Stories Of The South: Tours Of Graceland
Needless to say, the tour guides were constantly asked the same question: "Is he alive and living upstairs?"
"No ma'am, I promise. Elvis is not living upstairs."
For two long, hot teenage summers at Graceland, those words were familiar to me as "yes, the slaw goes on the barbecue sandwich."
There are those who still expect Elvis to walk out the door, get in a Cadillac, and drive through the gates. I know. I was a tour at Graceland.
Elvis had always been a part of my world, even though I was too young to realize the effect he was making in music. To me, he was no international phenomenon. He was a neighbor. When he died in August 1977, it was as if a family friend had passed away. I had no idea what he meant to thousands of people until the summer of 1988. That's when I started the summer job that would introduce me to the King of Rock 'n' Roll and his fans.
The role of guide involved a uniform. It was a typical early eighties number designed when preppy was prime–navy slacks or skirt and a light blue short-sleeved, button-down shirt. Completing the look were a navy tie, Rockport shoes, and support hose.
Don't forget that a cool summer day in Memphis reaches 93 degrees–not counting a 100-plus-degree heat index. But the heat didn't deter anyone. Attendance on my first Fourth of July weekend set a record. The book Is Elvis Alive? had just been published, so curiosity was at a peak. People came by the thousands to see if the book had merit.
Needless to say, the tour guides were constantly asked the same question: "Is he alive and living upstairs?" Sometimes it hurt to tell some sweet lady who'd been saving up for months to buy a ticket, "No ma'am, I'm afraid he's not." Strange questions were common. One lady standing in line to tour Elvis' private plane glanced around and asked anxiously, "How long will we be up?" Bless her heart, she assumed that a ticket to the plane meant a ride.
The end of the tour–the "Meditation Garden," where Elvis and his family members are buried or memorialized–was a breaking point for some. People cried and tossed flowers or other mementos on the granite markers. One fellow cried and screamed until he had to be escorted down the driveway by the guards. And this wasn't even international tribute week.
Such scenes were not well thought of at Graceland. For many fans, the tour was serious business, not unlike a trip to the Holy Land. Armed with trivia of all types, a tour guide could just cite some obscure fact about Elvis and gain complete control of the group.
They were awed at the fact that he was a generous philanthropist, giving enormous sums to charities during his lifetime. They oohed when told that he paid for Graceland in cash at the tender age of 21, and they stared in disbelief at the floor-to-ceiling carpet lining the Jungle Room. (Elvis personally selected the room's funky, fake-fur furnishings from a local store during one of his buying sprees.) It was fun confirming the stories about Cadillacs purchased for lucky strangers and frequent strolls to the gates to sign autographs.
It's been 10 years since my last visit to Graceland. I've heard they don't even use tour guides anymore, just those museum headsets that talk to you via audiotape. Much like LP records, tour guides have become a thing of the past.
We were important then–all-knowing souls who were blessed with a job that required being at Graceland all day. We were useful, too, if only to console those who questioned Elvis' demise or inquired about his current whereabouts.
"Is he alive?" they'd ask. Maybe it was wishful thinking on their part. After all, he is The King.