To paraphrase John Lennon's rearview summary of rock-and-roll history, "Before Elvis, there was nothing" — before Graceland opened as a tourist attraction, there was no Beale Street tourism, no Sun Studios tours, or Stax or Rock 'n' Soul museums. Elvis Presley would have turned 73 on January 8th, and it might be said that he means more to Memphis dead than alive. Music heritage, and Elvis in particular, anchors the tourism industry that generates an estimated $2.4 billion annually in Memphis. Mixed into the print-news coverage of Graceland's opening in 1982 are ads for Memphis tourist attractions that include Confederate Park, Mud Island, and the Magevney House. With all due respect to those attractions, it's hard to imagine a half-million visitors flocking to Memphis to experience them.
To say that the area surrounding Graceland at 3734 Elvis Presley Boulevard has fallen on hard times overlooks an important fact: It didn't have to fall on hard times. Graceland has been there for 25 years. That Graceland manages to attract 600,000 visitors each year to this strip of used-car lots, fleabag motels, and hot-wing stands testifies to the drawing power of its late owner.
But now a transformation unlike any the city has seen since the gentrification of Beale Street is afoot, with a $250 million investment to redevelop Elvis Presley Boulevard. The investor, CKX, Inc. chairman and chief executive officer Robert F.X. Sillerman, summarized the plan, saying, "It's going to be 'Oh, wow,' I can tell you that."
CKX, owner of the American Idol and British Idol TV programs, paid over $100 million for an 85 percent interest in Elvis Presley Enterprises (EPE) and the commercial rights to the Elvis image nearly three years ago. Lisa Marie Presley retains a 15 percent share of EPE and ownership of the Graceland mansion. Her mother, Elvis' ex-wife Priscilla Presley, sits on the CKX board of directors. The transaction represented Graceland's arrival from locally owned cottage industry to New York media conglomerate. The artist who, in life, symbolized what writer Stanley Booth called "a certain personal freedom that's in the best of the American tradition," has become a corporate icon.
CKX hopes that the city will kick in to support a revitalization of Whitehaven, the neighborhood that strikes many visitors as an unlikely host for the residence of the world's most recognized entertainer. (CKX is merging with another company and cannot discuss its projects with media due to U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission regulations barring such communication because of the pending merger.)
State and local governments have begun the necessary legislative actions to get the project under way. Last year, the Tennessee legislature passed a bill authorizing a tourism development zone (TDZ) in the area. Among the first orders of business for the new Memphis City Council will be the consideration of motions to approve zoning changes necessary to break ground on the Graceland redevelopment.
"I can't speak to the specifics as to what we're looking for from the state," explains Kevin Kern, media relations manager for EPE. "It's going to be first-class and this is going to be a catalyst for revitalization in this neighborhood."
The "Oh, wow" plan includes an 80,000-square-foot visitor's center and a convention-sized hotel. Though the blueprints remain undisclosed, the power of Elvis to revitalize Whitehaven may yet rival the King's own ascent from rags to riches. While the plans should benefit the neighborhood and the local economy, they also represent a gamble for CKX. Can Sillerman, a New York media mogul, maintain the connection between Elvis and his fans and bring a new generation into the fold?
"We obviously want to attract more people here as we grow our attraction. We want to make Graceland a destination where they'll spend more than just a day touring the mansion," Kern says. "Whether it's a retail component or a new restaurant, getting people to stay here longer is part of the formula. Live entertainment could very well be a component."
The Elvis image wasn't always a ticket to prosperity on the Graceland corridor. The first two Elvis souvenir shops opened in the shadow of Graceland during the months following the King's death on August 16, 1977. The Graceland Gift Shop shared space with a turquoise jewelry store at 3771 Elvis Presley Boulevard, and Elvis Presley Souvenirs and Boutique opened in a former record shop and recording studio at 3787 Elvis Presley. The first shop had gone back to its old name, the Wooden Indian, by the next year. The latter held on for five years before closing.
Presley fans flocked to the June 7, 1982, opening of Graceland from as far away as Tokyo, London, and Australia. The first tours of the mansion began at 8:30 that morning. By noon, an overflow crowd had packed the staging area across the street, a scene repeated thousands of times since. While the event demonstrated the King's magnetic pull on fans, the opening drew no recognition from local officials. Then city mayor Wyeth Chandler and county mayor William Morris skipped it. Despite the civic snub, Graceland sold 3,000 tickets that day at $5 apiece and turned many more pilgrims away.
One visitor that day told The Commercial Appeal, "I predict this will be closed in two years. The tourists will kill it. They'll steal everything in sight." Presley's fans shrieked through entire concerts and tore at the King's clothes and hair if they could get close enough. Why would anyone think his lawn, shag carpet, or rhinestone belt buckles would fare better when subjected to 3,000 visitors a day? But fans channeled that fanaticism into reverence, as once screaming fans turned out by the thousands for solemn candlelight vigils every August and awed strolls through the King's halls.
While Presley pilgrims flocked to Graceland from day one, their presence wasn't enough to support satellite enterprises. An Elvis Presley Museum opened a few blocks south of Graceland shortly after the mansion opened to tourists. In addition to an official Elvis memorabilia shop across the street from Graceland, two other Presley swag stores opened nearby. The museum and both unofficial gift shops closed within a year. About the only unlicensed business bearing the King's name that made it was Floyd's Elvis Presley Amoco, a block north of Graceland.
Priscilla Presley retained attorney Jack Soden to guide Graceland's 1982 opening. He stayed on board, and today he is chief executive officer of EPE. Graceland owes much of its high profile as a tourist attraction — it's the most visited private residence in the world — to Soden's management, and CKX hasn't disturbed EPE's structure, ensuring local continuity.
David Meets Goliath on the Boulevard
One of the more compelling subplots of the redevelopment story sits smack in the middle of Graceland's plans. Literally. Boulevard Souvenirs, a retailer of licensed Presley memorabilia, is located next door to Graceland. According to an October Memphis Daily News report, EPE offered Rick Roberts, the shop owner, $350,000 for his inventory. Roberts declined. EPE didn't take the rejection well and changed its licensing agreement with official Elvis memorabilia vendors to prevent them from doing business with "unauthorized" vendors within five miles of Graceland. This would include Boulevard Souvenirs, though a recent perusal of their shelves found nothing but official Elvis gear save for a few exceptions in the book aisle.
Both EPE and the Roberts family have chosen to remain mum on the subject of their disagreement, since the litigation is pending.
The dispute may run deeper. The shop and its one-third-acre lot is the only property on either side of the boulevard for nearly a half-mile around Graceland that EPE doesn't own.
Pulling the available information together, one could surmise that Boulevard Souvenirs stands in the way of the proposed new hotel. The AP report about the redevelopment announcement, endorsed by EPE, says that the hotel will share the east side of the boulevard with Graceland. Eight and a half acres of EPE-owned, undeveloped land virtually surrounds the souvenir shop and runs to the border of the Graceland property and into the back of the Boulevard Souvenirs lot.
Though the Roberts own the Boulevard Souvenirs shop and inventory, a St. Louis company, Commercial Development, Inc., owns the property. They did not respond to a request to discuss the future of the property for this story.
If He Builds It, Will They Come?
The success of the new Graceland development depends on fan response. From that overwhelming turnout to see Graceland on its opening day in June 1982 to the phenomena of velvet Elvis paintings, tribute artists, and the death day vigil, Elvismania has been a grassroots affair.
No Memphian not employed by Graceland spends more time with Elvis tourists than Sherman Willmott. His Ultimate Rock-and Roll tours run visitors to music heritage sites popular and obscure, and Willmott does most of his business with Presley pilgrims. He says that he favors the expansion plan and sees it helping more businesses in general. "Elvis fans would love an improved experience around their pilgrimages," Willmott says. "Elvis fans are the biggest driver of tourism to Memphis, and any improvements to the amenities ... will only benefit Graceland as well as the whole area."
Stanley Booth, author of the Memphis music classic Rythm Oil and the definitive account of the Rolling Stones' ill-fated 1970 tour, is uniquely qualified to ponder the cultural significance of Elvis' image and its resonance with fans. By phone from his home in Georgia, Booth says that he sees a certain irony in an independent spirit such as Elvis becoming corporatized.
"I'm not really surprised to see Elvis' image become corporate, because that's the American way," he says. "That's not to say that I approve of it, but it's to be expected. It's easy to deplore the way that he's become a tourist attraction, but Elvis loved his fans and loved being Elvis and occupying that position in the public mind."
"Elvis fans are coming right now without the improvements," Willmott says. "If the whole experience is improved, people will come in larger numbers and stay in that area (as well as Memphis) longer. The thing to remember is that people are coming from all over the world for this experience, and anything that is substandard reflects poorly on their visit and word of mouth for future visits."
A small sampling of visitors from around the world to Graceland on a cold January day provided mixed reactions to the key points Willmott raises.
A couple from Utrecht, Netherlands, who hopped the direct flight from Amsterdam to Memphis on Northwest Airlines, said, "The neighborhood's very nice." They came specifically for the Elvis experience.
Glen Berry stopped his car outside Graceland's stone wall to take a picture. Berry, passing through town on his way to Las Vegas from Toronto, came out of curiosity more than devotion to the King.
"Why did Elvis want to live here?" Berry wondered, referring to the bustling highway that chugs past Graceland. "I would've figured with all his money he'd go out in the country where the beauty is."
Willmott says that it's not unusual for first-time visitors to be surprised by Graceland's location and surroundings. "Everyone wonders why Elvis would have built Graceland amongst the strip malls, fast food joints, and used car dealerships. I explain how the street was when Elvis bought Graceland in the '50s — it was a [two-lane] highway — and that the suburb built up around it. I also explain that a billionaire bought the rights to Graceland and Elvis' image and intends to fix the area up."
According to Kern, "Elvis does a lot of the work [of attracting new fans]. He's the rock star — 34 percent of our visitors each year are [under 35 years old]. Elvis continues to appeal to fans of a younger generation. Elvis is the icon. Seventy-six percent of our 600,000 visitors are first-time visitors."
Alan Sullivan and his wife Linda made their fourth visit to Memphis from Warwick, England. "I hope Sillerman doesn't plan on changing any of this," Alan said, gesturing toward the mansion grounds.
The couple planned a nine-day stay around Elvis' birthday. "Memphis could do more to help itself," Alan said, noting the unreliable public transportation and outdated and incomplete tourist information he found at the Heartbreak Hotel.
"No one comes to Memphis and says out, 'Oh, if the signage on [Elvis Presley] Boulevard weren't so bad, I'd stay another day,'" Willmott says. "The truth is that a better overall experience with the proposed amenities implemented would have an immediate and long-term impact on Elvis' fans' vacations. People are coming from the ends of the earth and save their money to come to Memphis, so a better experience [equals] longer and more visits."
"I don't admire the corporatization of Elvis, but I think his fans can handle it," Booth says.
CKX hopes so. And that's the $250 million question. Booth reflects philosophically when asked about Presley's power to transform his old neighborhood now. "Elvis had a great faith in the future," he says.