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|GRACELAND AT 60
March 25, 2017 - North Jersey / Elvis Express Radio
Happy Birthday, Graceland: March 25, 1957.
How old are you now: 60.
The first thing many people think when they visit Graceland: "But it's small."
Small is, of course, a relative thing.
The mansion that Elvis Presley purchased for $102,500 on March 25, 1957 — 60 years ago this month — for his mama, Gladys, his dad, Vernon, and himself to "stretch out in"
(Elvis' words) has 23 rooms spread out over 17,000 square feet, and is situated on 13-plus acres of prime Memphis real estate.
But it's small, compared to what people expect. Small, compared to the Versailles-like palace many imagine the King of Rock and Roll to have held court in, with his "Memphis
mafia," pink Cadillacs and closets full of sequined jumpsuits. Small, in other words, compared to how large Graceland looms in the popular imagination.
"As far as mansions go, it's modest, in terms of size," says David Wills of Woodcliff Lake, who, as "Ghosty," hosts the "Vintage Rock & Pop Shop" show from noon to 3 p.m. Sundays
and "Retro Radio" from 6 a.m. to 9 a.m. Tuesdays on WFDU 89.1-FM.
"I've been in bigger McMansions in New Jersey," says Dennis Diken of Wood-Ridge, a rock historian and the drummer for the Smithereens who has been to Graceland several
But size isn't everything. And Graceland's relatively modest footprint hasn't deterred thousands of annual visitors from turning the Elvis mansion into the second most visited
residence in the United States (the White House is No. 1).
Graceland has become an inspiration, a symbol, a byword. When Bruce Springsteen was anointed the new king of rock and roll after the release of "Born to Run" in 1975, it was
only natural that he'd celebrate by jumping the iconic music-note gate at Graceland at 3 a.m., seeking an audience with the reigning monarch. (Guards escorted him to the
sidewalk.) When the knucklehead musicians of "This is Spinal Tap" (1984) wanted to commune with the godhead, they visited Elvis' grave at Graceland and sang "Heartbreak
Hotel" — off-key, of course.
When Marc Cohn went "Walking in Memphis" in his 1991 hit, it was a foregone conclusion that he would end up at Graceland: "Saw the ghost of Elvis, On Union Avenue, Followed
him up to the gates of Graceland, Then I watched him walk right through." Most notably, Paul Simon's Grammy-winning 1986 album "Graceland" used the Elvis mansion as a
jumping-off point for a whole odyssey about race, class, homelessness and identity.
"It goes beyond the house," says Rob Signorile of Montville, spokesman for the United Jersey Blues Network. "There's an aura about the house, because of who lived in it."
Even the name is right. Graceland. Grace, as Christians define it, is a state of blessedness. It has also come to mean elegance ("the room was gracefully furnished"), and honor
("he graced our stage").
In fact, the Grace of Graceland was none of those things.
She was Grace Toof — the daughter of Memphis printer Stephen C. Toof, founder of S.C. Toof & Co., whose namesake grounds and mansion, built in 1939, Elvis Presley bought
when he was seeking refuge from his hordes of fans.
But such is the power that Graceland has assumed in the popular imagination, 40 years after Elvis' death on Aug. 16, 1977, that it has come to encompass all those other
Graceland — the seat of grace, a bucolic slice of the old Southland in greater Memphis. Graceland — the mansion graced for 20 years by the King of Rock and Roll himself.
And finally Graceland the shrine — the place where, since it was opened to the public in 1982, 650,000 pilgrims arrive each year to seek the blessings of the great god Elvis.
"I have reason to believe we all will be received in Graceland," Paul Simon sang, knowingly. His use of the word "received" is the tip-off. Substitute "heaven" for "Graceland" — "I
have reason to believe we all will be received in heaven" — and you have the basic promise of the Christian church.
What's inside Graceland
So what is the grace that visitors seek at Graceland?
It isn't graceful living, at least in any sense that Better Homes and Gardens would recognize. Elvis was many things, but he was not an interior decorator. The famous "Jungle
Room," with its tiki bar furniture, fake waterfall and colored lights, is not exactly a byword for tasteful restraint.
The all-white living room with its peacock-stained glass windows, the billiards room with its outrageous sunburst ceiling and Tiffany-style lampshades, is something no self-
respecting mobster would be seen in.
"I would have decorated it differently," Diken says. "But this is where Elvis lived. And Elvis looms larger than life. To actually have a chance to visit his home, it's kind of a peek
behind the curtain of his stardom."
The gaudy decor, in fact, may be a key to the place that Graceland holds in the American imagination.
Elvis Presley was a dirt-poor Mississippi boy from Tupelo. From sheer determination, force of character, and talent — lots of talent — he made himself into a wealthy pop star, the
idol of millions. His mansion reflects how a poor boy from Mississippi might imagine rich people lived.
"You could tell this is a guy who grew up poor, and this is what he fantasized about," Wills says.
Rich Elvis was exactly the same as poor Elvis — one of the reasons so many people loved him. When Presley came into millions, he didn't suddenly switch from beer to fine wine,
develop an interest in Chippendale furniture, hobnob with senators or obsess about which fork to use. He still hung out with the same good old boys he grew up with, and horsed
around the way he did in high school. To the end of his life, he lived the way a 17-year-old country boy who had suddenly come into lots of money would live.
"When you walk through Graceland, you imagine a scene in Elvis' life, picturing what he might be doing," Diken says. "The only thing is, man, I wish I could go upstairs. It seems so
off-limits. Just to see the bedroom. Crushed velvet, perhaps. Mirrors."
Pundits who have charted the rise of President Donald Trump often ask the question: How is it that a billionaire New York developer, seemingly the very symbol of the hated "one
percent," should connect so strongly with poor and rural voters? The answer is surely the Elvis answer. Trump, with his flashy skyscrapers and yachts and jets and gold-plated
toilets and attitude, lives not the way rich people stereotypically live, but the way poor people imagine they would live if they were rich.
That's the secret of Graceland. "It wasn't really a monument to Elvis' music," Signorile says. "It was a monument to his success."
Maybe Graceland isn't a shrine to Elvis after all. Maybe it's a temple to our most sacred idea: The American Dream.
As the class divide in the United States gets more conspicuous, as the traditional routes to achievement become blocked, more than ever we seek tangible proof that it is still
possible to rise in this country, that one day it could be us driving that pink Cadillac, living in that mansion with the white columns, or even issuing directives from the Oval Office.
The American Dream, like all beliefs, is impalpable — abstract. But since March 25, 1957, it's had a concrete address: 3764 Elvis Presley Blvd. (formerly Highway 51
Graceland. Where we all will be received.
"We need our mythology," Wills says. "We don't think we need it, but we need it. People go to Graceland because Elvis represents the American dream. The guy who came from
nothing, and shook his behind to the top of the world."