My first impression, taking the circular driveway to the home of Elvis Presley, is how small it is. For someone larger than life, I expected something grander for the King of Rock ’n’ Roll.
But if you go by square footage (17,552), the home is large by American standards. And yet, it seems modest somehow. The first rooms looks fairly ordinary, standard 1960s suburbia. In the back of the house and in the basement, the rooms are a riot of outlandish styles and bright colors some would dub gaudy, tacky, over the top.
For me, Elvis’ home is a contradiction, like the man himself. Raised a poor boy, he became a multimillionaire at a young age. He had an “aw shucks” humbleness, but transformed into an extroverted performer who wore spangled jumpsuits on a Las Vegas stage. A conspicuous consumer, Elvis bought cars and jets as if they were toys, yet he was generous to friends and charities, to which he wrote $1 million checks.
Who was Elvis? The question lingers in my mind and, I wager, the minds of those crowded around me on the tour through the home he cherished.
Elvis’ Rise to King of Rock ’n’ Roll and Move to Graceland
Elvis was born in Tupelo, Miss., in 1935 and moved to Memphis when he was 13. He began his recording career there at age 19 and quickly rose to stardom, so much so that fans flocked to his parents’ home, disturbing the neighbors. He asked his parents to find a more secluded spot in what was then farmland outside Memphis. They chose 13.5-acre Graceland Farms, named for Grace Toof, daughter of the original owner. Elvis kept the name when he bought the house. He paid $102,000 and was only 22 when he moved into Graceland with his parents.
In Your Bucket Because . . .
- You are fascinated by Elvis Presley, the man and the myth.
- You are a music fan and want to see how the King of Rock ’n’ Roll lived.
- You want to pay your respects to Elvis at his grave site.
- Good for music fans, but especially those with a fondness for the ’50s,’60s and ’70s.
Like all tours of Graceland, mine begins with boarding a shuttle bus that drives through the wrought-iron gate adorned with music notes up to the house. There’s nothing La Vegas-y here: Built in 1939 in Colonial Revival style, the house features a limestone façade and white columns shaded by trees. But Elvis added his mark, increasing the home to 23 rooms, including eight bedrooms and baths.
He would die in an upstairs bathroom at age 42, officially of a heart attack, though rumors still circulate about drug abuse.
No one, not even most of the staff, is allowed upstairs where Elvis’ bedroom, office and wardrobe room remain as they were the day he passed in 1977. After his ex-wife, Priscilla, opened Graceland to tours in 1982 to pay for its taxes and upkeep, the family decided the second floor would remain private.
Upon entering the house, I can’t help but peer up the staircase and wonder what I might see.
Graceland Audio Tour Spiced with Elvis Music
I put on headphones and am delighted to hear the voice of Elvis’ daughter, Lisa Marie, and excerpts of his music spliced among the narration. It’s an excellent audio tour, available in nine languages, testimony to the King’s worldwide following.
The white-carpeted living room flows into the music room with a baby grand piano. I follow the tour to Elvis’ parents’ modest bedroom, the dining room and kitchen. I smile when I see the harvest gold refrigerator, just like one from my childhood. The kitchen was the nerve center of the house, going 24/7, with the TV on the back counter always on. Elvis insisted the kitchen always be stocked with Pepsi, hot dogs, peanut butter, milk, ice cream and the ingredients for brownies and banana pudding so they could be made on short notice.
In the basement, Graceland’s kitschy décor surfaces with bright colors and fake animal prints. Elvis had three TV sets, all tuned to different stations, in his TV room where he’d recline on yellow pillows on a black velvet couch. A white ceramic monkey seems an odd choice for the mirrored coffee table. Next door, the walls and ceiling of the billiard room are covered with a brightly colored pleated print fabric. Back upstairs I pass through the Jungle Room with the most outrageous décor of all: green shag carpet on the floor and ceiling, an indoor waterfall and wood furniture carved in a wild animal motif.
For Elvis Presley Fans, Graceland is a Pilgrimage
Outside, I wait in line to enter Elvis’ father’s former office where a televised interview plays of a young Elvis shortly after his return from Army service. As I make my way to the next building, I’m touched to see Lisa Marie’s swing set on the lawn, waiting for the little girl who lived here. Display cases in the Trophy Room hold her baby clothing, Priscilla’s wedding dress, movie posters and gold records. I’m blown away by the number of cancelled checks for $1 million Elvis made out to local charities. Next door, in what once was the racquetball court, sequined jumpsuits are on display while monitors above them play recordings of Elvis wearing them in concerts in Las Vegas.
For true Elvis fans, Graceland is akin to a religious pilgrimage. The climax comes next in the Meditation Garden containing his grave and that of his parents and grandmother as well as a memorial stone for his twin brother, Jesse, who died at birth. The crowd passes slowly in silence and I see more than a few faces streaked with tears.
Elvis Presley’s Toys: His Cars and Airplanes
Across the street stands the Elvis Presley Car Museum and Elvis’s Custom Jets. More than 33 vehicles Elvis owned are arranged along a mock tree-lined street and drive-in movie theater. His shiny pink Cadillac looks like a confection good enough to eat. I recognize the red MG from his film “Blue Hawaii.” One of the oddest vehicles is a John Deere tractor he used at Graceland.
It’s difficult to miss Elvis’ two jets parked nearby. His Lockheed Jet Star is decked out in yellow and green leather seats on blue carpeting. The larger aircraft, a Convair 880 he bought in 1975, is named the Lisa Marie and outfitted with a living room, conference room and bedroom. I’m amazed by the bathroom sink flecked with 24-karat gold.
- Information and tickets: Elvis Presley.
- Getting there: About 9 miles south of downtown Memphis at 3734 Elvis Presley Blvd. Paid parking across the street at 3717 Elvis Presley Blvd.; ticket office at 3765 Elvis Presley Blvd.
- Permitted without flash; video recording not allowed.
- Dining and shopping: Gift shops and casual restaurants near the ticket office.
- Memphis sights and lodging: For information on other sights related to the music industry in Memphis and a wide range of accommodations, contact the Memphis Convention and Visitors Bureau.