I paced around Elvis Presley’s pink Cadillac, imagining him behind the wheel. It felt as though he was here almost, as though I could nearly glimpse the King of Rock ’n’ Roll.
This was the experience for much of the four hours I spent in March ambling around Elvis Presley’s Memphis, the new $45-million, 200,000-square-foot museum, shopping and dining complex across the street from Graceland, the rock star’s famed home and final resting place.
I also watched him perform “Burning Love” in “Aloha From Hawaii” mere steps from the American eagle jumpsuit he was wearing on screen, wondered at why a Dolly Parton dress was on display, and ate a peanut butter and banana sandwich cooked in bacon grease — just like his mama made.
Graceland offers six ticket options, from a mansion-only tour ($38.75 for an adult) to an “ultimate VIP” package that includes exclusive exhibits, a personal tour guide and a meal ($159 per person).
I chose the Elvis Experience for $57.50, which included the John Stamos-narrated iPad tour of the mansion and a self-guided visit to the new complex, both operated by Elvis Presley Enterprises.
After entering EPM’s ticket building to watch the orientation film — a nice overview for initiates and a warm reminder for longtime fans about why they made this pilgrimage — my timed tour group was shuttled across Elvis Presley Boulevard to the mansion for a peek at home life and a respectful visit to the family’s graves.
We were then dropped off at the new complex, which is open in time for the 40th anniversary of Presley’s Aug. 16, 1977 death — an event that will be marked at Graceland during Elvis Week Aug. 11-19.
Grab bag of exhibits
First up was the Presley Motors Automobile Museum, where visitors can check out a dozen cars owned by someone who, after all, made driving music, and see Elvis motoring in movie clips.
Rolls-Royce, Ferrari and Mercedes are among the makes on display, but the undisputed selfie star is that pink 1955 Cadillac Fleetwood he used for touring in the early years.
The neighboring Presley Cycles gallery showcases an odd assortment of vehicles, including a snowmobile Elvis had converted for use on Graceland’s grass.
I made my way through the “Pvt. Presley” exhibit, featuring uniforms and documents from his Army service (1958-60), and the “Archives Experience,” a grab bag of personal effects such as a copy of Hermann Hesse’s “Siddhartha” and a baseball inscribed to Elvis by Hall of Famer Willie McCovey.
Then I came to what is perhaps EPM’s strangest spectacle/exhibit, “Icons: the Influence of Elvis Presley.”
The “Icons” room is full of photo banners and glass-cased items from stars across the music genres in which Elvis worked, but the displays provide no context. I wanted to hear what Dolly Parton or Jimi Hendrix or Michael Bublé had to say about Elvis’ effect on them. And there also was no exhibit about the musical traditions and artists who inspired Presley.
Any questions about why the King ruled were answered in the engaging Elvis the Entertainer Career Museum.
Here, it was clear why 50 million Elvis fans couldn’t be wrong in 1959 and why hundreds of millions more are all right today.
Visitors can see classic Sun Records 45s, starting with July 1954’s “That’s All Right” backed with “Blue Moon of Kentucky.” There’s early memorabilia such as an Elvis fan diary, presumably used to document crushes on him, and an iconic suit — the gold lamé tuxedo he sported on the cover of “Elvis’ Golden Records, Vol. 2.” And so, so, so many framed gold and platinum albums.
Presley, a Memphis movie theater usher at 15, was a screen star at 21. In the career museum’s “Elvis Goes to Hollywood” area, I browsed vintage posters and wardrobe (such as a boxing robe from “Kid Galahad”) while trailers for his films played.
The “Elvis on Tour” area has colorful jumpsuits, yes, but also quotes on the walls about the King’s never-ending stage fright and performance philosophy: “I never get completely comfortable with it, and I don’t let the people around me get comfortable with it, in that I remind them that it’s a new crowd out there, it’s a new audience, and they haven’t seen us before. So it’s got to be like the first time we go on.”
There are also several video screens and a small theater that showcase what all the fuss was about – that voice, that charisma, that personality.
As I walked through it all, I thought it would have been better to start the day exploring his public life at Elvis Presley’s Memphis before taking the shuttle to Graceland to see his private life, ending with paying respects at the Presley family graves in the Meditation Garden.
After the career museum, there are more exhibits — one about Elvis’ fashion influence was open; others, such as one about Sun founder Sam Phillips and one about Elvis’ childhood in Tupelo, Miss., where he was born Jan. 8, 1935, weren’t yet. There’s also, curiously, an indoor Fairgrounds area where you can pay to play carnival games.
The last stop on the way back to EPM’s parking lot is Soundstage A, which screens Elvis movies. I caught the scene of a jailed Chad Gates (Presley) singing “Beach Boy Blues” from 1961’s “Blue Hawaii.” The sound stage also will be used for live performances and other events.
Elvis Presley’s Memphis is a decidedly commercial venture, and most exhibits are entered and exited through gift shops that sell a dizzying array of merchandise. Tempting as the $4,025 American eagle jumpsuit replica might be, I chose a $3.99 “Elvis” ’68 Comeback Special logo pen.
You will eventually get hungry. EPM’s dining options notably include two cafeteria-style spots, each named for a Presley parent. Vernon’s Smokehouse features barbecue and Southern fare. Gladys’ Diner has pizza, hot dogs, burgers, chicken and, most important, peanut butter and banana sandwiches — cooked in your choice of bacon grease or butter. It was $3.99 of savory sweetness.
If you’re done touring the Graceland campus before 5 p.m. and want more Elvis, you can walk to the taxi area near the aircraft exhibit and board a free shuttle to Sun Studio.
Here, a $14 tour will take you inside the space where a local teenager named Elvis Aaron Presley told the receptionist, “I don’t sound like nobody” and first recorded the voice that shook history’s hips.
If you go
THE BEST WAY TO MEMPHIS, TENN.
From LAX, Delta offers nonstop service to Memphis, and American, United, Delta, Southwest and Frontier offer connecting service (change of planes). Restricted round-trip fares from $328, including taxes and fees
Elvis Presley’s Memphis, (800) 238-2000, www.graceland.com. Open 9 a.m.-5 p.m. Mondays-Saturdays, 9 a.m.-4 p.m. Sundays. Ticket packages from $38.75 to $159. Multi-day tickets also available.
WHERE TO STAY
The Guest House at Graceland, 3600 Elvis Presley Blvd., Memphis. (800) 238-2000, guesthousegraceland.com. Rooms from $169.
Graceland RV Park & Campground, 3691 Elvis Presley Blvd., Memphis. (866) 571-9236. RV spots and cabins. Seasonal rates.
Elvis Week at Graceland, Aug. 11-19. www.graceland.com/elvisweek. This year’s event marks the 40th anniversary of Presley’s death. Concerts, an auction, a 5K run, an Elvis tribute artist contest and a candlelight vigil are tentatively planned.