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Welcome To Elvis Nation

By John Bordsen, January 22, 2002 | Other
Elvis Presley was born into obscurity Jan. 8, 1935, in a two-room shack in Tupelo, Miss. On Aug. 16, 1977, he died alone, age 42, in his gated estate in Memphis. He hasn't been lonely since.

San Francisco-based writer Bill Yenne, for example, has an Elvis mini-industry. He has written ''The Field Guide to Elvis Shrines,'' ''I Am Elvis: A Guide to Elvis Impersonators,'' and co-written ''All the King's Things: The Ultimate Elvis Memorabilia Book.''

Others are also banking on the King. More than 500,000 visitors per year pay $16 to walk through Elvis's Graceland mansion - $25 for the Platinum Tour - and have the opportunity to stay several blocks away at its Heartbreak Hotel, down at the end of Lonely Street, a private road off Elvis Presley Boulevard.

More than 5,000 fans descend on Memphis for Elvis birthday events, and upward of 50,000 every August for the nine-day Elvis Week.

Las Vegas is home of the Elvis-a-Rama museum and the Flying Elvi costumed parachute-jump team. There and across America, all manner of impersonators and tribute artists don sequins and sideburns, sing his songs and copy his moves on nightclub and casino stages. Sites and museums - major and minor, real and ridiculous - stud the American landscape from blue Hawaii to Inverness, Fla.

We asked Yenne about Elvis tourism.

Q. Elvis could've moved anywhere. Why did he stay in Memphis, where he became a tourist attraction during his lifetime?

A. Graceland. He was able to secure himself there as well as anywhere. You ever drive through Beverly Hills and take one of those Homes of the Stars tours? Their houses are as close to the street as houses in your average suburban subdivision.

Graceland is in the middle of almost 14 acres of grounds, a couple of city blocks from the main gate. The gate could be closed and the perimeter controlled and guarded. Fans just could not get close to the building. So he was comfortable there. Graceland was one of only two homes he owned; the other was in California. He spent a lot of time in California when he was making movies in the `60s, but Graceland was his home from before he went into the Army until his death. It's where his tomb is.

Who's buried in his tomb? Nobody, actually. He's buried nearby. His mother and father are buried there, too.

Q. What's your favorite part of Graceland?

A. I like the areas that are decorated as close as possible to how they looked in Elvis's time. I like the experience of being in the environment that Elvis had. To walk his halls and staircases, to feel the shag carpet under my feet. I like that more than looking at cases of artifacts.

A lot of people are partial to the Jungle Room, which is really extreme retro kitsch. It has flashy wallpaper, loud carpeting, and that sort of thing.

Q. What else is there to see in Memphis?

A. Moving out in concentric circles from Graceland, you're at a number of tourist sites - museums, gift shops, and things like that. Those places weren't originally owned by Elvis Presley Enterprises, which owns most of what's around there these days.

There's the house he bought for his father. Places like the Piccadilly and the Gridiron, where he used to eat. Places where he performed early on; places where he bought cars.

Q. What Elvis spots in Memphis shouldn't be overlooked?

A. Sun Studio, where he recorded his earliest songs. It's the place for anyone interested in his music.

Popular Tunes is the record shop where he bought his first record.

Q. He grew up poor working class. Any places remaining from that?

A. All the houses he lived in when he was a kid, other than where he was born in Tupelo, are in Memphis. Elvis spent more time living in the Lauderdale housing project than anywhere. The last I heard, preservationists were fighting attempts to tear it down. I don't know its current status.

Humes High School, which Elvis attended, is now a junior high. It's a big, red brick Dickensian-looking 1930s-style building.

Q. Elvis spent more time in California than Nevada. Why is Las Vegas more of an Elvis magnet?

A. The time in California wasn't really ''public'' time. When he was in Vegas, though, he was performing. The Las Vegas Hilton, then called the International, was the place he performed. There are numerous Elvis exhibits all over the place. Believe me, there's no hiding the fact that he performed there.

Q. What about the sideshow Elvis places - the roadside museums?

A. These places are unreal on one level, but on another they represent an individual's particular vision of Elvis.

The smaller and more offbeat, the more interesting they are. They're something that hasn't been distilled to the lowest common denominator by corporate entities.

Consider the Elvis Is Alive Museum, in Wright City, Mo. It's run by a gentleman who feels Elvis is still alive - even though he displays a wax Elvis in a casket. That in itself is something you're not going to find in an Elvis casino. And would you expect to see a wax Colonel Sanders in a KFC?

I don't think so.

Q. What about Joni Mabe's Traveling Panoramic Encyclopedia of Everything Elvis, in Cornelia, Ga.? It claims to have an Elvis wart from 1957.

A. She's a performance artist. She claims to have a wart that was removed from him that was supposedly discarded but surreptitiously rescued and preserved.

Q. Is it on the level?

A. The museum is certainly real: You can really see these things. Whether it's really a wart off Elvis - whether you can do a DNA test - is almost missing the point. It's like the people who sell vials of Elvis sweat. That's like holy water: Its importance is in what it represents. Who would save this? Who would exhibit this? Who would visit this and be interested in this?

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