Food Feature: Elvis is everywhere

A death-day pilgrimage for the King

As of Aug. 16, it'll be 25 years since the King stopped making public appearances, except the occasional stop at a Waffle House or gas station. So it's a perfect time for a silver anniversary All-Things-Elvis pilgrimage.
First stop, Tupelo, Miss., birthplace of the King. Elvis' father borrowed $180 for materials to build a tiny two-room shack on the edge of town. It's not much to look at, but pictures of Elvis as a child give you a feeling for the mood of the time and place: dirt poor.

The museum on the grounds isn't worth the $5 admission for a room full of memorabilia, especially if you're going on to other Elvis destinations. But at the gift shop, you can pick up a "Driving Tour of Tupelo and Elvis" pamphlet that will guide you to the other Elvis-centric spots in Tupelo: Johnnie's Drive-In (Elvis' favorite hamburger stand); Lawhon Elementary School (where Elvis attended first through fifth grade. According to the plaque out front, "Here, his fifth-grade teacher entered Elvis in a local talent contest, where he won second place singing 'Old Shep.'"); Tupelo Hardware (where Elvis wanted a rifle, but his mother got him a guitar); Milam Junior High School (where Elvis attended sixth and seventh grades and part of eighth, making A's in music; the family then moved to Memphis). And to continue the pilgrimage, you should too.

Downtown Memphis is undergoing an impressive revival. Unfortunately, it has yet to spread more than a few blocks. Outside the regentrified zone, you can visit Sun Studios. From the tiny studio began a career that would make Elvis "the first protestant saint," as writer Camille Paglia put it. Just outside of town is Graceland, where you can see what the King did with his money circa 1977. Definitely go for the whole enchilada "platinum" option, including the mansion, the car museum, his two private jets and the documentary "Walk a Mile in My Shoes."

After catching the movie and hitting the four separate gift shops (each selling a slightly varied assortment of souvenirs such as Elvis cross-stitch kits, Elvis barbecue seasonings, Elvis mousepads, Elvis Christmas tree ornaments, Elvis beer steins, Elvis cookie jars, Elvis beach towels, Elvis shot glasses, Elvis T-shirts, and, of course Elvis teddy bears, it's time for the mecca of Elvisness — the Graceland mansion.

Elvis Presley Enterprises provides an audio headset tour that begins as soon as you step on the shuttle. But the real tour begins once the bus pulls through the ornate gates set in the wall of Alabama fieldstone, covered top to bottom and end to end with fans' graffiti.

Elvis decorated, and redecorated, each room of the manse in a different style. The problem is the last time it was redecorated was 1977, not a time known for its style. Nor was the decorator known for his good taste. The rooms shock the senses with yellow vinyl, green wall-to-wall shag carpet, an abundance of mirrors, gold trim and orange accessories.

One thing you won't get on the official tour or in the official guidebook is much dirt — no Elvis blasphemy allowed. They mention that Elvis and friends used to get rambunctious and ride their go-carts down the street once in a while, and they point out that one of the open sheds in back held targets for shooting practice. But there are no stories of the white-panty-clad all-girl wrestling matches.

Elvis is buried in the Meditation Garden next to the mansion. Despite what you might have heard, his middle name on his tombstone is not misspelled. It was misspelled on his birth certificate. So there.

For those who haven't had quite enough Elvis, there is the racquetball gym in back containing a collection of his famous jumpsuits and gold and platinum records, displayed like holy relics.

Another attraction is the fans, the serious ones, the ones who cry during the pre-tour movie, the ones who fall silent at his grave, the ones who bring candles to the vigil on the anniversary of his death (or disappearance, depending on just how hard-core the fan is). While some go for the kitsch value, others see differently. Very differently.

The final stop on our All-Things-Elvis pilgrimage was Graceland Too, a ramshackle house in Holly Springs, Miss., about an hour south of Memphis. Graceland Too's Paul McCloud has been an Elvis fanatic since before the death of the King. He even named his son Elvis Aaron Presley McCloud.

While Graceland may be the Mecca of the Elvis religion, Graceland Too is the Vatican Library. McCloud's ceilings are covered in Elvis trading cards, his walls covered in posters from all 31 of Elvis' films, and the floors are crowded with trunk after trunk of mentions of Elvis in magazines, newspapers and, perhaps, the most impressive and utterly useless collection in the house — videotapes. Paul and Elvis (McCloud) have a line of VCRs constantly recording every TV channel they can get. They review these tapes searching for any mention of Elvis and save and catalog each one.

As if that weren't enough, they photograph each person who visits Graceland Too, making each visitor part of the Elvis memorabilia. They display with pride the photos of the countless people who have visited the house, including an impressive collection of celebrities.

The McClouds claim to have many of Elvis' personal possessions, from cars to jewelry to clothes, but unfortunately, Paul McCloud was our tour guide the day we visited. Apparently when Elvis (McCloud) gives the tour, it's all about Elvis (Presley) and Graceland. But when Paul gives the tour it's more about Elvis (McCloud) and Graceland Too.

Confused? Not as confused as Paul's stories! He tells long tales with impossible-to-grasp connections. Each story starts the same, "Have you ever heard of (famous movie/celebrity/important historical event)?" And that — of course — can lead to karate, Elvis (Presley) and how one time a guy chopped Graceland Too's mailbox to pieces with his bare hands. If you're lucky, you'll get Elvis (McCloud) as a tour guide. His version of the tour includes tasty tidbits left out of the official Graceland tour. Like those bullet holes left in Lisa Marie's swing set when the King shot it up (look for them on the tour).

Graceland Too is open 24/7, just ring the bell. You might have to wake up one of the McClouds, but they say they've had visitors at all hours. "Just last week, I got up at 4 a.m. and there was a bunch of Japanese wanting to get in. They didn't speak a word of English. The limo driver had to translate."

No translation needed however for Elvis meaning King of Rock 'n' Roll.

Or, keep your pilgrimage close to home. Pay your respects Friday, Aug. 16, at the Star Bar, 437 Moreland Ave. An Elvis impersonator (9:30 p.m.) and Mike Geier and the Kingsized Elvis Tribute Show (10:30 p.m.) offer "an evening of burnin' love and feverish rememberance."

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