MEMPHIS, Tenn. — When Graceland opened to the public 30 years ago this month, nobody knew if it would be a success. Nearly 18 million visitors later, the house where Elvis Presley once lived is a money-making business that’s helped transform the city of Memphis into a top destination for music lovers.
But Presley’s ex-wife says it’s the spirit of Elvis, and not just music history, that keeps the crowds coming to Graceland.
“Every time I go in there, I feel like Elvis is going to come down the stairs any minute,” said Priscilla Presley in an exclusive interview with The Associated Press about the landmark’s anniversary. “I have no doubt that he’s there, somewhere, his spirit. I think people feel that.”
The King of Rock’n’Roll died on Aug. 16, 1977, and by the early 1980s, Graceland had become a burden on his estate, which faced high estate and inheritance taxes. Accountants and bankers wanted to sell the home, but Priscilla Presley thought that opening the house to tourists could solve the financial problems while keeping Elvis’ legacy alive. She secured a $500,000 investment and visited other tourist attractions — Hearst Castle, Will Rogers’ home, even Disney World — for inspiration.
Graceland opened for tours on June 7, 1982. “We had no idea whether 30 people were coming, or 300, or 3,000 that first day, Fortunately, it was the latter,” said Jack Soden, CEO of Elvis Presley Enterprises, who helped Priscilla Presley with her plan.
They sold out all 3,024 tickets on the first day and never looked back. Graceland’s success led to a worldwide merchandising and licensing business that keeps Elvis’ legend strong while generating $32 million a year in revenue. And the flow of tourists has remained steady, with an average of 500,000 annual visitors to the mansion and exhibit area across the street, according to Soden.
Visitors come all year, but they peak in August during the annual commemoration of Elvis’ death, which includes a candlelight vigil. Graceland expects to welcome its 18 millionth visitor this year.
Graceland’s popularity has also helped turn Memphis into a major music destination. “When Graceland opened, city leaders saw the impact it brought from visitors from all over the world,” said Regena Bearden, vice president of marketing for the Memphis Convention & Visitors Bureau.
When Presley died, Beale Street in downtown Memphis, which had been known for the blues since the early 1900s, was in disrepair and shunned by visitors, but today it’s a bustling attraction featuring blues-themed bars, shops and restaurants. Sun Studios, where music producer Sam Phillips worked with Elvis, Jerry Lee Lewis, Carl Perkins and others, opened as a tourist attraction in 1985. The studio for Stax Records, known for Otis Redding and others, has been reborn as a slick multimedia museum of the label’s distinctive Memphis soul sound. And “Memphis in May,” a monthlong event that includes a music festival and barbecue contest at a park along the Mississippi River, now attracts tens of thousands of people.
Graceland, located about a 20-minute drive from downtown Memphis on a hill in the Whitehaven community, remains focused on Elvis’ life and music. Visitors walk through the house in a line, passing through the living room, dining room, kitchen and the famed Jungle Room, where the King held court. Gold records gleam on the wall of a long hallway. His Army uniform and outfits he wore in movies and concerts are displayed in another room.
Outside, tourists — some crying — file past the graves of Elvis, his mother, father and grandmother. The burial site, adorned with flowers, includes a fountain. The 11-acre property is surrounded by stately trees and landscaping that includes colored lights illuminating the mansion at night.
Recent visitors included Orlis Dow, 77, who drove with two friends to Memphis in a motor home from Mineral Wells, Texas. Dow says he liked Elvis — he recalls watching the young singer on a small black and white TV — and points out that he was married on Jan. 8, Elvis’ birthday.
Dow bought a replica Elvis driver’s license and a shot glass to take home with him. He says the permanence of Graceland’s popularity is a tribute to the performer’s talent and ability to connect with fans.
“It’s just a phenomenon,” Dow said. “He had a gift, and he used it in the right way.”
Graceland’s draw has long had a spillover effect on the Memphis economy, with visitors spending money on hotel rooms, dining and other things. In the mid-1980s, travel expenditures in Memphis were estimated at about $1 billion; in 2011, with many more local attractions for tourists to see, travel expenditures exceeded $3 billion, according to the Memphis Convention & Visitors Bureau.
The idea of opening Graceland to the public came to Priscilla Presley after Elvis’ father Vernon died in 1979 and she was thrust into the role of managing the estate. “I realized as it was going on that there really wasn’t any money that could support Graceland or any of the people that worked for Elvis that were still there,” she said. “I had a decision to make to somehow save Graceland.”
She initially reached out to Morgan Maxfield, a Kansas City-based financier, but after he died in a plane crash, his business partner, Soden, stepped in. “The one really clear, passionate voice for ‘Don’t let go of Graceland, don’t let go of the artifacts,’ was Priscilla,” Soden said.
They met, planned and visited other homes-turned-museums, like Thomas Jefferson’s house at Monticello and Thomas Edison’s home. By 1982, they were ready to open, with Priscilla Presley’s idea of keeping everything in the home the same as it was when Elvis was alive still intact.
To augment the $500,000 investment, they pre-sold tickets, generating enough money to buy uniforms for the tour guides. The first month was such a success that they made back the half-million dollars in about 38 days, Soden said. The visitors center was built later with exhibits including his favorite cars and the Lisa Marie, his private plane, plus a cafe and gift shops selling Elvis memorabilia, from T-shirts to bobble-head dolls. Future plans include $50 million in improvements to Elvis Presley Boulevard and other infrastructure near Graceland.
“I’m blown away by the mere fact that it’s 30 years,” Priscilla Presley said. “It’s been incredible to see that the legacy of Elvis is still going strong. We wouldn’t have imagined that when it was opened in 1982. Elvis is as popular now as he was then, if not even more.”