An Insider’s Tale From the Gates of Graceland

Graceland_Elvis_uniform

Hi, my name is Lance and I worked at Graceland. My paycheck came from Elvis Presley Enterprises and Priscilla Presley was my boss. I’m not a recovering addict but I am here today to admit that my Elvis fandom led me to take a college job for a year at Graceland, the iconic Memphis home of the late King of Rock ‘n’ Roll. As Elvis fans from around the world prepare to descend on my fair city for the annual pilgrimage known as Elvis Week, I feel it’s time to share my story, some 16 years later.

Why Graceland?

Would you rather sweat out your body weight loading a UPS truck in the Memphis heat, or share your love of your hometown with Elvis fans, music pilgrims and the curious travelers? That’s pretty much the decision I faced in the early summer of 1997, just after the conclusion of my sophomore year at the University of Memphis. Despite the role of audio tour guide at Graceland paying a dollar less an hour than my hard-working Teamsters job at UPS, I jumped at the chance to work at the home of Elvis.

Maybe it’s because I shared a birthday with Elvis — I was born on his last living birthday on Jan. 8, 1977. Maybe it’s the picture that shows where I was the day Elvis died: 7 months old in a crib playing with my 6-month-old cousin as our parents sat around listening to Elvis music marathons on the radio. Yes, Elvis really was and is a king to us Southerners. So much so that adults apparently sat around the radio mourning his passing.

Graceland Jungle Room

Passing on the Southern tradition that is Elvis to our son, here in the Jungle Room.

So I was and am an Elvis fan. I think even back in college I had a desire to immerse myself in travel experiences. And if that meant working at Graceland, the second-most visited house in the U.S. behind the White House, why not?

Where’s the glamour?

Back to that job as an audio tour guide. I often tell people I was a tour guide at Graceland. It sounds pretty cool. The reality is I worked in the plaza across Elvis Presley Boulevard from the mansion. I assisted guests with the audio tour guide they wore through the house, roamed the plaza answering questions, and tore tickets. I had a speech I could say in my sleep (and often did as I woke up from dreams saying it more than a few times). I even manned an information booth in the parking lot to provide information on the other attractions in Memphis.

Does all of that sound glamorous? It really wasn’t. But in spite of the heat and the goofy uniform (black shoes, black dress socks, black shorts with a 1950s era bowling shirt) it was pretty fun. There are certain Elvis songs I hear to this day that immediately take me back to those days roaming the plaza. A lot of those songs were recordings from his 1970s career, including “The Wonder of You.”

I enjoyed the conversations about Memphis and Elvis I had with guests, offering advice on where else to visit in the city, where to go for a run that evening, the best way to get to Downtown.

The days could be long, especially being at work at 7 a.m. as a college student. You know all the travel guides that say arrive early at a destination to avoid the crowds? Well, employees have to arrive even earlier. And it sucks. But someone had to be there to welcome all the guests.

Elvis Fans:

That word guest is a funny one. It stands out from my two days of employee orientation. Visitors to the mansion are referred to as guests. Never tourists. They are guests visiting the Presleys’ home. Elvis had a warm heart, always giving to his friends and strangers. So that vibe continues with the way visitors to Graceland are treated.

People who visit Graceland have a reputation for being a little loony. To those who have never visited there seems to be a stigma that the grounds are flooded with impersonators, men in their 50s and 60s walking around with large bellies poking out of tight white jumpsuits. Sure, a few of those guys are around but overall the Graceland guest is just like the traveler to any other destination.

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When I worked there I can recall seeing older couples who were teenagers when Elvis was swiveling his hips and just wanting to recall the days of their youth. I had conversations with young couples with kids passing through on their way south to the beach. They weren’t really Elvis fans, but they felt stopping in to check out the Jungle Room was a must-do thing for them in the days before everyone decided to create travel bucket lists. There were a few celebrities here and there, and tons of international visitors from Japan, England, France and Germany.

Employee rules:

There were probably several rules but here are a few that still stand out.

Never ask for an autograph: Country music singer Marty Stuart and his band came through the line one day. I welcomed his bandmates without much thought before recognizing Marty. I was caught aback, but could only smile and said something like, “Hey, nice to see you.” He smiled back, maybe relieved to see someone recognize him but not make a big deal about, and boarded the shuttle for the ride across the street. Celebrities passing through Memphis often make a stop at Graceland and they are treated like anyone else. They don’t get special tours or treatment. With that being said, I do wonder if when Sir Paul McCartney visited a few months back if he was allowed to go in alone. Or what about when President George W. Bush and the premier of Japan visited six or seven years ago, surely they were given special treatment.

Do not sell any part of the uniform: The penalty was death. Nah, not really but it was Graceland employee death. Sell any part of the uniform and lose the job. Yes, I had loads of offers. The most common one was for my name tag. Typically the offer would be $5, but sometimes it was as much as $20. The simple black magnetic tag had my name, the word “Graceland” and an outline of the mansion’s gates. A few offers here and there would come in for my uniform shirt too.

Yeah, I wore this shirt. And it's still in good shape in my garage.

Yeah, I wore this shirt. And it’s still in good shape in my garage.

Never go upstairs: People always asked if they could go upstairs, what’s upstairs, why can’t anyone go upstairs, stuff like that. I don’t know the real reason, but what we always told guests was out of respect for the family who still sometimes stays upstairs when visiting. That is true; unless it’s changed in the past 15 years, family members do still stay upstairs when visiting the city. When I was employed there Elvis’ daughter, Lisa Marie, owned the mansion (she still does) but her mother, Priscilla, ran the operation. And she did visit a couple of times a year.

 Working at Graceland was a pretty cool experience.

Having access to the very thick Elvis fact book behind the information counter, meeting all the visitors, being at a place that plays an important role in the history of modern music, even being around the quirky and weirdness that is Elvis and his fans. I think in some ways that summer and Christmas break spent working at one of pop culture’s most iconic tourist attractions in a way helped shape me as the traveler I am today. It certainly made me a more curious person.

Looking back on Graceland's pasture.

Looking back on Graceland’s pasture.

33 thoughts on “An Insider’s Tale From the Gates of Graceland

  1. There are plenty of “normal” tourists too, and loads from Europe. I enjoyed the conversations I had with the Brits, especially since I was preparing for my first trip to the U.K. the next summer.

  2. Thanks. I really did enjoy my time working there (except for the brutal summer heat and cold winters since it was an outside job). I’m even thinking about getting out to some of the Elvis Week 2013 festivities.

  3. That’s great. Lots of kids go to Graceland. We took our son when he was 5. He loves music, but I will admit he was a tad bored with the mansion tour. You’re never too old or too young to visit Graceland!

  4. OK, OK, it was my word. And maybe it’s a bit harsh. I did have an argument with a lady who swore to me that Elvis was still alive. I was hot and tired and while arguing probably went against employee policy, I just couldn’t let her go on thinking Elvis is still alive. I’d say 95 percent of the guests are “normal” travelers to Memphis. It’s the 5 percent that made the job entertaining.

  5. It’s really not that surprising. Memphians don’t go there. If not for working there I probably wouldn’t have visited until having relatives from England who wanted to visit. You do need to go sometime. It’s only going to get more expensive to get in (but that’s another story).

  6. Very cool look back in time Lance! I can’t believe I didn’t make it to the Elvis Mansion when in Memphis a few years ago. I wish I could say it was an oversight – it was purely a lack of time! I will have to make it back some time for a look – love visiting the houses of fascinating people!
    Anita Mac recently posted…Monday Morning Series: Pink Balls of MontrealMy Profile

  7. I learned a long time ago every city has more attractions to see than what I have time to experience. You just have to see what you can and save the rest for a possible future visit.

  8. Just connected to your blog for the first time and I want to keep reading. You both are great writers. Keep it up and I’m looking forward to reading more. ~Dolly

  9. While visiting Memphis this past January, we didn’t make it to Graceland. We were only there for 1 1/2 days and Sun Studio and the Civil Rights Museum called to us much more strongly than did Graceland. Although, at the end of our full day we did drive by and took a quick photo through the gates. It looked a little too glitzy and kind of Elvisland – and not inexpensive – although I have read reviews from others who enjoyed their visits. I guess we weren’t big enough fans to take it on. I’d rather spend the time eating some of the best BBQ ever! :)
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  10. Loved your story my Dream was to work there. In 1989 I met with Vester presley but had to turn the job down to take care of my Father

  11. G’day Lance, I visited Graceland in 1987 after travelling from Australia. No audio tours in those days but it was fascinating. As a lifelong Elvis fan it was something I’d wanted to do since I was a child. Thanks for your insights.
    Cheers,
    Mark.

  12. I visited Graceland July 22nd this yr for my 30th took two flights from the uk to get there and a LOT of overtime to pay for it but it was worth it I absolutely loved every bit of it I did the most expensive tour to include everything at $77 I found it a bargain. Loved your article fascinating read from a behind the scenes perspective

  13. Great article! My girlfriend and I visited the past weekend and had a blast. Getting the VIP passes were worth the extra bucks for sure. The staff was very helpful, informitive and friendly. I would have definitely loved to havr seen the upstairs for sure. I take it you never did either?

  14. Brad, a lowly little employee like myself definitely never made it upstairs. It was odd being in the house standing at the bottom of the stairs after the tours ended. I’m sure I would’ve been kicked out, lost my job and maybe even arrested but I probably could’ve sprinted up those stairs before anyone stopped me! Of course I shouldn’t put those kinds of ideas out here.

  15. Hey Lance…appreciate your insights and experiences…I was there in April 1994 and saw the house, racquetball court (a movie room then) saw the Lisa Marie airplane, no audio tour then, and the best part? My wife and I were across the street in the gift shop by ourselves and looked out the front window and saw this big 1975 or 1976 gold Coupe Deville pull up and guess who walked in? Uncle Vester :) Super nice guy, we talked for like 15-20 minutes…I asked him what it was like, working at those gates all those years…he thought about it for a moment and said “we never had one bad person, all those years” I said “Wow! That really says something!” He looked at me with a quizzical look and I said “what I mean to say is that really says something about who they were coming to see” he thought for a second and looked at me and said Yes that’s right that’s exactly right” he smiled, we shook hands, and me and my new bride (it was our honeymoon) went on our way (after snapping a picture and buying a copy of his book “My life with Elvis” that he signed :) My best memory of Graceland :)

  16. Thanks Lance;for sharing your story. I am pretty sure it was an unforgettable experiance. I can only imagine how wonderful Graceland looks if i ever get to go and visit. i have heard some family and freinds of mine who were fortunate enough to go;they said it was it was one of the most beutiful landmarks they had ever visited.no wonder that elvis was so proud of his home. Best of wishes to you Lance…Long live THE KING!

  17. I LIKE ELVIS PRESLEY AND HIS GRACELAND IS
    PREFCE I WON’T BE A MANAGER FOR ELVIS PRESLEY AND HIS MOVIE SINGING HE IS BETTER ACTING AND HIS VOICE I LIKE IT SO MUCH I STELL HIS IS BIGGEST FANS STALL AND FRIEND DENISE AGNES EVANS & MATTHEW PAUL BOLDING.L.

  18. I just left Graceland and Sun Studios yesterday. It’s the third time I’ve been there. It was an awesome experience. Thank you so much for your article I never knew what it was like to work there.

  19. I went there in 92. I have a book by uncle Vester signed. I swear I got it from him personally and was talking to him at the gate, but I’m just not positive. Do you remember what was the last year Uncle Vester was at the gates?

  20. Also you talk about wanting to run up those stairs. I’m sixty years old and just went to the Audubon Street house. I was there with the guys that do the lawn. They didn’t have the key to open the small gate so they were handing the lawn equipment over the fence. I just got myself so pumped up, I started to jump over the gate,. And then I got screamed at to stop. How funny is that? An old man acting like a star-struck silly. Elvis brings that out in us.

  21. Very nice article. If the family stays upstairs I would think it has been changed and not left the way it was the day he died wouldn’t you agree? I visited Graceland in Jan. 1991… I would just love to see some recent pics of up stairs and if I had the money I would build a replica of his house I love the layout..Thanks for sharing your story with us..

  22. This is my life long dream to work at Graceland. Wondering if anyone that has worked at Graceland knows just how hard it is to get hired there. I live outta state right now but would relocate if I could get a job there

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