Pilgrims in the funhouse

I’ve never thought of myself as an Elvis Presley fan, despite the fact that I love his silly songs, especially Jailhouse Rock and Teddy Bear. So why did I find myself drawn to Graceland, like a moth to a flame? Was it actually the subconscious lure of the Paul Simon song, not Elvis at all? “I’m goin’ to Graceland, Graceland, Memphis Tennessee, I’m goin’ to Graceland…”

The truth is, I was drawn to Graceland because it’s the quintessential icon of American tourism. I wanted to revel in a real tourist Mecca, a gaudy shrine for pilgrims in Bermuda shorts. I prepared myself for something tacky and űber-commercial, where tourists would gladly part with their money. Although I, too, am an American tourist, I planned to have a stronger grip on my wallet than the rest of the poor fools.

We arrived in the evening and camped at an RV park on Teddy Bear Lane, behind the Heartbreak Hotel. In the morning, we broke camp and queued up for tickets by 9. The first tour available to us, since we had no reservations, was two hours later, and Barry was seriously bummed.

Not me, however. I’d spied the row of gift shops, and I knew there were hours of entertainment to be found on their shelves.

A casual circuit of the first shop took me past pink vinyl rhinestone-encrusted purses, Elvis refrigerator magnets, etched wineglasses, and flip-flops (heavily discounted, evidently more flop than flip). I was headed for the postcards, and what I found was a delight. In addition to pictures of the interior and exterior of the house, there was a whole series of postcards with Elvis’ favorite recipes. Each card had a recipe for fried peanut butter-and-banana sandwiches, meatloaf, or barbecue sauce, alongside a photo of the slim, attractive young Elvis. The later fat Elvis would have been more honest, but less likely to be hung upon anyone’s refrigerator.

In a second shop, we saw more rhinestones, on copies of Elvis’ elaborate costumes. They run thousands of dollars, but I’m sure there are plenty of impersonators who buy them as a business expense. There were also musical teddy bears, clocks with pendulums of Elvis’ swinging hips, beach towels with life-sized pictures, and framed photographs. I looked everywhere, but I didn’t see any portraits painted on black velvet.

When we finally emerged into daylight, I’d been fairly restrained: Only seven postcards and a bumper sticker emerged with me.

In front of the shops, we joined the throng of ticket holders. Uniformed employees distributed audio devices and then ushered us onto buses for the very short ride across the street and up the driveway.

We disembarked in front of the front door, fumbling with our headsets. The house was nothing special, just a simple Southern brick structure with tidy landscaping and a couple of stone lions on either side of the door. As we entered, in a group of about 20, I took a deep breath, expecting to be thrown into some sort of fun house experience. I was surprised by the formal elegance of the front rooms.

Then came the kitchen, where the decor was frozen in the 1970’s. The crazy kitchen carpet and outdated fixtures reminded me of my parents’ kitchen during that era. The audio guide featured a clip of Lisa-Marie Presley, reminiscing about how the kitchen always had someone in it, 24 hours a day. I poked Barry and whispered, “Somebody had to be frying Elvis’ peanut butter-and-banana sandwiches!”

Just around the corner, the funhouse aspect began. The stairs to the basement were completely mirrored, so that you could enjoy infinite reflections of yourself. At the bottom, we found what today would be called the “media room.” More mirrors on the ceiling, a wet bar, a hi-fi and a few records, and three TVs, small by today’s standards. Elvis was ahead of his time in one thing — he wanted to watch “all three networks” at the same time. Poor guy, he didn’t live long enough for cable TV and wireless remote controls.

The busy patterns of the pool table room assaulted my eyes, and it was a relief to move up the stairs to the jungle room, with green shag carpet on the ceiling. And then we were through the house, and the audio guide was telling us about the backyard. Not even a peek at Elvis’ bedroom.

It wasn’t over. There was still the office, then all the exhibits. We followed Elvis’ career from beginning to end, including promotional posters, many gold records, a few Grammies (all in the Gospel category), movie memorabilia, and a section about his musical comeback in the 70’s. I found one display interesting — 40 checks, each for $1000, written on the same day to 40 different charitable causes.

Finally, emerging from the dim racquetball court-turned-museum, we were shepherded to Elvis’ grave. The mood was somber, but that didn’t prevent all the tourists, including us, from taking pictures of the sacred tombstone. We did, however, refrain from phooning.

When Elvis died, his father didn’t intend to enshrine his son on the property. He had him buried in a regular cemetary, near his mother. But a few months later, they both were reinterred. I’m guessing that grief-crazed fans were making a nuisance of themselves at the cemetary; at the house, the graves could be properly watched over.

Two days later, we’d put Graceland behind us, or so we thought. We drove to Asheville, North Carolina, where our gracious, lively, and fun friend Julie lives. She works for the Biltmore, the largest private residence in the United States.

Barry and I were especially grateful for complimentary tickets to the Biltmore. It’s twice as expensive as Graceland. It’s also about a hundred times bigger, and the furnishings are about a hundred years older. Despite the ludicrous differences, though, we couldn’t stop making comparisons between the two estates.

Elvis bought Graceland when he was 22 and single. George Vanderbilt began the Biltmore when he was in his 20s, too, and single. Both have a pair of stone lions on either side of the front door. Both have a hotel and many gift shops, and both employ a lot of people. Both have a pool table — the Biltmore has two — and both have a swimming pool. Both are full of tourists, gawking at the lives of the rich and famous.

Both are owned by descendants, too. In the Biltmore, there is a large painting of the family members who currently own it, three or four generations of conventional-looking folks with their poodle. There is no such painting of Lisa-Marie’s family at Graceland, and the thought of her husband looking conventional makes me want to giggle.

Strolling the gardens and woods at the Biltmore, we found everything in bloom. The rolling hills were covered in a freshly-leafed shade of spring green, and the property was so vast that we walked for a couple of hours. We passed the camera back and forth, trying to capture the feel of the world-class landscape architecture, with features on a scale with Central Park. Then we turned our attention to the giant house.

I especially liked the vast dining hall and the library, which felt European and Medieval. We shuffled through elegant bedroom after bedroom, admiring paintings by famous artists. Then we made our way past the servant’s quarters, commercial-sized kitchens and laundry rooms, swimming pool and bowling alley.

But something felt off-kilter. Inside the house, away from the grounds, I was disturbed by the commercialism. There seemed to be a sugarcoated “buy, buy, buy” message, as if simply purchasing a ticket wasn’t enough to support this private historical edifice. Maybe I was feeling guilty because we hadn’t purchased our tickets. I did my obligatory gift shop circuit — home furnishings, sweatshirts, dip mixes, wine, and chocolates — but only purchased a handful of postcards.

How could it be that at Graceland, I’d expected űber-commercial, and then been treated as a guest? At the Biltmore, I expected to feel like a guest, and instead I found űber-commercial. Was I a victim of my own expectations?

Graceland isn’t a big, grand place. There’s a tongue-in-cheek feeling, a sense of humor about this lucky guy’s house that became a tourist Mecca. It’s a fun house, not just a funhouse. The Biltmore is the legacy of another lucky guy, someone who inherited so much money he didn’t know what to do with it. But the operation is so vast, it requires a superhuman amount of effort to maintain. There’s a hint of the blue blood legacy.

Given my choice, I’d rather inherit Graceland.