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Enjoy & Learn

The legend lives

January 8th and August 16th are the two most important dates for Elvis Presley’s fans. The former is his birthday, the latter–the day of his death. Elvis was born in Tupelo, a small town in Mississippi, and died at his residence in Memphis, Tennessee. Both Tupelo and Memphis are still full of his memories.

The little house in which Presley was born has been renovated. But it doesn’t look like a museum. Quite the contrary. The guardians of his legend have made sure the house doesn’t look any different than it did years ago. The porch swing, rocked by gusts of wind, still looks as though someone has just got up from it. Soft sounds of music are heard from inside through an open window. The lights still go on and off in the evenings, just like in any other house in the neighbourhood. Only the commemorative plaque out front reveals it’s a historic place.

The famous and much larger Memphis residence, in turn, was bought in March 1957 and named Graceland by Presley himself. The 14-acre plot of land with an 18-room mansion is now a museum officially listed in the National Register of Historic Places by the US Department of the Interior. It’s also the second most visited tourist attraction in America after the White House. Since its opening in July 1982, Graceland has been a real modern-day Mecca for music lovers. Almost a million tourists come to visit the place a year. Seven days a week, every ten minutes, a new group of visitors from all over the world sets out for a tour of the residence. The programme includes the house, the meditation garden and the museum of Presley’s cars and planes. The dozens of souvenir shops are also obligatory points on the tour. You may sign your name in a very peculiar “visitor’s book”–the stone wall surrounding Graceland. If you can still find an inch of space left, that is.

You need at least 90 minutes to see it all. And there is so much to see! There’s the recording studio with a collection of Presley’s records. There’s the billiards room, the music room with all his 110 gold and platinum records on display, and there is the dressing room with his famous stage costumes. Outside the mansion itself, the memory garden is certainly worth visiting, too. The Memphis authorities agreed to move the Presley family vault here from the local cemetery after crowds of fans trampled the neighbouring graves each year on the anniversary of the King’s death. Now Elvis is buried next to his nearest and dearest–his grandmother, mother and father

The museum of “Presleymobiles” features his famous pink 1955 Cadillac, a green 1954 Continental Mark II and a 1973 Stutz Blackhawk. There’s also his Harley Davidson motorcycle and scores of other vehicles once owned by the King. Outside the museum stands the Hound Dog Lockheed II JetStar, the plane that Elvis used to travel with his family. The Lisa Marie Jet, an airplane named after Presley’s daughter and in its day the second largest jet of this kind after Airforce One, is also displayed in the museum yard.

When the guided tour ends, visitors are given time to walk around Graceland on their own. You may choose to watch fragments of Presley movies and concerts at the in-house cinema, but–like most tourist–you will probably end up sooner or later in one of the souvenir shops. Some will be satisfied with a mere Elvis key-ring or coffee mug, but others won’t leave before ordering a custom-made
Elvis costume. Most visitors buy records, though. The rich collectors look for limited-edition vinyl LP’s, the younger fans tend to buy Greatest Hits CDs. For the record industry, Elvis lives. He is still the best-selling artist in music history, even ahead of The Beatles. The King of Rock and Roll recorded 655 songs and his records have sold over a billion copies! And this figure is growing daily.

In 1988, Elvis was allegedly seen in a Burger King in Michigan. A few months later, “The New York Times” wrote that he had been spotted while shopping at a supermarket in Vicksburg. “Elvis lives” became America’s top conspiracy theory. Meanwhile, the US Postal Service released a stamp with Presley’s portrait. It proved the most profitable idea in the history of the American post. The stamp sold 500 million copies! The alleged Elvis sightings became favourite front-page stories, not only of the tabloid press. An Internet network has recently reported that Presley was seen at a Democratic Party convention. His biggest fans refuse to believe in their idol’s death and keep asking questions. A sample: Presley’s daughter was supposed to inherit his fortune after turning 18, so why did she get the money only at the age of 25? Who else could have changed the will but Elvis himself, eh? Why was Presley’s face covered for his funeral so that even his barber couldn’t see it while trimming the corpse’s hair? Why wasn’t his post-mortem photo included in the official inheritance documents even though Elvis was certainly photographed after death?

One theory has it that Elvis Presley didn’t die but instead decided to disappear because he was wanted by the Mafia. Just like many other American careers in show business, Presley’s success was supposedly helped by dirty mob money. Afraid that this debt might be called in one day, Presley arranged his own death and vanished. Another version is that he worked for the FBI, tracking down drug dealers, who then put him on their death list in revenge. Consequently, he was put under the witness protection programme, given a new identity and appearance and secretly moved to a small town in Indiana, where he’s said to be living happily to this day. In his book “Is Elvis Alive?”, Steven Chanze maintains that the King’s death was staged. One of Presley’s doubles (he was known to have two exact look-alikes) was buried in his place. Elvis himself lives a prosperous life with his friend Ginger on a paradise island near Costa Rica. His fortune is still growing, by the way. It turns out Elvis is worth more dead than alive. Once, only records and tickets to his concerts or movies were sold. Now, the big bucks come from the publishing copyrights, film and record licences as well as gadget and merchandise rights. Lisa Marie and her Elvis Presley Enterprises earns the most, but anyone ready to invest can be handsomely rewarded. For example, when Presley’s original tombstone was auctioned, its buyer cut it into 44,000 pieces and sold them for 80 dollars each, thus earning over 3.5 million dollars. You can buy a 4x4 cm piece of Presley’s bed sheet for a mere 10 dollars or a collection of his sunglasses for a slightly less modest sum of 3,000 dollars. There is even an organization lobbying for the right to . . . clone Elvis for future generations of fans who would in this way have a chance to hear their idol live.

For many Elvis freaks, the fact that the King’s middle name is misspelt on a Graceland information board (Aron instead of Aaron) is the best and most obvious signal that he is alive. In fact, Elvis does live. In books and diaries, on the radio, television and the Internet, in movies, records, cassettes, CDs . . . And above all–in the kingdom of universal gossip. He lives. Legends never die.

Ryszard Wolański


translation by Jerzy Chyb

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