MEMPHIS — Though he’s been gone 40 years, the life and legacy of Elvis Presley added another chapter on Thursday morning, as Graceland officials formally opened a new entertainment complex dedicated to the singer. Public ceremonies marked the start of four-day grand opening celebration for “Elvis Presley’s Memphis” a 200,000-square-foot, $45 million project across from Presley’s mansion in Memphis’ Whitehaven neighborhood.
Graceland finally has museum-quality space to display the best of its 1.5-million item archive. Elvis the Entertainer and Presley Motors exhibits anchor the complex, styled after a lifestyle retail center, and give fans expanded access to Elvis’s cars, motorcycles — even a ski boat named Gladys after his mother. Director of archives Angie Marchese estimated the amount of Graceland’s collection on display has gone from 10 percent to 25 percent.
Several hundred fans and a throng of media gathered at the freshly-completed plaza grounds west of Elvis Presley Boulevard to watch Graceland executives, including Jack Soden, Elvis Presley Enterprises president, and Graceland Holdings managing partner Joel Weinshanker, along with Presley’s former wife, Priscilla, speak and cut the ribbon dedicating the complex.
“It’s the beginning of a new era at Graceland,” Weinshanker said. “Elvis Presley has hundreds of millions of fans and he treated each fan as a friend. We thought: What would Elvis do for his fans … and what he would do is [let them] walk in his footsteps. With the opening of this complex you’re walking in Elvis’ footsteps. You’ll be able to walk through the streets of his Memphis and see all the things that he loved.”
Elvis Presley’s Memphis flows like a lifestyle retail center, with the public-facing exhibit areas facing to the interior and the complex resembling the back of a shopping mall from outside.
Adults pay $57.50 for a standard tour of the house and access to the complex. Visitors can also choose to tour just the house for a lower price. Discounts are offered for seniors and children. A self-guided tour of two airplanes owned by Presley is $5 more.
From the ticketing area, people line up to wait for buses that take visitors to the museum, or they can move through the entertainment complex’s large, high-ceilinged buildings.
Anchoring the complex are Presley Motors, the updated, expanded automobile museum; Elvis the Entertainer, which looks at the singer’s career; and Graceland Soundstage, a venue for movies and live performances. Gift shops and restaurants fill in the spaces between exhibits.
Nothing has changed for visitors in the mansion itself but there are big changes to out buildings, a racquetball court and a hall of trophies that adjoin the mansion, Graceland spokesman Kevin Kern said.
The racquetball court, a 1970s addition, has been restored to its original purpose. The trophy room has been converted to an exhibit about Elvis’ family and friends, covering how the Presleys came to Memphis from Tupelo, Miss., why he bought Graceland mansion and other storylines.
At the new complex, space for cars, motorcycles and other conveyances has grown to 20,000 square feet from the old car museum’s 10,000 square feet.
A purple, 1956 Cadillac El Dorado occupies a prominent corner facing the new ticketing center, and several items have been brought out of storage, including two ski boats, a purple 1975 Lincoln and a 1969 Mercedes two-door coupe.
Sequined capes, jump suits and other performance costumes that were packed into about 1,000 square feet in the former trophy hall have been moved to the 20,000 square foot Elvis the Entertainer exhibit.
Visitors used to have to look at the costumes from one angle, from behind a glass wall. Now they’re in display cases that fans can walk around and view from all angles.
In the archives, artifacts can be examined on shelves and in drawers, with little if any interpretive text. There’s a TV with a bullet hole in it, from Elvis’ Palm Springs house, baseballs autographed for Elvis by legends Willie Mays and Willie McCovey, and a desk pen set from Col. Tom Parker’s desk, featuring the RCA Victor dog Nipper.
The archives includes about 3,000 square feet dedicated to Elvis’ stint in the Army, a story that was told in one small display case previously, Marchese said.
Richard Kenyon, a fan from Grand Prairie, Texas, was impressed. “They’ve just opened up a new view of Elvis. Compared to the old setting, this is going to be phenomenal.”
Kenyon said he and his wife Shirley will return in August to renew their wedding vows on their 50th anniversary. They’ve booked Graceland’s wedding chapel.
Graceland officials said the project was substantially completed, but there were construction workers busy at the complex taking care of punchlist items. David Beckwith, a spokesman for Elvis Presley Enterprises, said completion will come “in a matter of days.”
The old Graceland Plaza, the early 1980s retail strip that housed ticketing, restaurants, gift shops, car museum and other functions, should be torn down by June or July as Graceland prepares for the 40th anniversary of the entertainer’s death.
The plaza will be replaced by landscaping and lawn, through which a new entry drive will connect the ticketing center to the mansion driveway.
Priscilla Presley noted the expansion will allow fans to finally experience the great wealth of the Graceland archives. “You’ll be able to go through and see the things we we’ve wanted to show for many many years,” she noted. “[Elvis] loved to share the things he was able to accomplish in his lifetime. So we think this is a very exciting time for all the fans and all of us.”
The new complex will house the Elvis Presley Automobile Museum; Elvis: The Entertainer Career Museum; Elvis Discovery Exhibits; Elvis’ Custom Jets, as well as Elvis-connected musical displays, including “Mystery Train: The Sam Phillips Exhibit” and “The Country Road to Rock.”
The area has also added restaurants – including Gladys’ Diner — named after the singer’s mother — has the feel of a 1950s eatery, complete with pictures of Presley, aqua-colored chairs and stations where patrons can order hot dogs, burgers and ice cream; and a BBQ eatery, Vernon’s Smokehouse, named in honor of Presley’s father — and various retail shops. The project represents the largest expansion at Graceland since it was first opened to the public in 1982.
“Elvis Presley’s Memphis” is the second phase of Graceland’s current expansion after construction of the 450-room resort hotel, The Guest House at Graceland, with both projects totaling over $130 million dollars.
“Even though 20 million people have visited Graceland,” Weinshanker said, “if you haven’t visited Graceland lately, you really haven’t visited Graceland.”
The weekend’s festivities will also include another official auction of Elvis-related items and memorabilia. The auction will take place on Saturday at the theater inside The Guest House at Graceland.
Bob Mehr and Wayne Risher, The (Memphis, Tenn.) Commercial Appeal
Across a wide walkway lies the automobile museum, filled with some of Presley’s favorite toys. Among them is a pink 1955 Cadillac Fleetwood — a custom painted model that he gave to his mother — and a sleek, black 1973 Stutz Blackhawk that he drove the day he died.
The walkway leads to the 20,000-square foot museum called “Elvis: The Entertainer,” which features white and purple jumpsuits he wore during concerts and gold-colored guitars he played on stage.