Friday, May 29, 2015

Gracelessland, Part 1


Yep, we went there. And now, against the sentiments of millions of Elvis acolytes around the world, we're going here:

Graceland isn't a shrine; it's a zoo.

It isn't an experience, it's an ordeal.

And if it's a busy weekend then you're not a visitor, you're a cow in the slaughter pen being herded through a series of gift shops while you wait 2-3 hours for the truck (bus) to transport you to the killing floor (unremarkable house, frozen in 1970s kitsch decor, across the road).

That's because no one gets to pull up directly at Graceland, tour the home and grounds, and leave. You first get dumped into Graceland Plaza, a hideous strip mall facing the hallowed ground on the other side of Elvis Presley Boulevard, where you buy a tiered ticket. What do you want to see? Just the estate (two hours from now)? Estate and airplanes? Estate, airplanes, and cars? Everything there is?

That'll be $35 to $75, per person. Remember, Elvis's family has taxes and upkeep to pay for their house. That's what got Graceland opened to the public in the first place, way back in '82 when Lisa Marie and her mother were looking at $500K in back taxes on the property. So thanks for doing your part in keeping the millionaire heirs from having to dip into their own savings now.*

* Do the math: 600,000 annual visitors times an average ticket price of $55 equals $33 million per year.

 Graceland Plaza: Artist's Tranquil Rendering

But it's not like you get nothing for your contribution. Here, look at some of these Memphis mementos and tsotchkes. Read about how Elvis's mama loved him so much that he was literally filled with excess amounts of love, and had no choice but to share that love from the stage with his fans. (Really, the display says that, forcing you to imagine Elvis bursting asunder in an explosion of love gas rather than just pitching over quietly while at toilet.) Now exit through that door and buy lots of souvenirs before you go into the next display and exit into the next gift shop.

Eventually, after creeping slowly forward in a packed — and in summer, sweltering — line holding five different tour groups at once, e.g. 3pm Group 1, 3pm Group 2, 3pm Group 3, etc., you're handed an iPad and a set of earphones to plug into the audio port. You will now be guided by the voice of minor celebrity and major Elvis fan John Stamos of Full House fame. (There are no audio back/forward controls on the iPad screen, only play and pause. You've got one chance to get synchronized, and if you miss it your tablet quickly gets stuck in either the previous room that you foolishly went through faster than Stamos's narration pace, or in a room you arrowed ahead to accidentally, haven't seen yet, and aren't seeing now as Stamos tells you all about it.)

 Graceland Plaza: Wretched Reality

Look right, and there's the living room. Left, the dining room. As you'll hear expressed by many of your fellow cattle, both are far from "mansion" sized, and the olden-days TV sets in each room (and the little music room further down) are unintentionally comical. Now look straight ahead — see those stairs? Yeah, you can't go up them. According to the Internet, this is because:

     a) the stairs are not structurally strong enough to hold dozens of people at once

     b) tourists would all pile up at the top of the stairs to gawk at The Bathroom Where The King Died, and then the people behind them on the stairs would fall to their deaths in the basement when the stairs collapse from their weight

     c) an elderly pair of Elvis's aunts lived in the upstairs rooms when Graceland first opened, so the tour was designed to keep their quarters off limits and maintains that design now even though the aunts are gone

     d) Lisa Marie and her family still use the upstairs when they come and stay at the house sometimes, like at Thanksgiving some years

     e) Nicholas Cage is the only tourist to have ever set eyes on the upstairs in person* — but he had to marry Lisa Marie to get there

* To see the rooms Nick saw, view the first few minutes of This Is Elvis, a 1981 documentary sanctioned by the family.

According to John Stamos, the upstairs is closed "out of respect for the family and because Elvis never received guests upstairs; he always came downstairs to welcome his visitors." So now you get to feel like members of the King's entourage did, back in the day, if they had 20 other cows and steers ahead of them, another couple dozen mooing up behind, and an in-person tour guide encouraging the herd to move along in a smooth and orderly fashion.

Coming in Part Two: Rooms & Realizations

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