I think it is undeniable that Elvis Presley’s career as an entertainer continues to have a tremendous impact on American culture. Even though I would not characterize myself as a huge Elvis fan, I can still remember exactly where I was when he died.
My family had just moved from Tampa to Gainesville, Florida and we were living in a duplex one block from my grandmother’s house on NW 3rd. Avenue. We had gone to her house to eat supper and watch the evening news on August 16, 1977. We all sat in stunned silence upon hearing the news that Elvis Presley had died. That I can still remember the time of day, the lengthening shadows over 3rd Avenue, and smell the spaghetti cooking in grandma’s kitchen should give some indication of the importance of this particular event. There are only a few other memories from my childhood that are sketched with such clarity.
Yet, I had never taken the time to visit Graceland up till now. Perhaps I was influenced by The Milk Carton Kid’s song “Memphis” which contains the lyric, “Graceland is ghost town tonight.”
I think I wanted to get a visual on what inspired that tune. Whatever the reason I found the experience to be quite different than what I had anticipated.
Graceland sits on 13.8 acres in what is now the suburbs of Memphis, TN a little more than four miles north of the Mississippi state line. Originally, the property was a working farm owned by Steven C. Toof. The property bore the name Graceland Farms for his daughter Grace, who inherited the farm in 1894 and owned it until her death. Ruth More, a Memphis socialite and the niece of Grace, inherited the property upon Grace’s death. It was Ruth, along with her husband Thomas More, who built a 10,000 sq. ft. Colonial Revival style mansion on the property in 1939. Elvis Presley purchased the house and property for $102,500 in 1957. Elvis made extensive modifications to the property and the original house expanding it to just over 17,000 sq. ft. and adding numerous outbuildings. The modifications and the accompanying mystique surrounding Presley’s fame obscure what little remains of the previous owners save the name Graceland.
Tours of Graceland are now self guided with each person issued an iPad and headphones. As one proceeds through the gates to the property an audio-visual presentation begins that highlights the various artifacts in each of the rooms as well as provides supplementary pictures and videos.
It takes about 90 minutes or so to walk the entire property and see the various exhibits. As I approached the entrance I was struck by the understated elegance of the entry way. Upon entering it became apparent to me that although I was walking through a time capsule and museum that it still remarkably felt like someone’s home. Perhaps it was the odd juxtaposition Presley’s eccentric tastes in style against the ordinary things one would find in any 1970’s era home. For instance the living room television set was remarkably like the one that used to sit in my grandmother’s living room. The kitchen bore the common appliances of the era like an coffee percolator and a typical electric range and refrigerator. It was a strange mix of the ordinary and surreal. I wondered what it would have been like to live here during Elvis’ lifetime.
As I moved to the outbuildings where much of the memorabilia revolves around Elvis’ movies and music, I was struck by the enormity of his commercial appeal and success.
I think for me it was hard to get my mind around just how popular Elvis was to his contemporaries. A lot has changed in the entertainment world since those decades. We have many more entertainment choices and diversions to choose from. The downside of that approach is that modern marketing tends to be much more segmented and targeted. There are fewer stars that have the mass appeal of Elvis.
As I neared the end of the tour in the Meditation Garden I reflected on the extraordinary life of Elvis Presley. Truly, he is an American success story seemingly lifted from a storybook. From his humble beginnings in Tupelo, Mississippi, his tremendous early success as a rock and roll singer, his unbelievable career as a movie actor, his service in the US Army, the seemingly impossible come back as a major live performer and finally the epic proportion of his legacy are all factual and cannot be denied even by his critics.
Aside from the hagiography that surrounds the tour I found a couple of things that really impressed me. First, Elvis had personal boundaries. He was careful to maintain a place where he could get away from the crowds and the fans. I think this helped ground him in the reality that he too was a human being and preserved him from developing a bubble of unreality around himself driven by his own ego. Second, Elvis truly believed in service to a cause larger than himself. Whether one looks at his charitable giving, which was truly lavish, or his service in the United States Army, Elvis believed that his success did not relive him of his obligation to serve his country and his fellow man. Third, Elvis’ success was driven by a tremendous work ethic. Elvis played hard and worked hard. He lived his life fully engaged and did not expect that things would happen unless he did whatever it took to accomplish his goals. He certainly was a man with faults and problems; nevertheless, it is the overwhelming good he accomplished that will be remembered. Perhaps that is for that reason I can truly say that I did find a little grace at Graceland.