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Amazing Graceland

It was 30 years ago Aug. 16 that Elvis Presley was found dead at Graceland, his Memphis home. But in those 30 years, the King has remained as big as ever, having reached the status of American icon.

Many people under 40 have no idea that Elvis was on rock 'n' roll's cutting edge in the 1950s. For much of the 1960s until his death, he was upstaged by the Beatles, The Who and the Rolling Stones.

While other groups were providing the soundtrack to student activism, Elvis was churning out forgettable movies such as "Spinout" and "Harum Scarum."

But he still had a core following that never wavered and has attracted new fans as well.

It perhaps is noteworthy that two products from those very same 1960s, The Who and Neil Young, have both written and recorded Elvis tribute songs.

Bono, U2's lead singer, made a pilgrimage to Graceland, and "Viva Las Vegas" has become an anthem to the adult playground where veteran stars like Elton John, Chicago and Dr. John perform regularly.

Some say it was his premature death at age 42 in 1977 that turned him into a legend, but more likely the legend grew from his magnetism and the way he could sell a song with style and swagger.

Whether it be the rawness of "Jailhouse Rock," the passion of "Burning Love" or the, well, tenderness of "Love Me Tender," Presley's music portfolio is today as classic as that of other American music royalty such as Frank Sinatra and Judy Garland.

That enduring appeal might explain the 600,000 to 700,000 people who visit Graceland every year, as well as explain that the Graceland experience has expanded well beyond Elvis's mansion tour into a full-day experience filled with supplementary galleries and museums.

The number of visitors spikes during Elvis Week, held each year during the week surrounding the date he died. This year's dates are Aug. 11-19.

All nationalities and all ages - Americans and Europeans, blue hairs and long hairs - come here. And they still leave graffiti on the brick walls guarding the mansion as they have since the 1950s.

Elvis stories have become folklore. He shot a color TV as adult contemporary singer Robert Goulet was performing on the screen. Why? Was it at the peak of one of Elvis' notorious mood swings?

"Nobody really knows," says Graceland spokesman Kevin Kern. "When our archives department put the TV on display for the first time and secured the glass for exhibiting, they actually found the bullet inside the TV."

Today the fractured television is displayed in the "Elvis After Dark" exhibit, which opened in March 2006 across the street from the mansion.

Elvis said early in his career: "The world is more alive at night. It's like God ain't lookin'."

Says Kern: "Elvis was a night owl. He recorded many of his hit songs during late-night recording sessions, and some of his most memorable performances were late at night in Vegas."

He also hung around with friends at night, hosting parties or partaking in G-rated fun such as playing games of Monopoly.

His personal game board illustrated with Marvin Gardens and Park Place is on view in "Elvis After Dark."
So is a blowup of a black and white news photo of a 1970s Presley, donning a red leather jacket and offering assistance at the scene of an auto accident in the wee hours of a Memphis morning. The jacket is displayed in front of the photo.

As much as Elvis loved the night, he also savored anything with a motor and wheels.

The Elvis Presley Automobile Museum preserves his cars in automotive landscapes.

His famous 1955 pink Cadillac is parked in front of a tableau of Graceland in winter. The last car he would drive, a black 1973 Stutz Blackhawk, sits under a forest of lights reflecting on the car's roof and hood with Christmas tree luminance.

The pink 1960 Willys jeep with a fringed candy-striped roof was used by Elvis' security staff, a fact that drew laughs from my teenage daughters who pictured a burly security guard driving an overgrown Barbie car.

Visitors can plunk themselves in authentic 1957 Chevrolet seats to watch clips from some of Presley's 31 movies in a mockup of a period drive-in theater.

Presley's other favored means of transportation were his jets, the "Lisa Marie," named after his daughter, and the smaller "Hound Dog Two."

In a video presentation screened on the "Lisa Marie," one hears stories about airborne Elvis, including one occasion when he had his pilot stop in Colorado so little Lisa Marie could see snow for the first time.

The "Sincerely Elvis" introduces visitors to Presley's private side and is home to changing galleries.

But the entr�e in this six-course Graceland feast is the mansion itself. A recorded audio tour replaced live human guides in the late 1990s, and the kitchen and Elvis' parents' bedroom were added to the tour around the same time.

The guides were dropped in part because of the volume of people, Kern says, but also because the audio tour better tells the story.

Mansion visitors seem to most remember offbeat chambers like the TV room and billiards room, both located on the home's basement level and reached via a mirror-covered staircase.

Over 350 yards of hot paisley fabric on the walls and ceilings, along with Tiffany lamps, decorate the billiards room.

The blue and yellow television room boasts three TV sets lined up side by side so Elvis could watch three football games simultaneously.

The famed jungle room is on the main level and is seen near the tour's conclusion. Elvis never referred to this den by that name. The media did, and the name stuck.

The ordinary den was transformed into the extraordinary jungle room in the 1970s when one day Elvis entered a Memphis store and within a half hour purchased every piece of furniture that reminded him of Hawaii.

That included: a sofa and chairs covered in faux fur; solid green carpeting for the floor, walls and ceiling; an easy chair with its arms carved in the shapes of wooden snakes; and an artificial waterfall that often flooded nearby rooms.

Graceland's outbuildings today have names like the Hall of Gold and the Trophy Room. They are filled with miles and miles of gold records; furniture from Graceland and his Los Angeles homes (including baby Lisa Marie's crib and dresser); books on subjects from philosophy to sports; and the costumes and jewelry he wore on stage.

In one case, side by side, are a Hebrew chai and a Christian cross. Elvis wore both. "Why miss heaven on a technicality?" Elvis was known to ask with a smile.

The exit is through Meditation Gardens, the resting places for Elvis, his parents, his grandmother and his twin brother, Jesse, who died at birth.

It's a fairly small part of the Graceland picture. But it's the place where thousands of visitors pay their respects and leave bouquets and banners.

Kern notes that Graceland's draw reaches far beyond Presley die-hards.

"Elvis was a pop icon and his home is now a national historic landmark. And his home is a time capsule for the era he lived in," he says. "You don't have to be an Elvis fan to enjoy it. You canenjoy it if you're interested in '60s and '70s pop culture, or if you're a car aficionado."

2007/07/14       By Michael Schuman 

Posted:  15th. July 2007 

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