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Elvis Presley's Graceland: 30 years of myth-making

June 15, 2012 |  1:09 pm

Graceland, Graceland, in Memphis, Tennessee
The Egyptian pyramids. Stonehenge. The Mayan temples. The Taj Mahal.


Thirty years ago, a mythic story once hidden behind security gates in a suburb of Memphis was born, one with meanings much larger than the physical edifice itself. On this day in 1982, the gates of Graceland, Elvis Presley's estate in Memphis, Tenn., were opened to the public.

In the years following its christening as the vessel of all things Presley, Graceland, a Georgian colonial-style estate built in 1939 in Whitehaven, Tenn., has become not only a tourist attraction, but the focus of pilgrimages, a holder of stories, a museum and a metaphor.

When Presley bought it in 1957 for $102,500, he gave an interview to the Memphis Press-Scimitar in which he bragged about his acquisition, and its potential: "This is going to be a lot nicer than Red Skelton's house when I get it like I want it," he said, as quoted in "Last Train to Memphis: The Rise of Elvis Presley," the first book in biographer Peter Guralnick's essential two-volume tome. (His prediction proved accurate; how many classic Paul Simon albums are named after Skelton's home?)

Set back from Elvis Presley Boulevard (originally known as Highway 51 South) and perched amid oak trees on 14 acres, Graceland indeed became how Elvis ultimately wanted it: with fur-lined lampshades, 15 feet of built-in leather sofas, a chicken house out back for his mother, Gladys, an entryway with itsy-bitsy ceiling lights suggesting stars, a billiards room, a row of (doomed) television sets so he could watch many football games simultaneously, a meditation garden, a swimming pool, a racquetball court, and whatever else his heart desired.

In the weeks after his death in 1977, Graceland became a place of mourning, one that continues to this day on the King's birth- and death-days -- although 35 years after his demise it's more a place of celebration than sorrow. Imagined scenes and half-true stories of Presley living within his estate have become legion; of his shooting one of his televisions with a handgun; of the seemingly idyllic life that he, Priscilla and daughter Lisa Marie experienced at the peak of Elvis' fame; of the increasingly erratic behavior he displayed in his Vegas years as he slid deeper into drug addiction and became a virtual shut-in.

Elvis Presley's Graceland in Memphis
For a man born poor in Mississippi, the fruits of his labor were apparent, and occasionally induced fits of jealousy. In 1976, according to Nick Tosches' "Hellfire," Jerry Lee Lewis drunk-drove to Graceland in the middle of the night, pulled a gun on the security guard at the front gate and, for reasons unknown (though in a perfectly metaphored world would have to do with good and evil, jealousy and contempt, and artistic competition), demanded to see Presley and force him to atone for unspecified sins. A year later the King was dead of a heart attack, and five years after that, Graceland officially became sacred American ground.

Presley's body returned to Graceland in October 1977, after a few months of internment (and a would-be conspiracy to kidnap the King's remains was revealed) at Memphis' Forest Hills Cemetery. He and the body of his mother are still at Graceland to this day, not too far from the racquetball court where he spent his final hours playing a match that eventually devolved into a game of dodgeball.

If you've never been there, it's certainly worth a day's visit to witness a time capsule of 1970s design in all its shag-carpeted glory. And the museum/trophy room built to house Presley memorabilia, including some of his outrageous Vegas rhinestone outfits and the leather suit he wore during his legendary '68 comeback TV special, are culturally significant (if gaudy) contributions -- and wonderful accents -- to a fascinating American setting.


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-- Randall Roberts
Twitter: @liledit

Photos: These August 2010 photos shows Graceland, Elvis Presley's home in Memphis, Tenn. Graceland opened for tours on June 7, 1982. They sold out all 3,024 tickets on the first day. Credit: Mark Humphrey / AP.