For the Journal-Constitution
Sunday, December 21, 2008
Although Elvis Presley died 31 years ago, the king of rock ‘n’ roll is still rocking around the Christmas tree with a new holiday record. And Graceland, his royal digs in Memphis, is sporting spectacular holiday sparkle.
Guests making the pilgrimage to tour Graceland, Presley’s 14-acre estate, during the holidays get a little added gift with each visit. The staff has hauled out the holly and decorated both the house and the front lawn with many of the same decorations used by the King himself.
So while Elvis fans chalk up another blue Christmas without him, his enduring magic combines with his love for the holidays and permeates this rock mecca.
Let there be lights all around
For Presley, Christmas was a special time of year, and the tradition continues. On the evening of Nov. 21, hordes of fans braved the stinging 25-degree chill to watch country superstar Martina McBride flip the celebratory switch and turn on Graceland’s Christmas-light display.
McBride, one of a roster of hot country stars who sings Christmas songs along with Presley on the new CD of musical mashups, “Elvis Presley Christmas Duets,” was also joined by actress Marlo Thomas and her brother, Tony. The Thomas siblings were on hand to announce a fund-raising campaign for St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital, an organization Presley supported.
As the lights came on, the Briarcrest Christian School marching band began pumping out some musical cheer as Santa, eyes blanketed in trademark Elvis-style shades, waved from the back of a vintage Cadillac that rolled down Graceland’s driveway.
Blue bulbs line Graceland’s curvy driveway and outline the house, a nod to Presley’s holiday hit “Blue Christmas.” A giant Nativity scene holds court in the middle of the yard, complete with life-size figures of shepherds, animals, the Wise Men, a manger and a bold shining star above. Santa and his reindeer appear to take flight beneath a massive sign that stretches across an upper portion of the lawn that proclaims: “Merry Christmas to All —- Elvis.” A green wreath shrouded in ribbon hangs on the front door. And eight vintage lighted Christmas trees —- in colors of orange, green, blue and red —- are next to the front steps. They are the same trees Presley would use each year. More holiday glow awaits inside.
Home for the holidays
When guests walk through the front door, they enter a foyer bursting with more holiday decor. To the right, the living room’s plush white carpet looks as stark as fallen snow. A white artificial tree with white lights and red and gold ball decorations stands near the sprawling white couch, a bundle of wrapped presents nestle underneath the tree. Matching red curtains with white trim that Presley would break out just for the holidays hang in the living room behind the couch.
The red curtain theme continues across the foyer and into the dining room, where a tree with multicolored lights serves as the focal point. A child’s toy —- a musical merry-go-round globe —- that was given to Presley’s daughter, Lisa Marie, when she was a child sits on the table next to a place setting. And a nearby flat-screen monitor shows film footage shot in that room during Christmas. Presley’s father, Vernon, is dressed as Santa Claus, and a toddler-age Lisa Marie is seen receiving said globe.
The famous jungle room, Presley’s Hawaiian and tiki-inspired den featuring lavish wooden furniture, lush green shag carpet and a trickling fountain, has its own tree with a rainbow palette of lights. Toys that were given to Lisa Marie, including a massive stuffed Winnie the Pooh, pile around the tree.
The holiday theme is sprinkled throughout the rest of the tour. In his father’s office, in an adjacent building behind the house, Christmas cards sent to Presley from the likes of singer Pat Boone and others are splayed across a small table.
Gift that keeps on giving
The tour includes a jaunt through other buildings on the Graceland grounds. The trophy room houses many pieces from Presley’s signature wardrobe, including the radiant gold lame suit from the ’50s, outfits from the acclaimed 1968 NBC-TV Christmas special and jumpsuits galore.
A hall of gold records displays not only Presley’s prolific output, but also his countless accomplishments as an artist.
Across from Graceland, visitors can check out Presley’s cars and his two airplanes, as well as the new Private Presley exhibit, which explores Presley’s service in the U.S. Army.
> Graceland’s lawn light display is visible from the street. For a closer look, schedule your mansion visit for later in the day. If your tour ends at or after dusk, you’ll be able to see the Nativity scene and Santa banner in full glow from the tour bus.
> You can pay your respects to the King at no charge. From 7:30 to 8:30 a.m. Wednesdays through Mondays in December, guests can walk up the Graceland driveway and visit Meditation Garden for free. Although the mansion will be closed most Tuesdays in December, Meditation Garden will be open from 7:30 a.m. to 4 p.m. on those days.
Q&A / GEORGE KLEIN: member of Memphis Mafia
Elvis at Christmastime: ‘He was like a little boy’
Q: What was Christmas like at Graceland when Elvis was alive?
A: It was the happiest time of the year for Elvis. Elvis loved Christmastime. He couldn’t wait until the season began. He was like a little boy and couldn’t wait until the decorations went up. They’re almost exactly like they were when Elvis was here. They’ve kept almost everything intact. And there are a lot of funny stories. Around the winding driveway you’ll see little blue lights outlining the driveway. Now if you come into an airport, normally they have blue lights out there [on the landing strip]. And the airport is only probably three miles from Graceland. When we first did that, some of the pilots coming in thought it was a small landing strip or something.
Q: How did you celebrate Christmas with Elvis?
A: The Christmas tree behind the dining room table was the main Christmas tree in the house. … About a week before Christmas we would bring our gifts up and put them under the tree ourselves. When I say “we,” I mean the Memphis Mafia guys, the inner circle, the family. … We would all gather at the house about 9:30 or 10 p.m. on Christmas Eve. It would probably be 10 Memphis Mafia guys and their wives, maybe seven or eight relatives, Elvis’ family, his father, Priscilla and close friends. Around 11 or so, Elvis would start opening up gifts. He would have Patsy Presley, his double first cousin, write down what you gave him. She’d write down a clock, a jacket, a gun or whatever and write your name by it. Then he would give you his gift and have her write down what he gave you. Now Graceland saves everything. They’ve got four warehouses full of memorabilia, so I know [the lists are] somewhere.
IF YOU GO
Graceland. $10-$68. 10 a.m.-4 p.m. Wednesdays-Mondays; Holiday hours: 10 a.m.-4 p.m. Tuesday; 10 a.m.-2 p.m. Wednesday; closed Christmas Day; 9 a.m.-5 p.m. Friday-Dec. 30; 9 a.m.-4 p.m. Dec. 31. 3765 Elvis Presley Blvd., Memphis. 1-800-238-2000, [You must be registered and logged in to see this link.]
Memphis is a six-hour drive from Atlanta. Take 1-20 West into Alabama, then U.S. 78 West into Mississippi and into Tennessee. Take Tenn. 175 West and then I-55 North toward downtown Memphis.
Delta and AirTran Airways both fly nonstop from Atlanta to Memphis.
Where to stay
Heartbreak Hotel is part of the Graceland complex, and it’s conveniently located across the street. Standard rooms are $110-$140 per night; snazzy themed suites range from $545 to $575. 3677 Elvis Presley Blvd., Memphis. 901-332-3322, [You must be registered and logged in to see this link.]
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