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Graceland’s Growth a Reassuring Sign that Elvis Still Connects with Fans

Christopher Blank/WKNO-FM

With the opening of Elvis Presley’s Memphis, a $45-million expansion of the Graceland entertainment complex, Elvis Presley Enterprises is counting on future generations to keep the King’s memory alive and his estate in order.

Credit Christopher Blank/WKNO-FM
Jack Soden, President and CEO of Elvis Presley Enterprises, Priscilla Presley and Joel Weinshanker cut the ribbon on the new Elvis Presley's Memphis on March 2. The entertainment complex features restaurants, museums and multiple gift shops.

Nearly 40 years after Elvis’ death, upwards of 600,000 people still visit his famous home annually. The mansion tour – a time capsule of 1970s superstar kitsch – remains mostly the same. (The racquetball court where Elvis spent his last evening has been restored from its long-time service as a display area for jumpsuits and trophies.)

But across the street from the home, a new entertainment complex now offers visitors an even more in-depth look at the King’s treasures.

There are museum exhibits devoted to his car collection, another to his costumes, awards and movie props. Objects from Graceland’s extensive archives – such as a television with a bullet hole in it and some of Elvis’ favorite books – can now be seen in rotating exhibits.

A large multi-purpose space will host conventions or be used to screen movies.

A ticket to this new entertainment complex, plus a tour of the house, costs about $60.

Credit Christopher Blank/WKNO-FM
This pink Cadillac is one of many cars in a new exhibit dedicated to Elvis' custom automobiles at Elvis Presley's Memphis.

The ribbon cutting on March 2 followed last October’s opening of a $92-million resort hotel, The Guest House at Graceland.

Elvis’ original home was on 13.5 acres. The Graceland campus is now approximately 120 acres – the size of a small neighborhood.

Priscilla Presley, who cut the ribbon on the new complex using the same ceremonial scissors from Graceland’s first opening, said that for all the new bells and whistles, the magic remains in the house itself.

“I swear to you, I can go in that house and feel like I never left,” she said. “For me personally, I feel his presence there, I hear his contagious laugh (and then) we’d all start laughing, and then we’d know he’s in a good mood, too.”

Elvis and Priscilla divorced in 1973. But she became one of the estate’s executors after Elvis’ father, Vernon, died in 1979. For Priscilla, keeping her former husband’s memory alive would become a lifetime commitment.

“That trust meant taking responsibility and making sure that decisions were to keep Elvis' legacy going forward,” she said.

Opening the house to the public in 1982 was, for her, the one way to keep the estate intact. There were long-term questions about sustainability from the first day. After all, Elvis was 42 at the time of his death, and his fans were getting older. In a world of Led Zeppelin, David Bowie and Fleetwood Mac, musical tastes were changing. Who would want to visit his house in five or ten years?

Priscilla never imagined that people would still be showing up more than three decades later. Original Elvis fans are now in their 70s and 80s.

The Graceland complex’s $137-million building boom is, in part, due to the durability of Elvis’ image – a brand that still turns a profit. Last year, Forbes magazine listed Elvis as No. 4 on its annual list of top-earning dead celebrities, with an estimated income of $27-million. About a million Elvis records are still sold each year. And that’s physical CDs.

Joel Weinshanker, managing partner of Graceland Partners and Elvis Presley Enterprises, said that he took interest in the business initially because he was a fan.

“Every business decision I’ve ever made in my life is personal,” he said. “If I do the right thing for the artist, then I feel that I’ll be able to make money from it. But the initial impetus is never about making money.”

Credit Christopher Blank/WKNO-FM
About 2,500 people visited Elvis Presley's Memphis on the day of the ribbon cutting, March 2. Graceland expects an above average attendance year, in part because August will mark the 40th Anniversary of Elvis's death.

For Weinshanker, Graceland is still full of growth possibilities. Because Elvis’ father saved everything, new exhibits are easy to come by.

Elvis’s songs and movies can be spun-off into new, stand-alone attractions.

“In the not-too-distant future I could envision an ‘Elvis Presley’s Hawaii,’” he said. “So we’re really going to just give you more and more of the things that Elvis loved. And you know, when the average person drives five-and-a-half hours to get to Graceland, they’re going to be overwhelmed because they’re going to spend two or three days here and they’re gonna say, ‘wow, I’ve got to come back.’”

Jack Soden, president and CEO of Elvis Presley Enterprises, said that attendance over the last decade or so has been steady, but it was time to grow.

“We’ve needed, in the theme park business they call it, ‘the new roller coaster,’” he said. “And now we’ve got the new hotel, the new complex that has got numerous elements that are just not small steps forward, they’re huge steps forward.”

Soden said that about a third of Graceland’s current visitors were born after Elvis died.

What makes Elvis such a generational star? For middle-aged tourists like Jim French from Kalispell, Mont., there’s so much to dig into. Elvis has music, movies, but also an entrenched pop cultural history. Fans still visit Memphis on the anniversary of his death, and take pride in learning that they, too, have an Elvis connection.

“I came here, I wanted to see his birth certificate ‘cause my daughter was born on the same day, just different year,” French said. “We kinda celebrate that day, kind of both of ‘em.”

For Priscilla Presley, Elvis’ real staying power continues to lie in what he represents to millions of Americans yearning for fame and fortune.

“I think people really appreciate the fact that how he came from such humble beginnings is still the American dream,” she said.

Credit Christopher Blank/WKNO-FM
Elvis' father, Vernon, kept everything, totaling well over a million objects in the Graceland archives. With the new entertainment complex, artifacts such as this television -- complete with bullet hole -- can be put on display with other items rarely seen by the public.