Elvis Sightings

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By Jennifer Huget
Special to The Washington Post
Sunday, August 4, 2002

Next week tens of thousands of Elvis Presley fans will converge on Memphis for a frenzy of events orchestrated by the folks who run Graceland, Presley's mansion-cum-tourist attraction, to commemorate the 25th anniversary of the King's death.

A hundred miles to the south, the town of Tupelo, Miss., will mark Presley's Aug. 16, 1977, passing in a quieter way. Wisely avoiding competition with Graceland's events, Tupelo holds its Fan Appreciation Day on Aug. 9, with four hours of events centered on Presley's birthplace. There'll be a dedication ceremony for a statue of Elvis at age 13, some rock-and-roll and gospel music, and a story-swapping session where the few remaining Tupelonians with any ties to Elvis will share their memories.

Tupelo's little Elvis-fest alone probably wouldn't warrant a trip from Washington. But if you're already doing Graceland (and everybody should, at least once), a half-day's journey to Tupelo is well worth the 90-minute drive down U.S. Highway 78 -- especially with the South's cheap gas.

And for those who want to see the whole arc of Elvis's life, not just the bloated Graceland end of it, Tupelo offers a glimpse at origins almost too humble to be believed.

At the heart of the Tupelo experience is Elvis's birthplace, a little white house nestled in a bend in the road on a modest residential street (now named Elvis Presley Drive). Built in 1934 by Elvis's father, Vernon, for 180 borrowed dollars, the Presley home was one of a cluster of shacks built along the edge of the farm on which Vernon was a sharecropper.

A new visitors center behind the house, easily 10 times larger than the attraction it serves, features a gift shop and the "Times and Things Remembered" museum. You have to go there to buy your ticket for the birthplace, so you might as well go through the museum and shop while you're at it.

Most of the museum's artifacts, sparsely arrayed in a single room lined with glass cases, were donated by Elvis friend Janelle McComb, who's not shy about sharing such Janelle-centric objects as her copy of a poem she wrote for Presley daughter Lisa Marie's fourth birthday -- complete with Elvis tearstains -- and a photo of Janelle talking on the phone. It was, of course, snapped by the King himself.

A pair of sneakers is vaguely identified as representative of the clothes Elvis wore as a young man; when asked if they actually belonged to him, a guide says, "Oh, yes. He ordered them from Sears, Roebuck." Okay. A few steps away, a radio is labeled "Old RCA Radio."

More compelling items include the hammer Vernon used to build his house; Gladys and Vernon's signed Elvis fan club membership cards (Dad was in the King's Klan; Mom was in the Sideburn Set); and Elvis's seventh-grade report card. "He didn't do all that great that year," the guide notes.

The museum's star attraction is a hotel towel an Elvis fan stole and preserved, while still "soaking wet," in her freezer for 17 years -- until the museum opened, prompting her to share her treasure with the world. Hanging next to the towel are two pilfered coffee cups, each with a smear of coffee residue. The King's coffee? No telling.

In a trick learned at Graceland's knee, the museum (which is operated under a license from Elvis Presley Enterprises) empties into the gift shop, where the merchandise is much like the stuff you get at Graceland -- only there's less of it. Potholders with recipes for fried peanut-butter-and-banana sandwiches. "Taking Care of Business -- in a Flash" golf balls. Guitar-shape decoupage clocks.

One corner of the store does offer a few Tupelo-specific wares: mugs, tote bags, tie tacks and the like. But both the museum and the gift shop give you the feeling that the site's not quite content to serve as a contemplative counterpoint to Graceland's glitz: It's opted instead to become part of Elvis Inc. Next thing you know, there'll be shag carpeting on the ceiling.

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© 2002 The Washington Post Company

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