Love him tender

Editorial Notebook

March 18, 2006|By KAREN HOSLER

Graceland Mansion, on the outskirts of Memphis, Tenn. - a retreat with a name that sounds pastoral, vaguely antebellum, the sort of grand country estate a poor kid from Mississippi would choose after his musical talent earned him what must have seemed like all the money in the world.

Thus, it's a shock to find the fabled home of the King of Rock 'n' Roll smack in the midst of mundane suburbs, presiding over a highway otherwise dominated by strip shopping centers and workaday commercial establishments. Think Ritchie Highway north of Glen Burnie or York Road through Timonium.

Little wonder Robert F. X. Sillerman, the new owner of All Things Elvis (except the music), would be eager to class up the environs of the Presley shrine, which despite its eternal appeal to devoted fans has grown dated and shabby.

But any improvements will require a very delicate touch lest they destroy the essence of the place: an often-garish product of the unrefined taste of a young man whose remarkable gifts did not extend to interior design. If tacky is somehow removed from Graceland, Elvis will have left the building.

Now, don't get all shook up, hounddoggers. No one's being cruel. In fact, there is something deeply touching about the naive innocence of the place. The overly ornate dining room that looks like something chosen for his mother, the Jungle Room with its skins and skulls and green shag carpeting, the enormous Colonial Revival columns on the facade of a home easily dwarfed by the exurban edifices of today.

Elvis, of course, ultimately met a bad end there, when his body gave out at 42 after he abused prescription drugs for years. That fate, barely hinted at but for his grave in the Meditation Garden, also adds somehow to the sense of an unsophisticated man unable to handle extraordinary fame and riches.

Mr. Sillerman, who paid more than $100 million last year for control of Elvis Presley's name and likeness, told The New York Times he wants to upgrade Graceland to an international destination resort, and double its current 600,000 visitors a year. He plans to tear down the 128-room Heartbreak Hotel and replace it with two 400-room facilities plus convention space. The visitors' center would give way to shops, restaurants, an outdoor amphitheater and a spa.

It's not clear what that may mean for Elvis' car collection, an exhibit of his two private planes and the small wedding chapel where besotted fans make Elvis the Pelvis part of their nuptials. But it would be a terrible disservice to change the character of the place.

Indeed, the Graceland experience is enhanced by time spent before and after the mansion tour with the diverse cross-section of fellow enthusiasts milling around the visitors' center that serves as Graceland's official portal. A popular way to get in the mood while waiting for the tour bus is having a washable tattoo of the King applied as a souvenir.

Memphis officials are cautiously optimistic about Mr. Sillerman's plans. The Mississippi River city has undergone a striking renaissance in recent years, sparked by the 1980s renovation of the landmark Peabody Hotel with its famous elevator-riding ducks. Blues-blaring Beale Street now features several blocks open only to pedestrians, who wander from club to club, drinks in hand, as in Austin, Texas, and New Orleans. Downtown city streets are lined with upscale bars and restaurants offering outdoor seating when weather permits and easy access by trolley. Updating Graceland could make an already very attractive tourist package complete.

But Mr. Sillerman, understandably, seems primarily concerned with making as much money as possible off Elvis - not unlike so many people who attached themselves to him during his lifetime.

It has been 50 years since American music was reinvented by the raw sound of a white Southern boy singing rhythm and blues while saucily shaking his hips. Generations yet unborn will best be able to understand as well as appreciate him if the pink Cadillacs, green shag carpeting and tattoo booths remain.

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