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VOL. 132 | NO. 159 | Friday, August 11, 2017

The King's Castle: Graceland, Whitehaven open 40th anniversary Elvis Week

By Bill Dries

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The Watson and Parker families sign the wall at Graceland after traveling from West Texas for Elvis Week. More than 40 events will celebrate the life of Elvis Presley, who died in 1977. (Daily News/Houston Cofield)


It begins with a trivia contest and a sock hop. Those are the first two events Friday, Aug. 11, at the top of a crowded Elvis Week itinerary that marks 40 years since Elvis Presley died at Graceland.

The two lead-off events – the Elvis Fan Reunion, which features trivia and other activities, and the Elvis Week Dance Party – are at one of the soundstages at Elvis Presley’s Memphis, the 200,000-square-foot entertainment complex that is new to Elvis Week, as is the Guest House at Graceland resort-hotel.

The dance party is playing Elvis’ hits – technically perhaps not a “sock hop,” as such dances were known early in Presley’s trajectory to cultural icon. There are no hardwood gym floors to worry about scuffing, so shoes are allowed.

The entertainment complex and resort are hosting most of the 44 events sanctioned by Graceland. And Elvis Presley Enterprises will be watching how the expansion of Graceland is received by a fan base that is not only loyal, but also trending younger in recent years.

“We finally have a museum to host a good part of the Graceland archives,” Gary Hahn, Graceland’s vice president of marketing and media, said last month. “Prior to this year, we had to sort of shove it into corners in the racquetball building behind the mansion or trophy room behind the mansion. We’ve found a proper location to really tell the whole story.”

Visitors to Graceland sign, share memories, and show their respect for Elvis on the wall surrounding his home. (Daily News/Houston Cofield)

As those coming to Graceland increasingly include those who either weren’t born when Presley died or were too young to remember him before his death, the whole story includes more characters and isn’t quite as “Elvis-centric” as it once was.

EPE CEO Jack Soden encountered upset Elvis fan club presidents during Elvis Week in 1994, shortly after the marriage of Presley’s only child, Lisa Marie, to Michael Jackson. Some of them wanted to know if Graceland would be selling Jackson souvenirs alongside Presley’s, an idea that didn’t sit well with them. Graceland wasn’t, Soden was quick to say.

The incident is an example of a xenophobia some fans had that left no room for anyone else.

With the expansion and the changes in what those visiting Graceland are looking for, particularly during Elvis Week, the high point remains the Tuesday, Aug. 15, candlelight vigil outside the walls of Graceland that begins at 8:30 p.m. and, as in past years, is expected to continue past midnight. The anniversary of Presley’s death is Aug. 16.

And EPE has always emphasized that with the expansion, the mansion itself will always remain basically unchanged from its reflection of what the home was like in 1975.

But unchanged doesn’t mean untouched. The move of the jumpsuits and similar items out of the racquetball court allowed the area to be restored to its former use. And in 40 years, Graceland has become more advanced in how it archives and catalogs items.

Through a settlement with Col. Tom Parker, Presley’s manager from his signing with RCA Records to his death, Presley’s estate bought a trove of items ranging from unreleased photos to entertainment contracts and even found the missing gold lame pants that went with a gold lame jacket. Presley continued to wear the jacket long after the two items made their debut on an iconic album cover.

Graceland now hosts auctions of Elvis memorabilia owned by private collectors that it certifies as authentic.

The new museum in the entertainment complex is what Graceland bills as the “world’s largest Elvis museum.” That means room for all of his 1970s jumpsuits in one place. But it also includes exhibits on Sun Records founder Sam Phillips that deal with other artists Phillips recorded before and after putting Presley on vinyl. Other exhibits feature artists that influenced Presley’s sound as well as those influenced by him.

Stephane Touzin of Montreal, Canada, traveled to Memphis with his family for Elvis Week, which draws thousands of Elvis fans from all over the world each year.  (Daily News/Houston Cofield)

Meanwhile, the music release to mark the anniversary is a box set of Presley’s complete 1953-1955 recordings at Sun, including the first acetates he made that drew Phillips’ interest.

Memphis City Council member Patrice Robinson said in another year, there also will be a broader guide to Whitehaven’s history that includes 10 other places in Whitehaven for visitors to see.

“We have more than just Elvis Presley. I don’t want to chill the fans of Elvis,” she said. “We have Al Green as well” – a reference to the soul singer’s Whitehaven church.

“We have such a history in our community that we are excited about,” she added.

That history includes the home and 1960s-era bomb shelter of local radio pioneer Hoyt Wooten, whose property is now the Lion’s Gate subdivision. It also includes Whitehaven High School, which is more than 100 years old.

Hahn says the expansion of Graceland is meant to have an effect on the comeback of the larger Whitehaven area.

“We agree it’s needed not just for the visitors but the residents,” he said of broader plans for improving the look of the boulevard and the businesses along it.

Robinson cites two new retail strips on Elvis Presley Boulevard and possibly a third by this time next year.

“We are excited about new development in the Whitehaven area,” she said. “We’re hoping that as soon as the city can finish its plan, we can get our street paved so that when new visitors come they have new opportunities to see a beautiful place.”

The streetscape improvements are long overdue following a formal kickoff in November 2012. The only indication since then has been a “W” embedded in the road surface at the intersection of Brooks Road and Elvis Presley Boulevard.

Memphis Mayor Jim Strickland, who took office in 2016, has said he is working to speed up the start of the work.

The biggest change on the streetscape has been the demolition this spring of the retail strip turned plaza that for about 30 years was the place where tourists boarded buses to go across the boulevard and tour the mansion. Elvis Presley’s Memphis is directly behind the razed shopping center that during Presley’s life housed a mix of restaurants and office space.

Robinson is also hoping for more aggressive marketing and recruitment of merchants at Southland Mall, the city’s first and oldest shopping mall, which has changed ownership twice recently. Prior to that, under local ownership, the mall had an occupancy rate above 90 percent.

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