MEMPHIS, Tenn. (WMC) - Perched atop a tiny hill in the heart of Whitehaven along Elvis Presley Boulevard is "Graceland: The Home of Elvis Presley."
Nearly 43 years after the King of Rock ’n’ Roll’s death, 600,000 fans still flock to the National Historic Landmark each year for a glimpse into Elvis’ life, but they only see a fraction of his collection.
For the first time, Graceland allowed our cameras behind-the-curtain to show you a rare side of Graceland that only family, staff and VIPs have seen ... until now.
The pink Cadillac, bedazzled jumpsuits and “Lisa Marie” jet are hallmarks of the Graceland museum collection. What is not on display is what goes on behind-the-scenes to keep the 120 sprawling acres of everything Elvis fresh and new.
“We have over 1.5 million items in our collection, which includes 90,000 images, 5,000 pairs of clothes, eight of those are jumpsuits,” chuckled Graceland’s Vice President of Archives Angie Marchese.
Marchese knows the King inside and out. She started out as a summer tour guide at Graceland 30 years ago.
She recently allowed our camera inside Graceland’s artifact building.
“We’re now in a top secret location. It’s where we house our most sensitive parts of the collection. The documents, our wardrobe, our photos,” Marchese said.
The building is earthquake-proof, tornado-proof, climate-controlled at 68 degrees all year long and 45% to 50% humidity. It’s also equipped with a fire suppression system.
“It really hasn’t been opened to many people,” Marchese said. “Some of the celebrities who have been here are people like Oprah. She was here and Paul McCartney’s been back here. He got a chance to tune one of Elvis’ guitars.”
On one side of the room are meticulous files Elvis’ dad, Vernon, saved of every purchase his son made, from household bills to painting Graceland to buying cars and clothes, even bank statements. Receipts show Elvis sent flowers to his mother’s grave every week.
On the other side of the room are files Elvis’ manager, Col. Tom Parker, saved from the entertainment side of things: Contracts for concerts, movies and every document from all of Elvis’ other gigs.
The documents serve as a blueprint for Marchese’s team to bring Elvis’ exhibits to life. Each exhibit is inspired by a theme.
“It could be an anniversary of an event in Elvis’ career,” Marchese explained.
The team combs the archives and finds pieces to turn the story into a living snapshot of the King’s life.
Marchese walks into a room called the Archive Studio where staff is ironing one of Elvis’ costumes and conditioning his leather stage shoes.
“This is where we do a lot of our prep work. As a matter of fact, we are doing a lot of restoration work here right now,” Marchese said.
It can take days, months or years for an idea to become part of Graceland’s 90,000 square feet of exhibition space.
"One story that we’ve been throwing around for awhile, which hasn’t come to fruition yet, but it kind of describes things in our collection and it’s called 'Bibles and Bullets and Things Elvis Shot,’” Marchese laughed.
Elvis’ most precious white-glove possessions are not on display.
Marchese unlocked a chest where Graceland keeps his ultra VIP collection: Elvis’ signature gold TCB sunglasses, presidential cuff links gifted to Elvis from President Nixon, a presidential pendent Nixon had Elvis give Priscilla, a 121 quarter-cut diamond cross on a necklace his ex-girlfriend Linda Thompson gave him in 1973, a gold rotary car phone, Elvis’ sheriff’s and police badges and more.
Marchese explains that Elvis was an honorary Shelby County deputy and a Memphis Police captain who could even pull people over.
“Can you imagine an officer is pulling you over so you’re already stressed, right? And then you look up and it’s Elvis Presley asking for your driver’s license and registration,” said Marchese.
With only 10% of the Elvis' items now on display, there is no telling how long it will take to tell his whole story. As new items are always in rotation, you’ll rarely visit the same museum.
In fact, ESPN recently asked Graceland about Elvis’ love of football. They found so much material in the archives, they opened a full exhibit: “Xs & Os: Elvis and His Love of Football.”
It has Elvis’ playbook, a sports book he shot a bullet through, videos, photos and more of the time when he had a flag football team.
With the 2020 election year, an Elvis presidential exhibit is on the way.
“Out of every photograph in the National Archives, the one of Elvis and Nixon is the most requested,” Marchese said.
Marchese says parsing through the archives is not overwhelming if you break it down into different parts of his life.
“You have ’50s Elvis, the ’60s Elvis, you have Army Elvis, this is football Elvis," she said. "There are so many different aspects to his life, you can narrow it down and not have to tell the whole story in one exhibit. You can have several exhibits.
“It keeps it new for visitors, and then we can revisit things as we’re finding information in the collection or as we’re learning things or doing interviews with people, we can revisit exhibits and revamp them, adapt them, add new content because of stuff we just discovered,” said Marchese.
She hopes the efforts they’re taking now will ensure generations beyond her lifetime can’t help falling in love with Elvis.
“That they walk away feeling like Elvis is their next door neighbor, that they knew who this guy was. Not only the entertainer, but the person,” Marchese said with a smile.
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