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Wednesday, July 14, 1999

Memphis, where the 'King' still rules


By DAVID WADDELL

In reference to the legacy of Elvis Presley, Neil Young once sang "The King is dead, but not forgotten."

Perhaps nowhere is the King's spirit more alive than in his hometown of Memphis, Tenn. His presence there is as ubiquitous as glass beads during Mardi Gras in New Orleans: A boulevard, statue, bar and grill, hotel, automobile museum and scholarship bear his name, the anniversary of his birth and death are celebrated religiously; a motel with a guitar-shaped swimming pool broadcasts his movies on TV 24 hours a day; and graffitti adorning a street lamp near Beale Street admonish people to "Trust Jesus and Elvis."

Graceland, Elvis' home-turned-tourist-attraction, is the most visited home in the United States after the White House, and Elvis-related tourism pumps an estimated $150 million into the local economy each year. Indeed, Elvis put sleepy Memphis on the map, and keeps it there.

Elvis Presley Enterprises, Inc. (EPE), the corporate entity set up to manage Elvis' estate, has a lot to do with keeping his spirit alive. Aside from managing the operations of Graceland, EPE has expanded into the merchandising and licensing of Elvis-related products, as well as the development of Elvis-related music, film, video, television, exhibitions and music publishing projects.

More recently, EPE has ventured into the hotel and restaurant business, with an Elvis-themed hotel across from Graceland and a restaurant and entertainment venue on Beale Street.

With the help of high-tech trickery, EPE has even brought Elvis back from the dead to perform. Last year they assembled 30 of his former bandmates to accompany Elvis on stage via video as part of a touring production called "Elvis -- the Concert," giving the King the dubious distinction of being the first performer ever to headline a live concert tour while no longer living. The tour last year included a three-show engagement at Radio City Music Hall in New York, an eight-day run at the Las Vegas Hilton and a sellout performance at London's Wembley Arena in the spring of this year.

Still, the crown jewel in the EPE empire is without a doubt Graceland, and receipts from its hefty admission fees account for most of EPE's income. Each year roughly 700,000 people, young and old, make the pilgrimage down Elvis Presley Boulevard, a dismal strip of transmission shops, used car lots, fast food outlets, gas stations and mobile home dealerships, to catch a glimpse of America's version of Buckingham Palace.

Elvis purchased Graceland in 1957 at the age of 22 when he was at the peak of his stardom, thus fulfilling a childhood promise to his indigent parents that he would make it big some day and buy them the nicest house in town. He lived there with his family until his death in 1977.

Open to the public since 1982 and placed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1991, Graceland is an attractive 7.2-hectare complex with a handsome Southern colonial-style mansion, an exercise room, a stable, a trophy room and offices.

Tours of the property start in the foyer of the mansion, where the music room, visible to the right, dazzles the eyes with its color scheme of white and cobalt blue. It was here that Elvis whiled away hours at a time hammering out gospel, R&B, rock and pop tunes on the baby grand piano that is the centerpiece of the room.

Visitors then proceed through the kitchen and down into the TV room, with navy blue and lemon-colored walls, a mirrored ceiling and inch-thick shag carpet. Built into the wall are three televisions side by side, enabling Elvis to watch three football games at the same time.

Exiting the TV room, visitors come upon the "jungle room," named for its kitsch, Polynesian-styled furniture. Behind the mansion is the trophy room, housing Elvis' numerous awards, stacks of gold and platinum records, part of his guitar collection and a selection of his garish stage outfits. The mansion tour ends at the Meditation Garden, the final resting place of the King and his beloved parents.

Visitors hankering for more may proceed across the street to the Elvis Presley Automobile Museum and take a gander at the collection of cars and motorcycles that Elvis owned. Across from the car museum lies the Lisa Marie, the 96-passenger jet Elvis used for concert tours and pleasure trips (announcements warn people not to touch any of the "artifacts" on board) and the smaller Hound Dog II, a Lockheed jet.

Asked to explain the Elvis phenomenon, Todd Morgan, director of creative services at Graceland, has no shortage of ideas. Speaking with the zeal of a TV evangelist, he says, "Elvis represents an era that people look back fondly on. He embodied the American Dream and inspired people and gave them hope. Also, he was able to appeal to such a broad section of society through his music, TV appearances and movies."

Sadly, many people remember Elvis only as the Las Vegas crooner, a caricature corrupted by the excesses of wealth and stardom, struggling to hide his expanding girth in a rhinestone-studded jumpsuit, and not the cocky youth, barely out of his teens, who took the world by storm with his brooding sensuality, good looks and talent for performing soulful renditions of music in almost any genre.

Indeed, the King is dead, but certainly not forgotten.

Graceland is open seven days a week, year-round, except Thanksgiving Day and Christmas Day; closed Tuesdays November-February. See the home page at www.elvis-presley.com


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