and convention hotel, at a cost of $250 million. No timetable has been announced for the expansion.
Meanwhile, on acreage across the street, fans can tour Presley’s car museum and his two airplanes, and see exhibits such as 56 of his bejeweled jumpsuits; “Private Presley,” which focuses on Elvis’ U.S. Army years; and “Elvis ’68,” a salute to the TV special that marked his comeback.
In one of many shops, fans can spend $100 to play pool on the table where Elvis and the Beatles squared off in 1965 when the British band visited him. Elsewhere on the grounds is a chapel where couples can marry, and then check into nearby Heartbreak Hotel. You’ll find it down at the end of, yes, Lonely Street, or so says a small, tongue-in-cheek road sign.
The cultural shrine of Graceland—the most famous rock ’n’ roll residence in the world—fascinates celebrities, too. Bruce Springsteen famously jumped the wall while Elvis was alive, and in recent years, Loretta Lynn stood in line and bought a ticket like everyone else.
Many fans take in Memphis’ other tourist treasures—Sun Studio, Beale Street, the National Civil Rights Museum, among them—on their visit. But Jackie Reed of the Memphis Convention and Visitors Bureau, confirms that Graceland is by far the top area attraction. And it’s no surprise.
“You may have the other seven wonders of the world,” Reed says. “But we’ve got No. 8 right here.”