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|A BELATED VISIT TO ELVIS PRESLEY'S MEMPHIS
June 20, 2017 - Chris Herrington , USA TODAY NETWORK / Elvis Express Radio
I’m aware that this is not exactly at the top of the local news agenda this week (wait until August), but when you write every day and then some, the lesser-deployed corollary to
“write what you know” sometimes has to be “write where you’ve been.”
Yesterday, I spent the bulk of my day at Graceland, working on a feature (not for this space) for our August “Elvis Week” special section. While it won’t be the focus of my future
piece, I took the opportunity to explore the new Elvis Presley’s Memphis installation, which opened in March and which I hadn’t gotten around to visiting. (Bob Mehr and Wayne
Risher did a full report at the time.)
It’s impressive and long overdue. Nearly 20 years ago, fresh from college, I did freelance work for the New York auction house Guernsey’s, which had partnered with Graceland for
a massive Elvis auction in Las Vegas. I worked out of a trailer on the Graceland grounds and in anonymous warehouses near the campus, examining documents and artifacts being
put on auction and helping write the catalogue. (I ended up running the entire backstage of the three-day Vegas auction, an unplanned role I somehow acquired in the moment.
Another story for another time.)
Those warehouses were packed with cars, furniture, clothes, gadgets, paraphernalia and documents that no-one got to see. Now, so much more of that is on display. There’s much
more opulent space for Elvis’ cars, motorcycles, bejeweled jumpsuits and more. But there’s also more space for documentation for the historically minded, from Graceland invoices
to Presley’s world-historic RCA contract (Col. Parker’s copy sold at auction; I wrote a treatise of sorts on it). Splitting the difference are artifacts even more unique than a Vegas
jumper or black Stutz Blackhawk. The television with a bullet hole in the screen, from Presley’s Palm Springs home, is essential Americana of a sort. But I equally enjoyed seeing the
large, surprisingly elegant guitar-shaped key to Tupelo Elvis received in 1956.
Some exhibits get beyond Elvis in productive ways. I cared less about the “ICONS” exhibit, which corrals costumes from post-Elvis stars (from James Brown to Justin Timberlake)
than a smaller version of the Sam Phillips exhibit that was recently showcased at the Country Music Hall of Fame and a small photo exhibit within a country-themed “Marty Stuart
Collection” exhibit that showcases 1940s photos of country stars (Minnie Pearl, Little Jimmy Dickens, Roy Acuff) performing in Memphis.
A Graceland Soundstage is enormous and apparently keeps Elvis movies on shuffle. I joined about eight other “Viva Las Vegas” viewers long enough to see a grease-monkey Ann-
Margret hop into a helicopter.
Everyone has their own Elvis. The Icon. The Sex Symbol. The Kitsch Figure. The Celebrity. Some would have less generous summations. A new preview film before the Graceland
house tour -- a highlight video of sorts -- focuses on a series of these: “Teen Idol,” “Private Presley,” “Leading Man,” “Comeback.”
Elvis’ artistic origins in Memphis -- my primary Elvis -- get short shrift here, perhaps because of a lack of video. The Sun years gets better treatment in the opening section of the
“Elvis the Entertainer Career Museum” -- including all of those Sun singles, lined up under glass. But if I have a disappointment with the new Graceland installations, it’s that they
don’t, collectively, evince enough interest in making the case for Elvis as an artist, or situating his achievement in historical terms. While it’s higher-tech than it used to be, it could
use some listening stations, like you’d find at the Country Music Hall of Fame or, to a lesser extent, the Stax Museum.
Let people compare Presley’s versions of Arthur Crudup and Bill Monroe to the originals, and then illustrate the value of his synthesis. That’s me, I guess. Most visitors seem more
drawn to some of those other Elvi.
The one place where you do stumble upon some of this is in an exhibit on the 1968 “Comeback Special,” where the acoustic guitar, blue chair, and leather suit are all under glass
and a small seating area points toward a giant screen playing the special. I happened upon it as the casual, in-the-round song swap was happening -- the moment in Elvis’ career
that, in artistic terms, most fully rivals what he did at Sun. I sat down and stayed until it was over.
As for the food options, the ice cream parlor has a house peanut butter and banana flavor that looks promising, though I didn’t indulge. I’ll let Jennifer Biggs determine the veracity
of the “authentic Memphis BBQ” supposedly served at Vernon’s Smokehouse.
I had to stop into “Gladys’ Diner,” the food-court-ish midgrade dining area, which serves up burgers, fries and shakes, hot dogs and chicken tenders, and, of course fried peanut
butter-and-banana sandwiches (made with a choice of butter or bacon grease). I should have sampled the latter, but got a burger, and it was perfectly acceptable.
But I had to visit Gladys’ for a different reason. Because a decade ago, in a make believe “what if Elvis had lived” piece for The Memphis Flyer, colleague Greg Akers and I
dreamed up the concept:
"By the early 1980s, a dwindling cash reserve — due to a stagnant back catalog and no new music-related
income — prompted Presley to re-engage with the outside world.
He began with a non-music business venture: a chain of Southern-themed fast-food restaurants called
Gladys' Kitchen. Named for Presley's late mother, the first Gladys' Kitchen opened its doors at 1447 Union
Avenue in Memphis in 1980.
The signature item on the menu was a fried peanut butter and banana sandwich. Hamburgers topped with
peanut butter or pimento cheese were also featured.
After success in Memphis, Gladys' Kitchen expanded across the Southeast, boasting 18 locations by early
1982. But the venture saw its gains turned back shortly thereafter.
The blow came from New York Times food critic and fellow Mississippi native Craig Claiborne, who famously
gave Gladys' Kitchen a zero-star, one-word write up: "Godawful."
Folding almost as quickly as it had appeared, even the original (and last remaining) Gladys' Kitchen shuttered
by 1984. It's now a Taco Bell.
cherrington901 posted via twitter - Let the record reflect that I (jokingly) came up with this idea a decade ago.