Freeway Free in Memphis: Graceland
The first record I ever bought (and I still have it) was Elvis Presley’s debut album, “Elvis”. So when we found we had a day to spare in Memphis, of course we decided to make a pilgrimage to Elvis’s realm at Graceland.
It was not what I expected. True, the original house and grounds have undergone Disneyfication, with separate large exhibition halls devoted to his cars, his costumes, his movies (running all day long) his gold records, and his effect on music. Each hall has its own souvenir shop, and there are also several restaurants on the grounds.
But the original house, accessible by shuttle van only, is like a time capsule of the late 50’s and early 60’s. The house itself is relatively unpretentious. Tourists are reminded that Elvis was born in a two-room shack with outdoor plumbing, built by his father in Tupelo Mississippi. The family moved to Memphis in search of opportunity when Elvis was a teenager. Memphis was his home town; this was the place where the people lived whom he trusted, and whose opinion he cared about. So when he wanted to build a family home, he didn’t think of Beverly Hills. He bought one of the nicest homes on the outskirts of Memphis. The previous owner had been a successful dentist.
Inside, the house is decorated in early 60’s middle-class style: lots of mirrors, lots of white and gilt, lots of crystal chandeliers, lots of silver on display in china cupboards, lots of shag carpeting. The den is upholstered in paisley prints, the TV room with its adjacent bar is lacquered yellow and black, and has three vacuum tube TV sets so Elvis could watch all three major channels at once. (I guess PBS did not rate its own set.) We were told that most of the rooms had been redecorated several times, reflecting the taste of whatever girl friend Elvis was hanging out with at the time. On his own, he tended to like a lot of purple and pink, but his mother (yes, his parents lived in the house with him)exercised some restraint, and would not allow him to fool around with the kitchen at all.
There is a charming story told in a children’s book available at one of the gift shops, about how a young Elvis used to look in the windows of Lansky Bros. clothing store in Memphis, and one day the Mr. Lansky invited him to come in and take a closer look. The two chatted, and later when Elvis needed clothes for his first concert, Mr. Lansky extended him credit purely on his assessment of the boy’s honesty and potential. , According to the story, after Elvis hit it big, he bought all his clothes from Lansky Bros., who would sometimes just send out a van full of clothing for Elvis to choose from.
The costume exhibition and the car barn made me think most about the older Elvis, the raddled, paunchy, sequined, padded and corseted entity of the Vegas years. But the house evoked the quiet, well-mannered young man whom everyone he met seemed to like, before fame took him in its grip.