Pending Elvis Week Will Encompass New Amenities

By Bill Dries

Graceland Plaza is just about all gone. Only a few brick storefronts remained Tuesday, May 16, in the area across Elvis Presley Boulevard from the late entertainer’s mansion. The late 1960s-era shopping center that became the entry point for tours of the mansion starting in the 1980s is being demolished to become a new entry point and green space for the $45 million Elvis Presley’s Memphis complex that opened in March.

The old Graceland Plaza is just about all gone as Graceland prepares for the 40th anniversary of the entertainer’s death in August. It will be the first Elvis Week to incorporate the Elvis Presley’s Memphis complex that opened this year. (Daily News/Bill Dries)

The 200,000-square-foot complex is behind the demolition area on land Graceland bought in the 1990s that was the site of apartment complexes.

The ongoing transformation comes in advance of the 40th anniversary of Presley’s death in 1977. It will be the first Elvis Week to incorporate not only Elvis Presley’s Memphis, but also the nearby Guest House at Graceland hotel/resort into the activities.

Together, the two new developments are a $137 million economic development investment in Whitehaven that Graceland Holdings LLC managing partner Joel Weinshanker has said is about a broader impact on the Whitehaven community as well as the city’s tourism business.

The complex and the hotel end decades of a tourist experience that was largely limited to the mansion tour, and marks the adaptation of structures Graceland bought from others nearby.

The old shopping center included a dentist office, a Steak and Ale restaurant and the Hickory Log restaurant as well as similar businesses during Presley’s lifetime. The juke box at the Hickory Log stocked with Elvis records was the only connection to the entertainer in any of those businesses.

That changed rapidly starting with the four days following his death. The center quickly became a set of souvenir shops independent of Elvis Presley Enterprises until an early 1980s. That’s when the mansion tours began and two jets owned by Presley became part of an extended tour, with the plaza becoming completely under EPE control.

Graceland later bought the neighboring Wilson World hotel, naming it Heartbreak Hotel, and the private drive leading up to it “Lonely Street.” It closed with the opening of Guest House.

Plans are to demolish the hotel now that Guest House, a long-held idea since the 1980s mansion tours began, is up and running.

Ticket packages for a varying slate of 24 events from Aug. 11-19, including the free annual Candlelight Vigil, run from $205 to $1,500 per person. The top-end package includes a ticket in the first four rows to Elvis: The Wonder of You concert at FedExForum on Aug. 16 as well as nine separate concerts and panel discussions and a fan reunion and dance party that are among 16 events at Elvis Presley’s Memphis.

The FedExForum concert is expected to include some surprise guests along with a full symphony and band playing live in time with projected images and recordings of Presley.

The events at Elvis Presley’s Memphis include a gospel concert with some performers who toured with Presley and a Sun Records tribute hosted by John Paul Keith and featuring Jerry Phillips, the son of Sun Records founder Sam Phillips.

Musicians who played on Presley’s 1970s recordings will tell stories and play music during another performance.

And author Peter Guralnick, who wrote the definitive two-volume biography of Presley as well as the 2015 biography of Sam Phillips, is among those speaking at the panel discussions.

Guest House will host an auction of privately held Elvis items and memorabilia as well as a showcase and autograph sessions for those competing in the Ultimate Elvis Tribute Artist contest. The two rounds of the competition move to Elvis Presley’s Memphis along with a concert by past winners of the competition billed as “The Ultimate Return.”

The official Graceland embrace of the tribute artists in the last 15-20 years has also been part of the evolution of a competition that began in the 1980s at Bad Bob’s Vapors, a nightclub on Brooks Road.