Elvis had entered the building. Not Elvis Presley himself, mind you. That would be impossible because, of course, the king died almost 33 years ago, on his throne. Any reports to the contrary are the stuff of conspiracy theory or urban legend. It was several of Elvis' personal effects that visited Tribune Tower recently, perhaps drawn here by the fact that this place, too, was once run by a man named "the Colonel." View photos of the Elvis artifacts.
There was a suede shoe, size 11, not obviously stepped on, and not blue, but black. "Common misconception: Elvis never had blue suede shoes," said Kevin Kern, the Graceland publicist who is shepherding the artifacts on a media tour.
There was a cape, spangled with beads and baubles, from what is known as the "King of Spades jumpsuit." Worn, it would have made Presley look like the superhero of Mardi Gras, the count of costume jewelry. Any network with an ounce of taste would have refused to shoot him from the waist up.
Of course, there was a "TCB" ring, with an 111/2-carat diamond over the "T" and sized to make Super Bowl rings look demure. A big part of the business Presley had to take care of, it seems, was getting things emblazoned with his slogan.
The clothing was touring as part of a promotional effort by Graceland, Presley's Memphis estate — a tourist attraction to some and near-religious shrine to others, with 600,000 visitors a year.
The garments come from a new exhibit called "Elvis Presley: Fashion Icon." It celebrates Presley's personal style, which evolved to the point where he looked always ready to jump over things on a motorcycle. The man did not dress for the folks in the front row. The exhibit includes 200 items, including some 50 shirts, the same custom suit in each of three colors (green, blue and brownish red), scarves, cologne (Canoe and Brut), a comb and even a couple of guns.
"We've done the jumpsuits, but we've never done an exhibit before which gives the visitor the experience of opening up Elvis Presley's personal closet," Kern said. Along with the clothing and accessories, also on hand in Chicago were Presley's grade-school Crayola crayons — "Elvis" written in red on the box — and a seventh-grade report card suggesting that science would not be his calling.
Those items are from a 75th-anniversary exhibit that started in January, "From Tupelo to Memphis," tracing his life from birth, Jan. 8, 1935, to the recording of "That's All Right" at Sun Studios in July 1954 — "his time as a normal human being," said Kern. Cirque du Soleil debuted a new show, "Viva Elvis," in Las Vegas last month. And Graceland material is on loan to the Newseum in Washington, D.C., for an exhibit starting March 19 called "Elvis! His Groundbreaking, Hip-Shaking, Newsmaking Story."
Graceland's challenge is to remain fresh, to persuade new folks to visit and people who've been there once to stop by again. But making new exhibits ("Fashion Icon" replaces "Private Presley," about his military life) is also part of a broader effort to keep Presley in the public eye.
Most prominent in that effort was the release in January, to coincide with what would have been his 75th birthday, of "Elvis 75," a collection of top singles from Sony Legacy, which owns the recordings ( Lisa Marie Presley controls Graceland and the estate). It is different from 2002's "30 #1 Hits" mostly in that the new CD has five fewer songs. There are, at Amazon's Elvis Presley Store, no fewer than 784 albums available, the operational definition of market dilution. Presley has sold 120 million albums, more than anybody except the Beatles and Garth Brooks, according to the Recording Industry Association of America, but his top-selling record, "Elvis' Christmas Album," doesn't crack the Top 100.
And Presley's best music is an era too old to sound at least semi-contemporary on the radio, the way the Beatles or the Rolling Stones do. The arrangements are too spare, the songwriting a touch simpler than what modern audiences are used to. The Beatles' "1" sold about twice as many copies this decade (10 million) as Presley's similarly conceived "30 #1 Hits." It's hard, too, to imagine that there can be anything left to uncover musically, though Sony will be re-releasing old records throughout the year in hopes that one might catch fire. Still, he remains one heck of a brand: Presley last year was No. 4 on Forbes' list of the top-earning dead celebrities, a tally that doesn't even include record sales. Attendance at Graceland has remained solid, said Kern — up a little last year over the year before — and roughly half the visitors are 40 and under, most from within a day's drive, a radius that includes Chicago. The attraction, which thinks of itself as historic home first, museum second, is active on Twitter: @gracelandnews. Taking the artifacts on a monthlong tour to Graceland's primary feeder cities is a nice new touch. There is, no denying, a mild thrill to being within hem-of-garment distance of the things Presley actually wore and used.
And although the tour will cover 19 cities throughout March, don't look for it on the road. Instead of hitting the highways Elvis-style, in a big, old Cadillac from the singer's collection, Kern and an archivist were tooling around in a rented Ford Explorer. That's how people with valuable items to transport take care of business.