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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.