Memphis has a lot of attractions for music fans, all of which seem to exist to help people fill up a weekend and spend lots of money. Only one really matters, though: Elvis Presley’s mansion, Graceland. The pilgrimage has been parodied in “This is Spinal Tap”, self-parodied in U2’s “Rattle and Hum”, and made out to be a place of miracle and wonder.
The house itself is a center-hall colonial, large for the time but tiny by modern McMansion standards. It’s on a nice chunk of land in what was once a gracious suburb, Whitehaven. Graceland has been diminished by the passage of time, and not only because big houses are so common now. The jungle room looks a lot like a goofy basement rec room. The three televisions in the basement look comical in an era of home theatre. And Elvis lacked the same sense of quality as the squires of other historic houses. The Washingtons, du Ponts, and Kaufmanns put care into Mount Vernon, Winterthur, and Fallingwater. Elvis, meanwhile, was a country bumpkin throwing too much money around in the 1960s, a recipe for decorating disaster.
What’s most frightening is that Graceland is not as it was when Elvis died. When Priscilla Presley took over management of the estate, she removed the red leather upholstery and fake fur rugs to take the house back to the more tasteful style it had when she moved out in 1972.
The visitor center is across the street from the mansion. You buy your tickets, get your audio headset, and then take a bus to the shrine. The mansion tour itself is short because the house is relatively small and the upstairs is off view. The grounds are open, so you can see the office and the garage, the horses, the stable now used as a costume museum, and the racquetball court that is houses more memorabilia.
The finale is the Meditation Garden, the Presley family gravesite adjacent to the swimming pool. You can see the graves of Elvis, his twin Jesse Garon, his parents, and his grandmother. People leave flowers, teddy bears, and notes; some even cry. I found it disconcerting. Elvis was an amazing musician, but he wasn’t a god. He killed himself over thirty years ago with a cocktail of hard living and too many drugs. At this point, there is more to marvel at than to mourn.
Graceland offers a choice of tour packages. The Graceland Mansion Tour, $31 for adults, includes the house and grounds only. The better value is the Graceland Platinum Tour for $35, which gives you access to the car museum, Elvis’s two airplanes, and a few smaller exhibits. All of these additional exhibits do, indeed, exit through gift shops. In fact, the ’68 Special Exhibit barely pretends to be separate from the racks of t-shirts. The assortment at each gift shop is just a bit different, too, to better inspire you to look around and maybe buy that special someone a TCB necklace.
The hard-core fan may opt for the Graceland Elvis Entourage VIP Tour at $70. And only the hard-core fan will find value in the extra $35. It moves you to the front of the line at the mansion and includes two areas not on the regular tour: a former garage that houses more stage costumes and miscellaneous memorabilia and the little trailer park on the back of the property that used to house various Presley cousins but now has offices. Unless your Christmas tree has an Elvis ornament section and you’re carrying tissues in preparation for your time at the Meditation Garden, save your money.
No matter how you decorate for the holidays, the best way to understand Graceland is to point the rental car south and drive about two hours to the Elvis Presley Birthplace in Tupelo, Mississippi. For $4 ($12 if you also want to see the museum and Assembly of God church), you can visit the two-room shack where Elvis was born and where his twin died at birth. Hospitals were for rich people, and the Presleys were not rich.
The birthplace is nothing more than a bedroom and a kitchen. The bathroom would have been an outhouse in the yard. It wasn’t terribly crowded, though, as Elvis was an only child and his father spent some time in jail for passing bad checks. Mississippi is warm much of the year, so the family could spend time on the porch and in the yard. But let’s face it: if you had lived any part of your life in a two-room shack with an outhouse, excluding any residencies involving backpacks and Lonely Planet guides, you’d hang lots of mirrors in your front hall to give it an elegant and spacious appearance as soon as you had the money to do so.
Mount Vernon, Winterthur, and Fallingwater show us how people raised with good taste spent their money. Graceland is about how someone raised with absolutely nothing spent more money than he ever could imagine.
Graceland’s visitor center is at 3765 Elvis Presley Boulevard in Memphis. It is open every day except Thanksgiving and Christmas most of the year and closed on Tuesdays in January and February.
The Elvis Presley Birthplace is at 306 Elvis Presley Drive in Tupelo. It is open every day except Thanksgiving and Christmas.