MEMPHIS, Tenn. : When Graceland opened to the public 30 years ago this month, nobody knew if it would be a success. Nearly 18 million visitors later, the house where Elvis Presley once lived is a money-making business that's helped transform the city of Memphis into a top destination for music lovers.
But Presley's ex-wife says it's the spirit of Elvis, and not just music history, that keeps the crowds coming to Graceland. 'Every time I go in there, I feel like Elvis is going to come down the stairs any minute', said Priscilla Presley in an exclusive interview with The Associated Press about the landmark's anniversary. 'I have no doubt that he's there, somewhere, his spirit. I think people feel that'.
By the early 1980s, Graceland had become a burden on his estate, which faced high estate and inheritance taxes. Accountants and bankers wanted to sell the home, but Priscilla Presley thought that opening the house to tourists could solve the financial problems while keeping Elvis' legacy alive. She secured a $500,000 investment and visited other tourist attractions - Hearst Castle, Will Rogers' home, for inspiration.
Graceland opened for tours on June 7, 1982. 'We had no idea whether 30 people were coming, or 300, or 3,000 that first day, Fortunately, it was the latter', said Jack Soden, CEO of Elvis Presley Enterprises, who helped Priscilla Presley with her plan. They sold out all 3,024 tickets on the first day and never looked back. Graceland's success led to a worldwide merchandising and licensing business that keeps Elvis' legend strong while generating $32 million a year in revenue. And the flow of tourists has remained steady, with an average of 500,000 annual visitors to the mansion and exhibit area across the street, according to Soden.
Visitors come all year, but they peak in August during the annual commemoration of Elvis' death, which includes a candlelight vigil. Graceland expects to welcome its 18 millionth visitor this year.
Graceland's popularity has also helped turn Memphis into a major music destination. 'When Graceland opened, city leaders saw the impact it brought from visitors from all over the world', said Regena Bearden, vice president of marketing for the Memphis Convention & Visitors Bureau.
When Presley died, Beale Street in downtown Memphis, which had been known for the blues since the early 1900s, was in disrepair and shunned by visitors, but today it's a bustling attraction featuring blues-themed bars, shops and restaurants. Sun Studios, where music producer Sam Phillips worked with Elvis, Jerry Lee Lewis, Carl Perkins and others, opened as a tourist attraction in 1985. The studio for Stax Records, known for Otis Redding and others, has been reborn as a slick multimedia museum of the label's distinctive Memphis soul sound. And 'Memphis in May', a monthlong event that includes a music festival and barbecue contest at a park along the Mississippi River, now attracts tens of thousands of people.
Graceland, located about a 20-minute drive from downtown Memphis on a hill in the Whitehaven community, remains focused on Elvis' life and music. Visitors walk through the house in a line, passing through the living room, dining room, kitchen and the famed Jungle Room, where the King held court. Gold records gleam on the wall of a long hallway. His Army uniform and outfits he wore in movies and concerts are displayed in another room. Outside, tourists - some crying - file past the graves of Elvis, his mother, father and grandmother. The burial site, adorned with flowers, includes a fountain. The 11-acre property is surrounded by stately trees and landscaping that includes colored lights illuminating the mansion at night.
Recent visitors included Orlis Dow, 77, who drove with two friends to Memphis in a motor home from Mineral Wells, Texas. Dow says he liked Elvis - he recalls watching the young singer on a small black and white TV - and points out that he was married on Jan. 8, Elvis' birthday.
Dow bought a replica Elvis driver's license and a shot glass to take home with him. He says the permanence of Graceland's popularity is a tribute to the performer's talent and ability to connect with fans.
'It's just a phenomenon', Dow said. 'He had a gift, and he used it in the right way'.
Graceland's draw has long had a spillover effect on the Memphis economy, with visitors spending money on hotel rooms, dining and other things. In the mid-1980s, travel expenditures in Memphis were estimated at about $1 billion; in 2011, with many more local attractions for tourists to see, travel expenditures exceeded $3 billion, according to the Memphis Convention & Visitors Bureau.
The idea of opening Graceland to the public came to Priscilla Presley after Elvis' father Vernon died in 1979 and she was thrust into the role of managing the estate. 'I realized as it was going on that there really wasn't any money that could support Graceland or any of the people that worked for Elvis that were still there', she said. 'I had a decision to make to somehow save Graceland'. She initially reached out to Morgan Maxfield, a Kansas City-based financier, but after he died in a plane crash, his business partner, Soden, stepped in. 'The one really clear, passionate voice for 'Don't let go of Graceland, don't let go of the artifacts', was Priscilla', Soden said.
They met, planned and visited other homes-turned-museums, like Thomas Jefferson's house at Monticello and Thomas Edison's home. By 1982, they were ready to open, with Priscilla Presley's idea of keeping everything in the home the same as it was when Elvis was alive still intact.
To augment the $500,000 investment, they pre-sold tickets, generating enough money to buy uniforms for the tour guides. The first month was such a success that they made back the half-million dollars in about 38 days, Soden said. The visitors center was built later with exhibits including his favorite cars and the Lisa Marie, his private plane, plus a cafe and gift shops selling Elvis memorabilia, from T-shirts to bobble-head dolls. Future plans include $50 million in improvements to Elvis Presley Boulevard and other infrastructure near Graceland.
'I'm blown away by the mere fact that it's 30 years', Priscilla Presley said. 'It's been incredible to see that the legacy of Elvis is still going strong. We wouldn't have imagined that when it was opened in 1982.
Elvis is as popular now as he was then, if not even more'.
Lisa Marie Presley
You Are Not Alone : Michael Jackson with Lisa Marie Presley : 1995
Lisa Marie's singing, writing pretty good : February 8, 2003
Nicolas Cage talks about Lisa Marie Presley : 2003
Lisa Presley : The Rolling Stone Interview : April 20, 2003
Complete Lisa Marie Presley Playboy Interview : July 30, 2003
Interview with Lisa Presley : Enough Rope : March 15, 2004
Lisa Marie Presley Photos (2004)
Lisa Marie and Elvis Presley duet of In The Ghetto : 2007
Interview with Lisa Marie Presley : August 17, 2007
Father and Daughter Together Again : August 17, 2007
Lisa Marie Presley and Riley Keough on Oprah : September 12, 2007
Interview with Lisa Marie Presley (And Michael Lockwood) : January 27, 2009
The Presley Women : Priscilla & Lisa Marie Presley's First Mother/Daughter Interview : May 17, 2009
Interview with Lisa Marie Presley (And Michael Lockwood) : 2009
Aerial photo, Lisa Marieâ€™s Country Mansion in England : January 2011
Elvis Through His Daughter's Eyes : By Lisa Marie Presley : 2012
ABC TV Interview with Lisa Marie Presley : Feb 2012
Rolling Stone Interview with Lisa Marie Presley : March 2012
Interview with Lisa Marie Presley : Storm & Grace : Her Twins, Rily Keough, England ... : May 2012
Listen to New Track Released from Lisa Marie's Album : Over Me
Lisa Marie Presley : Performs 'You Ain't Seen Nothing Yet' on American Idol : May 17, 2012
Lisa Marie Presley Performs 'Over Me' on Jimmy Kimmel Live : May 22, 2012
Macromedia Flash Player 9.1+ required to play this video. Apple iPad Compatible. If connection is slow, once downloading has completed, you can play it uninterrupted as many times as you like. Read more .
Use the 'share' button to share on Facebook, Twitter or email the link to this page to your friends.
Elvis Presleys Grandchildren
Danielle Riley Keough : (born May 29, 1989) and is known as Riley Keough for her modeling work.
Riley is the daughter of Lisa Marie Presley and musician Danny Keough.
Celebs : The Next Generation : November 10, 2004
Elvis lives on ... in the form of his grandaughter : Riley Keough : June 23, 2008
Beautiful Photos of Riley Keough, Elvis' Granddaughter in Elle Italia : May 17, 2011
Lisa Marie Presley gave birth to twin girls on Tuesday, Oct. 7, 2009. The baby girls were named Harper Vivienne Ann Lockwood & Finley Aaron Love Lockwood and were delivered by Caesarean section 2:46 p.m. They weighed in at 5 lbs., 15 oz. and 5 lbs., 2 oz. The girls are the first children together for Lisa Marie and husband Michael Lockwood, a musician (Married in Japan January 2006). Lisa Marie, who proudly displayed her baby bump in the September issue of Marie Claire, has a daughter Riley Keough, 19, a model, and Benjamin, 15, with ex-husband Danny Keough. The names acknowledge Elvis (Aaron), Gladys (Love) and Priscilla (Ann).
Photos of Lisa Marie's Twin Girls : Finley & Harper : January 23, 2009
Lisa Marie Presley takes her little princess for a spin around Hawaii : February 22, 2011
Benjamin Keough : Lisa's Son : Elvis Presleys Grandson
Navarone Garibaldi : Priscilla Presley's Son
More about Priscilla Presley
My Life With and Without Elvis Presley : For the First Time ... Priscilla Tells All : August, 1973
Elvis looked even better in person, Priscilla says : January 20, 2004
President Bush and Japanese Prime Minister Koizumi Visit Graceland : July 1, 2006
Video Interviews with Priscilla Presley
Interview with Priscilla Presley : 1978 (05:54)
Priscilla Presley on Good Morning America : 1979 (07:57)
Priscilla Presley on 'First Person' 1991 (09:25)
Priscilla Presley talks to Larry King on CNN : Priscilla looks back : August 16, 2007 (10:25)
Priscilla Presley gives Larry King a tour of Graceland : August 16, 200 (04:32)
Interview with Priscilla Presley : December 15, 2009 (04:31)
Vernon & Gladys Presley
Presley Family History
Elvis Presleys Grandfather
Elvis Presley : Interviews and Press Conferences with Elvis Presley
Interview With Elvis Presley : August 28, 1956
Interview with Elvis Presley : October 28, 1957, Los Angeles
Interview with Elvis Presley : Press Conference Canada 1957
Interview with Elvis Presley : July 31, 1969 By Ray Connelly
Interview with Elvis Presley : The 1969 Press Conference : August 1, 1969
Interview with Elvis Presley : The February 1970 Houston Astrodome Press Conference
Interview with Elvis Presley : The 1972 Madison Square Press Conference : June 9, 1972
Rare Elvis Presley : 1973 Aloha Interview
The Memphis Mafia
Colonel Tom Parker
For more information on Elvis and Priscilla buy the Elvis By The Presleys DVD -- at over 4 hours this double DVD set will tell you everything you want to know and more plus includes lots of home movies of Elvis, Priscilla and Lisa Marie. A must for every fan! -- Also there is Priscilla's book -- Elvis & Me.