LAS VEGAS, NV. Elvis is back in the building with a new exhibit of artifacts from the Graceland archives. Fans and tourists walk through a life size timeline of Elvis Presley’s life from Tupelo to Memphis highlighting his humble beginnings to his famed cultural impact on American music and it’s effects on people who would become lifelong fans.
The exhibit’s timeline begins in Tupelo, MS where the Presley family was just another poverty stricken family trying to put food on the table. The nation was still ravaged by the Great Depression (1929-1939) and jobs were scarce. One of the displays holds three 4×6 yellow note cards written by Vernon to Gladys while he served a short prison sentence for check fraud. It captured the desperation of the family during those formative years of the young Elvis who was destined to never want of money again.
[Elvis] never wore jeans. He said they reminded him of the shabby work clothes his poor family had to wear back in Tupelo. George Klein interview. The Daily Mail. http://dailym.ai/1F77AhG Aug 14 2010.
The exhibit courses through the elementary and high school years. The school years highlight his average academia pursuits typical of a kid who just wants to get out of school so he can play. Two pictures from this section of the exhibit struck me as very interesting. The first picture is a group of high school boys dressed in formal military clothing. I wondered if Elvis was a patriotic youth or just wanted to wear clothes that didn’t show his poverty. Maybe a bit of both. The other picture is Elvis with another boy, an unnamed high school friend. There wasn’t a description of the picture to tell us who the young man is, but the picture captured the body language in an affectionate pose expressing how much Elvis valued his friendships. We now know how important these relationships were to Elvis who constantly had his friends around him.
Moving forward, the exhibit leaps into Elvis’ fame and fortune beginning with Sun Records and the Louisiana Hayride and ending with his career transitioning to the genius of Colonel Tom Parker’s management. In this part of the exhibit are a handful of promotional products which made $22 million in six months – equivalent to $193,000,000 in today’s value. It is an astronomical figure for that era. Elvis became the first branded celebrity who’s image was marketed for enormous profits making him the most recognizable celebrity in the world to this day. Elvis feared he would be forgotten, especially when Uncle Sam conscripted him for a brief tour of duty in the Army. But the Colonel, RCA records, and millions of fans would never let him disappear into the annals of music history.
Fame and fortune allowed Elvis to buy the things he wanted. The commercial carpeting of the exhibit for high foot traffic changes to the luxurious, thick, white carpet seen when you enter the Graceland exhibit. Here is the extravagance of the King of Rock & Roll on display, but here is also Elvis, the family man, with displays of Mr. & Mrs. Presley’s wedding china, Lisa Marie’s clothes and other items when she was just an infant and toddler. As I looked around at the intimate displays, snapping pictures, I catch myself saying, “Elvis, maybe you should have quit and just been a husband and father.”
We wouldn’t let Elvis concede himself into obscurity to become just a family man and neither would Hollywood. The most bankable music entertainer now became the most bankable actor. His movies are often lambasted for their cookie cutter formula about a handsome guy pursuing a gorgeous girl and woos her with music for a happily ever after. However, there are some gems showing Elvis had the acting instincts of James Dean and Marlon Brando – Love Me Tender, Jailhouse Rock, King Creole – all showed his unrequited acting potential. The movie exhibit captures all the charm and screen charisma in both the great movies and the ones he made just to make money. The films are overly, negatively criticized and under appreciated. I guess that’s because the public wanted a singer and that’s what he gave us.
The final two exhibit sections are the ’68 Comeback Special and the touring years. It’s my favorite part of the exhibit, but I suppose that’s because I was old enough to know who Elvis was in the 1970’s and can relate to the era.
On display is the stained, yellowed, table cloth contract Col. Tom Parker negotiated with the hotel’s owners for engagements from 1970-1973. The International Hotel owners had the foresight to see Elvis’ resurgence in popular culture after the TV special that he would bring the fans and money to their hotel. If they didn’t pick him up some other entertainment venue would. Smart.
Other artifacts on display are the iconic jumpsuits including the first prototype, white jumpsuit with macrame belt. It is modestly plain and reminds us in the beginning it was about the man and the music. The raw power of voice, charisma, and music beautifully wrapped up in a single human being shined and the jumpsuit was just a backdrop and functioning stage uniform allowing Elvis to command the stage with instinctive entertainment ability and movement. As the jumpsuits became more elaborate, more flashy, more gaudy it seemed Elvis had become lost in the image and the music suffered as did Elvis.
…the image is one thing and the human being is another…it’s very hard to live up to an image.
The exhibit ends in a small movie theater with walls painted black and decorated with huge, iconic images of Elvis on stage in all his glory, bigger than life, rocking the world. I expected the short 26-minute movie to be a narrative recapping the life, legacy, and death of Elvis Presley, but instead the film was a conglomeration of Elvis singing on TV and on stage. The exhibitors let the music speak for itself and despite having seen all the clips hundreds of times, it was mesmerizing.
Say what you will about Graceland, EPE, Priscilla Presley, Lisa Marie, and Westgate, but their partnership for this exhibit is outstandingly perfect because it focuses on Elvis, his music, and the effect he had on his fans and the impact he had on American culture. It’s a different vibe than the artifacts on display in Memphis because at the end of the Graceland tour is the grave site and you leave with a melancholy joy and a headache from the tension of choking back tears. The Westgate exhibit displays the best about Elvis when he reigned the hotel’s stage full of vibrant life and you leave wanting more.