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|GOING TO GRACELAND
April 17, 2016 - By Alexandra DeArmon Special to the News-Post / Elvis Express Radio
My mother and I went to Graceland on what some might call “a whim.” Last summer found us on a purposeful road trip: I spent sixth months based in Kansas City for my airline job,
and Mom flew out to help me relocate my car and belongings back to Washington. Our itinerary had us overnight in Memphis in any case. Call it blasphemy, but neither of us had
ever paid much mind to The King.
I could summon up basic Elvis words and phrases, sure: Banana peanut butter sandwiches. Hawaii movies. Jailhouse Rock. White rhinestone jumpsuits. Thank you, thank you very
much. Urban legend says he’s still alive. My mother’s ignorance ran as deep as my own; she’s too young for the height of Elvis’s popularity.
We approached Graceland, therefore, as an immersive educational experience. We even spent a night on-site, at the 2.5-star Heartbreak Hotel. Some hotel packages included
being chauffeured downtown in a pink limousine for lunch on Beale Street and a tour of Sun Studio. We forewent the pink limo in favor of our own self-guided tour the afternoon
After a visit to the Peabody Hotel, known for its resident ducks, we strolled down Beale to read historical placards and listen to live blues at an outdoor courtyard. Dinner was
barbecue, of course: at Central BBQ, located right next to the Lorraine Motel where Martin Luther King was assassinated — now the National Civil Rights museum.
We’d been advised all the way from Missouri that Graceland “isn’t in the best area of town,” which was also indicated by a security guard stationed at the gates of the Heartbreak
Hotel and 19 wooded acres of RV/Campground behind it.
After check-in we headed down to the Jungle Lounge for dessert: slices of pecan pie that appeared to be from a vending machine, unwrapped and put on a plate for the sake of
table service, and decaf coffee from Styrofoam cups. A jumpsuit-era Vegas concert was projected onto a large central wall. Members of a German-speaking tour group occupied
most of the tables around us. Kids shrieked and splashed in a heart-shaped pool on the outdoor patio behind us.
Two ladies stumbled in from the pool area, exclaimed over the video, and began to sing along; one swayed back and forth, hands clasped over her heart, a far-off look in her eye. I
assumed they’d been drinking. But, it was only one hour into our immersive study. Were these merely signs of Elvis mania?
I overheard one guest mention a three-night stay at the hotel; another said they came to Graceland every year. “It’s just a house, isn’t it?” I asked my mother. “How could you
possibly spend four whole days here?”
“I think people just enjoy being around Elvis,” Mom theorized. “They feel close to him, here. It’s like how we go to the beach every year.”
I saw her point, but a pop icon and the shores of South Carolina are not a like comparison. A hypothetical SAT prompt “Graceland is to:” would be correctly answered “Disney
World,” not “the seashore.”
I understand being gaga over Elvis. His is the quintessential American story: the triumph over penniless beginnings through good old hard work. He didn’t let celebrity get in the way
of military service and remained, at the height of fame, a homebody who loved his parents and simple pleasures like deep-fried home cooking. Before the 1960s British invasion,
America exported rock ‘n’ roll and The King around the world.
Elvis mania is not an intellectual exercise, however. One has to feel it. Try as I might, I just wasn’t feelin’ it. I thought of my own teen idols: Taylor Hanson, Justin Timberlake,
Leonardo DiCaprio. I did my utmost to activate the grooves in my brain, forged circa age 8 to 12, devoted to celebrity idol worship.
The next morning, it was a short walk from our lodging to where timed tickets were sold for Mansion tours. In not purchasing tickets ahead of time, we faced a two-hour wait. In the
meantime we toured Elvis’ retired jet, the Lisa Marie. I marveled at the solid gold seatbelt buckles, including an extra-long belt that extended across a bed in the back cabin. “See,
even Elvis has to listen to the FAA,” I whispered to my mother, pointing out a first-aid kit and behemoth of a 1970s fire extinguisher in one corner.
We drank Cokes and shuffled idly through multiple gift shops: Hawaiian-themed souvenirs, Elvis records and CDs, fine art and collectibles, Christmas souvenirs, car and motorcycle
souvenirs, kid-friendly souvenirs. We also visited a separate little museum of Elvis’s old cars and motorcycles, which doubled as a movie theater for his film Speedway.
Finally our time slot was announced over a loudspeaker. We queued up to be handed iPads with attached headphones, then shuttle-bused across the street to the grounds of
Graceland. An employee gave us a spiel before we went inside the house but, other than that, the iPads served as our guide.
From out front, Graceland appears small and unassuming. Inside was a blur of dark-hued velvet décor over seemingly every surface. My lasting impression of Graceland amounts
to: there were some ugly color schemes in decades past. The iPad prompted me on and on: into the kitchen, the lounge, the basement, the pool room, out back and into the horse
stable, which now housed ‘movie memorabilia.’ It was here that I started to lose it. My eyes glazed over. My palms began to sweat. I was struck with sudden claustrophobia and
wanted out of there.
I poked at the iPad draped around my neck in vain. As with a live flesh-and-blood tour guide, I couldn’t fast forward. Was this Elvis fever? It was entirely unpleasant.
Elvis Overload, rather, was my ailment. It was too much for an ignoramus to digest all in one day. My friend Kristi, a big fan, had the opposite experience. When I texted to get her
thoughts on Graceland, she replied that it was “disappointing. That house was so small.”
Indeed — how could any physical structure adequately represent such an all-encompassing phenomenon? Elvis is not merely one (very accomplished) man but an entire brand of
1950s nostalgia. A sex symbol. A legend.
“What did you think?” Mom asked, once we’d been shuttled back across the street and were strolling to where my car was still parked at the hotel.
“Isn’t it strange you’re not allowed to tour the upstairs?” I asked.
“Maybe he is still alive up there. Fame got to be too much for him,” she teased. Is it really so implausible? We set off on sun-scorched Highway 40, bound for Nashville and,