Revisiting Elvis, with a tour of two towns Nostalgia: In Tupelo, Miss., and in Memphis, Tenn., the King's memory is kept alive in tours of his birthplace, Graceland and a variety of museums and souvenir shops.

August 11, 1996|By David Hawley | David Hawley,KNIGHT-RIDDER NEWS SERVICE

Elvis Presley was only 42 when he died in 1977. I was 31 then, so I didn't have the sense that Elvis had been denied a big hunk of life. Now that I'm 50, I feel differently, of course.

At the time of his death, the musical era he represented hadn't yet lived long enough to get old -- though Elvis had aged significantly, it seemed, even at 42. Many of us thought he had outlived his piece of an era, along with his youth, transforming into a Las Vegas lounge act in a preposterous jumpsuit: the Liberace of rock.

So when I visited Elvisland earlier this summer, I went expecting to yuck it up at the expense of the King. I found all the vulgarity I might have expected, especially at the Graceland Mansion. But the experience was oddly sentimental and almost achingly sweet, like turning the pages in a family album and realizing that youth and innocence slipped away while you were too busy to notice.

Graceland is the biggest Elvis attraction in the Memphis region, but I started my tour by driving 100 miles southeast of the city to see his birthplace at Tupelo, Miss. In 1956 and again in 1957, Presley gave fund-raising concerts there to pay for a community park on land that included the tiny, two-room cabin that his father, Vernon, built in the early 1930s.

Elvis was born at 4: 35 a.m. Jan. 8, 1935, arriving with a stillborn twin brother who was given the name Jesse. Had he lived, the King would be 61 today. Imagine that.

His family moved a number of times to various homes in Tupelo, then left for Memphis when Elvis was in the eighth grade. The baseball field, picnic shelter and kiddie playland that Elvis helped finance are now relegated to the back of the hilly park.

The area nearest the street has been turned into a birthplace shrine, containing a private museum and gift shop, a small chapel and, most importantly, the white, clapboard cabin where Elvis lived until he was 2 years old. It costs $1 to walk through the cabin's two rooms, though you usually have to wait out front while other tourists sit in the porch swing and pose for pictures. Inside, it's a humble, antique farm cabin with no plumbing and rough, utilitarian furniture -- a testament to the unlovely, hardscrabble life that Elvis escaped through music.

Garage sale stuff

The nearby museum, by contrast, provides a big opportunity for cynical snickering. Owned and operated by Janelle McComb, who knew Elvis from childhood, it's mostly a collection of things that should have been sent to a garage sale or put away in an attic: old posters, castoff clothes, lots of autographed photographs and fading yearbook pictures, even a collection of microphones that Elvis allegedly used early in his career. Bored high-school girls collect the $4 admission charge and give a brief explanation of the display.

Back in Memphis and Graceland, the admissions are higher and the presentations are streamlined. Like most other tourists, I paid $17 for the Platinum Tour, which includes a visit to the mansion plus admission to the attractions that line a mall-like complex on the opposite side of Elvis Presley Boulevard.

By luck, I rode the shuttle bus to the mansion with a dozen members of the Loving You Fan Club from Rolling Fork, Miss., all women wearing matching light-blue T-shirts. "We've been here several times," one of them told me.

Their gushing days were gone. These were women who remembered the music and the past, who visited Graceland to recapture a piece of themselves by seeing the frozen world of an idol who died in their prime.

The mansion is really just a big house, built in 1939 by a doctor who took a typical Colonial home design and dressed it up with a Greek temple entrance and four Corinthian columns. Inside are large but rather ordinary rooms. Elvis remodeled much of it, turning a back porch into what has become the famous "jungle room," with its inside fountain, carpeted ceiling and silly massive furniture that could best be described as Hawaiian baroque.

"Every time I come here, I remember that I once thought this kind of decorating was stylish," one of the Loving You members told me as we stood in the living room and grimaced at the mirror tiling on the walls, the heavy royal-blue drapes with gold-embroidered trim, the oversized chandeliers, the ridiculous peacock glass partitions, the "classic '60s" furniture.

Graceland may not be a mansion, but it is an estate -- 14 acres of land, surrounded by fence. Horses graze at a nearby paddock, and a driveway winds through a grove of water oaks. An add-on trophy room has been turned into a museum, and a Meditation Garden that Elvis built in the 1960s has become the resting place for the King, his parents and his grandmother. They lie in bronze-covered vaults piled with fresh flowers that arrive almost daily. Except for the crowds, it is serene.

Audio tour

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