Question: What do you get when you combine a bunch of bananas, a jar of peanut butter, a pound of bacon, and a big, soft loaf of white bread?
Answer: You get an Elvis Presley Gut Bomb, and that’s what I kept thinking about when I stood in Elvis’ kitchen during a tour of Graceland.
Sure, he’s the King of Rock ‘n Roll, and, yes, he had a tremendous impact on our music and pop culture, and it is true that all these years after his death, thousands upon thousands of loyal fans still make the pilgrimage to his Memphis home. I don’t disagree with any of that, but as I stood in his kitchen, looking at the dark wood cabinets, the linoleum countertops and the stained glass overhead lamps, I thought of Elvis in his pajamas, frying up a Gut Bomb for himself and whoever happened to be hanging out with him.
Visiting Graceland didn’t put Elvis Presley up on a pedestal for me. It took him down from one, and made him accessible in a very endearing way. It wasn’t just the Gut Bomb that did it, either. The house itself, did, and the property around it.
Graceland is a beautiful home, 70s interiors notwithstanding, and the surrounding grounds are lovely, but before taking the tour, I imagined I would be visiting an overly huge, ostentatious palace, like the six or seven that Oprah owns or the Windsors.
Graceland didn’t deliver, though, not as far as square footage goes. Maybe it was simply a sign of the times, but from what I learned on the tour, I think it was more about who Elvis was. He was a country-raised mama’s boy who gained worldwide fame in a very short span of time. He was just 22 when he bought Graceland. To him it was a castle, and he lived there for the rest of his life … just another 20 years.
The Graceland legend grows
In the time since then, the Graceland legend has grown to overshadow the house itself. After the White House, it is the most visited private residence in the United States with 600,000 fans a year making the pilgrimage. Part of the reason it has grown larger than life is the décor. Elvis bought the house in 1957, but the interiors are pure 1970s. Even by those standards, the décor is eye-poppingly bright and deliciously glitzy, glam-y and tacky, The negative stereotype of the nouveau riche comes to mind, so does Liberace and the Beverly Hillbillies. Arthur Goldman, author of “Elvis,” a controversially critical biography, said, “King Elvis’s obsession with royal red reaches an intensity that makes you gag.”
That’s a little venomous, but it wasn’t completely off base. The kitchen reflects the style of the times; it’s pretty dark and dated, but it’s relatively normal for a 70s kitchen. The other rooms, well, hmm, let’s just say good taste ends in the kitchen, and I’m not just talking about those Gut Bombs.
All Graceland tours begin at the visitor’s center across the street from the house. Ticket options are the Mansion Tour ($28), which gives you access to the house only, the Platinum Tour ($33), for the house and all the exhibits, and the Elvis Entourage VIP Tour ($69), for those with sucker written across their foreheads. The VIP Tour allows access to the house and the exhibits, plus a VIP-only exhibit, front of the line house access, and a keepsake backstage pass. Tickets can be purchased in person, online, or by phone (800-238-2000).
We picked the Platinum tour and boarded the bus to take us across the street to Graceland. Bus attendants handed out headsets for the audio tour and gave us instructions on using them. The headsets were very easy to use and let us customize the tour by allowing us to go at our own pace, skip over some sections, and get more info on others.
Entering the Gates of Graceland: After crossing the street, Elvis’ wrought iron guitar and music note gates opened up, and we drove the winding driveway up to the house. It’s a Classical Revival style home, made of limestone with four Corinthian columns on the front portico, and two stone lions guarding the entrance.
It’s a beautifully elegant home, but that wasn’t always the case. The home went through a series of color changes under Elvis’ supervision. At one time, the exterior was painted blue and gold to match the curtains inside. Elvis died in 1977, during Graceland’s red period when the house was awash in red carpets, red walls, and red drapes.
The Living Room & Music Room
We got off the bus and listened to final instructions from the attendants (namely, no flash photography), and we finally walked through the front doors. The Living and Music rooms are the first stop on the tour, and I can best describe them with one word. WOW! Blue curtains, gold curtains, mirrors, mirrors, mirrors. I wanted a few minutes to take it all in, but we were hurried along by the crowds behind us. As I left the room, I had to stick my head back in to confirm: Were those giant blue peacocks on the stained glass windows? Why, yes! Yes, they were.
The Dining Room
The dining room across the hall was a slightly more sedate, but still had lots of shiny with a huge crystal chandelier, gold trim, and more mirrors. As I stepped into the room to get a better look, I saw a portrait of Priscilla with baby Lisa Marie. Call me sentimental, but I forgot all about the room when I saw that picture. It brought to mind that I wasn’t touring a random historical artifact, I was touring someone’s home, a family’s home, a place of great joy, great success, and ultimately great heartbreak. It was a bit of a buzz-kill because I was having fun smirking at the kitsch, but I couldn’t ignore the real story, the human story. It was hanging there in that portrait on the wall, and I was very touched by it. For a few minutes, anyway. It was hard to maintain a reverent mood when the rooms just kept getting curiouser and curiouser.
The TV Room
Heading downstairs, the stairwell was covered, wall to ceiling, with mirrors. Imagine looking up at yourself overhead as you’re walking down stairs. It was a little bit fun, but mostly it made me dizzy. The stairs led into the TV Room, a very yellow and black affair, with a giant black sectional in the middle, a yellow leather-upholstered bar along one wall, the signature Elvis “TCB” lightning bolt painted on another wall, and three TVs lined up along the far wall. After hearing that LBJ watched three TVs at once, the Elvis started doing the same thing. Of course, there were mirrors, too. The coffee table was covered in them, and so was the entire ceiling, which begs the question … with all those mirrors, why have three TVs? In any case, my favorite part of this room was the large white porcelain monkey on the coffee table. Seems Elvis and I share an affinity for monkeys.
The Pool Room
This room was by far the strangest one in the house. It’s covered, wall to ceiling with 350 yards of a very busy print fabric, that also covers the two sofas in the room. All of the fabric is accordion-pleated and comes together in the middle of the ceiling under a big fabric medallion. I’ve never seen anything like it, and I hope I never have to again. Besides how awful it looks, it was hard to figure how anyone could concentrate enough to play a good game of pool in there. The one good thing you could say about the room, is that there were no mirrors.
The Jungle Room
Back upstairs again, we enter my favorite room in the house. The Jungle Room is filled with plants, wood, and animal prints. I got the impression that it was decorated by a 12 year old boy, who got permission to fill it with whatever he wanted. An oversize faux-fur and wood-carved chair sits in one corner. On the chair is a big teddy bear and a guitar. Next to the chair is a collection of more white monkey statues. A stone waterfall takes up one end of the room, and to add the final jungle touch, green shag carpet covers the floor AND the ceiling.
That’s the end of the main house tour. The top floor, where Elvis died, is only open to Elvis’ family. No one, not even Graceland staff is permitted.
Next we tour the back of the house, which was mostly standard, except for the shooting range and the smokehouse. Before passing by Lisa Marie’s swing set, we got to look inside Vernon Presley’s office. Compared to the rest of the house, the office was sparse and utilitarian. Apparently the mood in there was all business, too. Vernon’s hand-made sign on the office door warned visitors to take care of business AND LEAVE. It was a strange contrast to the warm, party atmosphere in the house.
As we walked on to the next stop, we passed by the family pool, and the horse meadow and stables before heading back inside to the Trophy Room, an area Elvis had added on to the property.
The Trophy Room was filled with gold and platinum records. It’s unbelievable how many Elvis earned. 110 in all … I had no idea. I kept reading the titles to see if there were duplicates, but they are all authentic. There was so much memorabilia in the Trophy Room that it was hard to take it all in, but I paid particular attention to the displays about Elvis’ philanthropy. I knew Elvis was very generous to his entourage, but it was heart-warming to learn how much he gave to his community, as well.
The last indoor part of the tour was the racquetball court, an addition that Elvis had built in 1975. The space now holds more display cases of Elvis memorabilia and in particular a large collection of his concert jumpsuits. In a high-ceilinged room that once housed the actual racquetball court, live concert footage of Elvis is shown up above the display cases.
By time we got to this room, I was a little bit Elvis’d out, and feeling antsy to wrap up the tour, but the concert footage caught my attention, and I stood there looking up at Elvis as other visitors funneled into the room. The concert was Vegas, mid-70s. It wasn’t the young, beautiful Elvis, but it wasn’t the bloated, drugged-up one either. He was somewhere in between, and he had such charisma it was impossible not to get caught up as he sang “Are You Lonesome Tonight.”
It was remarkable to stand there in that room, and watch as the long dead icon enthralled a room full of noisy tourists into silent reverie. It felt religious, standing there, our faces turned upward to watch the King. As he sang, laughed and mugged for the audience, I was near tears and others in the room were outright crying by the end of the song.
Outside at the Meditation Garden, emotions ran even higher. Elvis had this area built in 1964 and used it for a personal retreat. Now, it’s a memorial area and the burial site of Elvis, his parents, and his grandmother, Minnie Mae. There’s also a plaque for Elvis’ stillborn identical twin, Jessie Garon Presley. The gravesites encircle a fountain and the area is filled with flowers, cards, stuffed animals and other gifts visitors have left in honor of Elvis.
Whatever it was that Elvis had, he still has it, and his fans still adore him. Regardless of the excesses, the gut bombs and the glitz, Elvis’ story is a extraordinary one, and it still resonates with millions of fans around the world.
In addition to the audio tour of the house, separate tickets are available for the self-guided tours at the visitor’s center across the street from Graceland. Housed among nine gift shops and every imaginable Elvis Presley/Graceland souvenir are:
The Elvis’ Automobile Museum showcases 33 of Elvis’ most precious cars on a landscaped “freeway.” Included are his pink Cadillac, John Deere tractor, Harley-Davidsons, Stutz Blackhawks, a Dino Ferrari, a his 1956 Cadillac Eldorado Convertible
Elvis in Hollywood features memorabilia from his film career, including wardrobe, scripts, and rare photos.
Elvis Lives is an interactive exhibit highlighting Elvis’ impact on music and pop culture.
The Private Presley exhibit focuses on Elvis’ military service. Don’t mistake it for “Personal” Presley. This exhibit is located next door to the visitor’s center in a strip mall. It’s an inconvenient location, but an interesting display of artifacts from Elvis’ time in the army.
The most fun of all the secondary exhibits is Elvis’ Custom Jets, a walk-through tour of his two planes. The Lisa Marie, a Convair 880, is huge, nearly 707 size, and features a private bedroom with gold faucet and sink, conference room, state of the art sound system. Outside, Elvis’ lightning bolt and TCB is painted on the tail. The Hound Dog II, a Lockheed JetStar, was much more muted, but it was sleek and you could just feel how fast it could go.
For more information, please visit the Graceland website.
For a little Elvis of you’re own, here’s Are You Lonesome Tonight on YouTube.
© Olivia Tejeda and Away with Words, 2008-2009. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Olivia Tejeda and Away with Words with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.