Graceland mansion, home to rock-and-roll phenomenon Elvis Presley for the twenty years preceding his 1977 death, became world-famous after it was opened to the public in 1981. Before the end of its first decade as a tourist attraction (or pilgrimage destination for some fans), Graceland had hosted more than one million tourists, and by the late 1990s it served as a symbol of both the indefatigable hope and immense costs of the American Dream.
Named after the first owner's aunt Grace, Graceland was built in the 1930s to resemble an antebellum, plantation-style manor home. Elvis paid $100,000-plus for the mansion in 1957. Located on "Elvis Presley Boulevard," a portion of Highway 51 South in Memphis, Tennessee, the majestic-looking Georgian mansion sits amidst an extraordinarily overflowing mass of plasticized suburban sprawl. There are an astounding number of fast-food establishments within a one-mile radius of the estate.
Inside, the front rooms of the house have been designed for the eyes of "company"; in this case, company that would be curious to know how a poor farmhand's son would live in an atmosphere of newly acquired wealth. There is the obligatory glitzy chandelier in the foyer, an elegant dining room, marble and glass-topped tables, fine porcelain statuary, a gilded piano, overdone white carpeting, yards of gilt-edged draperies hanging about the rooms—in fact, just about everything is trimmed in gold—and much else to indicate wealth and status. A television set sits smack in the middle of one of the front rooms.
Visitors are guided down a dark staircase with carpeted walls and a mirrored ceiling to Elvis's pleasure palace in the basement. One room sports a blinding yellow, white, and black color scheme; one wall of the room houses three built-in TV sets, side by side. Elvis got the idea from President Lyndon Johnson, who needed to monitor all of the evening newscasts at the same time, but Elvis wanted to watch all of the Sunday football games at once. The billiards room is entombed in yards of printed, pleated fabric that covers the walls and ceilings and that enforces a sensation of profound claustrophobia even in those not ordinarily afflicted. Although the pool table was torn years before Presley's death, and he never had it fixed, the keepers of Graceland decided to maintain most such flaws to create a sense that the home is frozen in time. This is a well-intended, though inaccurate depiction of Graceland as it was when Elvis lived there; many of Elvis's latter-day decorating decisions have been swept away. The blood-red carpeting and drapes were changed to a more pleasing blue hue, and a rotating glass statue in the foyer that spurted water was simply discarded as an embarrassment.
There was no way, though, that the keepers could enforce any more than the smallest degree of upper-class nobility upon Graceland. The coup de grace is what everyone at Graceland calls "the jungle room." According to Graceland-approved legend, Elvis and his father happened upon a most intriguing collection of "Polynesian" wooden and fake fur furniture at a Memphis establishment called Donald's Furniture in the early 1960s. Vernon Presley remarked that it was the ugliest furniture he'd ever seen in his life. Elvis arranged to buy the entire collection. The "throne," as it might be called, features a wooden owl's head at the top and claws dangling from each arm. Fake greenery languishes about the room, and a small waterfall flows behind the throne. The jungle room is at once horrifying and hilarious.
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Marling, K. A. Graceland—Going Home with Elvis. Cambridge, Harvard University Press, 1996.
Sims, J. "At Last—The First Elvis Presley Movie." Rolling Stone. November 9, 1972.