Elvis’ house opened 40 years ago

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On April 22, 1982, a reporter for the Memphis Press-Scimitar, the city’s evening newspaper, was an unauthorized guest on a tour of Graceland, about six weeks before Elvis Presley’s mansion was to open for the first time to the public.

The story that appeared in the press the next day under the headline “Tour gives insight into the king’s castle” was something of a “scoop”.

The town’s morning newspaper and Press-Scimitar rival, The Commercial Appeal, had arranged for what was supposed to be an exclusive tour of the mansion. This visit was detailed in a special eight-page section, but that section did not appear until May.

Meanwhile, the Press-Scimitar, in its fearless and nonchalant way, gave readers 22 short paragraphs, accompanied by zero photographs.

A tabloid might have considered this glimpse of Graceland a gold mine, but for the Press-Scimitar, it was worth a block of text on page B1.

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Elvis Week 2021: Priscilla Presley thanks Elvis fans at candlelight vigil

Priscilla Presley thanked hundreds of Elvis fans during a candlelight vigil at Graceland on Sunday, August 15, 2021. Fans were able to come to Elvis Presley’s memorial site and pay their respects.

Ray Padilla, Memphis Trade Call

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“A first look inside Graceland revealed less a palace fit for a king than a Heartbreak Hotel filled with bric-a-brac from the Blue Buckskin era,” the reporter wrote.

“The facade of the house is dominated by curtains of garish red,” the story continued, noting a color scheme that would be changed to a more soothing royal blue before Graceland went public. “The panels of the closet doors are covered with a thick red carpet.”

Citing the “multicolored fabric” that covered the basement walls and ceiling around Elvis’ pool table, the reporter wrote: “The whole room looks like it’s been tie-dyed.”

Graceland, the reporter summed up, in an evocative phrase that doesn’t really make sense (no lingerie was visible inside the house), “is like entering a twilight zone designed by Frederick’s of Hollywood “.

And, yes, that reporter was me.

“The mystery is gone now”

Out of college and on the job for less than seven months, an editor told me to go to Graceland that night for some sort of tour.

When I arrived, I discovered that the event had been organized for members of the National Tour Brokers Association, which represented the major tour operators in the country. The idea was that these vacation influencers would return to their hometowns, eager to book trips to Memphis and Graceland.

No other press was present. I quickly realized that I wasn’t supposed to be there. But no one asked me who I was or what I was doing, so I stayed.

I was not impressed. At the time, I was more interested in Elvis Costello than Elvis Presley. I didn’t really know what to make of such then unknown sights like “the stained glass peacocks in the living room” or the “faux leopard skin chairs”. I wasn’t sure what to think of Graceland.

Neither did my diary, apparently. And maybe not Memphis either.

Graceland was “the house that has been a guarded secret since Elvis acquired it in 1957”, wrote The Commercial Appeal in 1982.

“I used to sit and think what Graceland looked like inside,” a seemingly disillusioned fan told The Commercial Appeal on June 7, 1982, after being one of the first tourists inside the mansion. “The mystery is gone now.”

What does Graceland mean for the identity of Memphis?

Forty years later, the “mystery”, in the most basic way, has really disappeared. Every facet of Graceland – every architectural detail, every decorative idiosyncrasy, every dog-eared paperback and every bullet-riddled television – has been extensively researched, documented and cataloged.

Yet the familiarity, for most fans, did not breed contempt, boredom or disappointment. People have been flocking to the mansion, new arrivals and returning visitors, by the millions – 23 million, since 1982.

The Presley family members and Memphis officials who thought the light of Elvis would continue to shine and continue to draw people to Graceland were right.

Forty-five years after Elvis Presley’s death and 40 years after Graceland opened to the public, the singer and his home are probably more central if not less essential to Memphis’ identity than they were when Elvis was alive and in residence at the address which in 1971 became 3764 Elvis Presley Boulevard.

Less essential, insofar as the Grizzlies, Memphis rap, the National Civil Rights Museum, the Stax Museum of American Soul Music, local food culture, the jookin’ dance movement and other attractions and forms of expression are sources of pride and identity emblems that demonstrate that Memphis is fine, with or without Elvis.

More central, in that the house of Elvis as well as Elvis himself became the stuff of myth as well as history.

Ask a random assortment of people “Who lived in Mt. Vernon?” or “Who lived in Monticello?” and I bet you would hear a random assortment of often incorrect answers.

Ask that same assortment of people, “Who lived in Graceland?” and I bet you would hear “Elvis” almost as often as you would hear “the President” and “Santa Claus” if you asked “Who lives in the White House?” and “Who lives at the North Pole?”

A rehabilitation of Graceland’s image

Fulfilling the promise of its name (which predates Elvis’ owning the house), Graceland has become a beacon of hope in many songs and films.

Typically, Graceland is imagined as a place of pilgrimage (the bands Spinal Tap and U2 visit Elvis’ grave in their films). It’s a destination that promises salvation (see the horror comedy “Zombieland: Double Tap”) or a spiritual embrace (“I have a reason to believe that we will all be received at Graceland”, sang Paul Simon) .

Margaret Renkl, a Nashville-based columnist for The New York Times, titled her recent collection of essays “Graceland, At Last.” Renkl writes that she hopes that one day the South “will finally keep the promise of her good heart”.

This almost spiritual association represents in a way a rehabilitation of the image of the house. During Elvis’ later years and immediately after his death, Graceland was often portrayed as some sort of lavish self-made prison, tastelessly furnished and populated by dodgy pests.

In “Elvis”, his controversial best-selling 1981 biography, author Albert Goldman wrote that the mansion’s red-draped interior suggested “a turn-of-the-century brothel in the French Quarter of New Orleans”. “Bordello” has become the go-to reference for writers describing Elvis’ home.

Slowly but surely, this attitude changed.

An innovator who was among the first to elevate color photography to art worthy of a gallery and a museum, Memphis photographer William Eggleston – arguably the most influential local “genius” since Elvis – made a similar act of elevation on Graceland when contracted in 1983 to take footage from inside the house.

Eggleston told The Washington Post that in his conversations with Priscilla Presley and other Elvis representatives, “I was kind of asked…not to Goldmanize That… Any other word just doesn’t quite fit. I told them I thought I knew what they were talking about.”

Culture columnist Greil Marcus noted this phenomenon when reviewing Eggleston’s work on Graceland in 1984.

Marcus wrote that “everyone I know who has visited the interior of Graceland” has described the interior as “sticky, garish, tasteless – words others translate as white trash”. But, he said, “There is no trace of that in Eggleston’s photographs. Ultimately, what they communicate is an irreducible dignity…”

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Forty-one years after Goldman’s book, another biography titled “Elvis” arrives at the end of June, when Australian director Baz Luhrmann’s film – which some reports said cost $200 million to produce and market – is released in the worldwide, with Austin Butler in the title role.

The film debuted May 25 at the Cannes Film Festival, but so far its Australian recreations of Graceland haven’t garnered much comment. However, Variety reviewer Owen Gleiberman’s description of the film as a “glittering pinwheel” and “a bubbly, delirious, mischievous, compulsively watchable 2 hour, 39 minute fever dream” suggests that the man and the mansion will be returned with fantastic expressiveness.

Priscilla Presley: “It was at home”

Meanwhile, Graceland remains very personal for those who love Elvis – not just fans, but especially those who loved Elvis because they knew him.

In an interview in The Commercial Appeal a month before the house opened to the public, Priscilla Presley, Elvis’ ex-wife and mother of the couple’s daughter, Lisa Marie Presley, expressed what she felt called “mixed emotions” about the opening of Graceland.

“It was my home,” said Priscilla, who moved to Memphis in 1963 and was married to Elvis from 1967 to 1973.

“Part of my life was here,” she said. “I think any time you have a place that has been yours, you have a deep feeling about it. Opening it up to the public is a big decision.”

“I predict it will be closed in two years,” a first-day visitor from Fond du Lac, Wisconsin, told The Commercial Appeal in 1982. “The tourists are going to kill it. They’re going to steal everything in sight. “

Of course, they didn’t, even though they kept coming back.

Just like this journalist. In the 40 years since my unauthorized tour, I’ve probably returned to Graceland 40 times or more, with permission.

I’ve seen Miss USA contestants pose on her stairs and watched actors shoot movie scenes on her porch. I met a blind Elvis “tribute artist” who had dedicated his life to emulating the poses, wardrobe and hairstyle of a man he had never seen. I met a Wiccan who brought her own occult candle to Elvis’ weeknight vigil, complete with runes carved into the wax.

I have had many bizarre encounters on its grounds and outside its gates. And yet, each year, Graceland feels a little less like a twilight zone and a little more like a home.

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