Elvis Week Day 3 – Rockin’ the Exhibits at Elvis Presley’s Memphis

By Jon Waterhouse

If I had to choose one person to guide me through the new museum spaces at Elvis Presley’s Memphis —with the exception of Elvis himselvis— it would be Angie Marchese, director of archives for Elvis Presley Enterprises. And yesterday Angie gave me the grandest of tours.

A large portion of the 40-acre entertainment complex consists of vibrant exhibit halls showcasing everything from the king’s shimmering stage wear to his fleet of slick rides and all points in between. In addition to overseeing and preserving the vast Presley archives in storage, and managing a staff of 26, it’s Angie who determines how the collection is displayed, right down to the paint that’s slathered on the walls. If you like the up-close-and-personal and take-all-the-time-you-want aspects of the new museums, you have Angie to thank.

Not only does she have a comprehensive and detailed knowledge of the museums’ contents, Angie rocks Elvis trivia like a computerized databank. As we trekked our way around the grounds, Angie shake, rattled, and rolled off facts faster than my note-taking hand could write.

The following are the highlights from my tour of Elvis Presley’s Memphis with Angie Marchese:

The Country Road to Rock: The Marty Stuart Collection

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The complex has permanent exhibits and rotating ones, the latter which Angie and the staff refer to as “discovery zones.” These specific areas take a specialized look at different aspects of Elvis’ life and career. This one examines the country music and style that influenced a pre-fame Elvis. Country star Marty Stuart shares portions of his impressive collection of genre memorabilia, much of it from the Grand Ole Opry’s heyday, which seeped into Presley’s pores. Elaborate stage duds, like Hank Snow’s floral suit by legendary designer Nudie Cohn, certainly rubbed off on Elvis. The exhibit also shows Elvis’ own influence on country music entertainers. A pair of sunglasses Elvis gave to the recently departed Glen Campbell glisten beneath the lights.

Mystery Train: The Sam Phillips Exhibit

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Across the hall from the Stuart collection, you’ll find the story of Sam Phillips, the groundbreaking record producer not only responsible for discovering Elvis, but for helping lay the groundwork for rock ‘n’ roll. At the helm of Memphis Recording Service, Phillips recorded Howlin’ Wolf, B.B. King, and other African-American artists he thought deserved to be heard. One was Jackie Brenston, who many critics cite as cutting the first rock record, “Rocket 88.” The piano used on that song arrived at the exhibit just in time for Elvis Week. It’s also the instrument used on Jerry Lee Lewis’ Sun records and the one Elvis is behind in the famous Million Dollar Quartet photo. Other artifacts in the exhibit include original Memphis Recording Service equipment and the guitar Scotty Moore used on Elvis’ Sun sides.

The Fashion King and the Fairgrounds

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As the smell of popcorn wafts in the air, guests can peruse the Fairgrounds exhibit, complete with midway games. It provides a snapshot of Elvis’ birthplace of Tupelo, Miss. Steps away you’ll find the Fashion King. Angie describes this one as “looking inside Elvis’ closet” and exploring his sense of style. It’s a sample culled from 5,000 pieces of archived wardrobe. Whether it was casual clothes or stage duds, the king had a distinct flair for fashion. Among the items on view is a brown faux fur suit Elvis wore to the Ten Outstanding Young Men of the Year prayer breakfast on January 16, 1971. While others wore typical suits and ties to this event, the king did his own thing. “Only Elvis could pull this off, because he was Elvis,” Angie said. Adjacent to this exhibit is the VIP lounge where VIP pass holders can relax, have a cup of water, watch Elvis performances on TV, and look at exclusive items. An adjacent area for Ultimate VIP ticket holders features a white-glove archive experience with additional items and the opportunity for guests to hold one of Elvis’ microphones. Angie let me have the honor.

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Icons

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Since the release of his first record in 1954, Elvis’ influence continues to have a ripple effect on entertainment and popular culture. This exhibit features clothing and memorabilia belonging to a wide range of artists who felt the Elvis impact, from Buddy Holly to Trisha Yearwood and Jimi Hendrix to Justin Timberlake. According to Angie, the Kiss costumes remain a photo op favorite for fans. She says Kiss bassist Gene Simmons jumped at the chance to be involved in the exhibit. Even wrestler-turned-box-office-giant Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson, an avid fan, lent his replica Elvis jumpsuit to Icons.

Elvis The Entertainer

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It’s one of the two anchor exhibits at Elvis Presley’s Memphis. Graceland touts this as “the world’s largest and most comprehensive Elvis museum in the world,” and it’s nothing short of breathtaking. You could literally spend hours poring over the meticulous detail found among the hundreds of pieces on view. While previous Graceland visitors may recognize some of the items, it’s all displayed with a fresh and exciting spin. As guests take a chronological trip through Elvis’ career, they’re able to get a point of view like never before. The costumes from stage and screen are displayed in cases that allow a 360-degree perspective. You can step right up to the cases and see details such as the grass stains on the knees of the gold lamé suit; the tiny mirrors lining the back of the Aztec sun jumpsuit; and the amount of bling on the “Aloha” suit. The experience wraps with a newly compiled highlight film of the king’s career, and a massive collection of awards and recognitions.

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Archives Experience
To give fans a peek at what it looks like inside the Graceland Archives, Angie and company have taken shelves directly from the archives storage and moved them into this exhibit. You can now explore a portion of the archives on your own and find little things you’ve never seen before. You’ll come across everything from a model of what was going to be a recording studio built on the property to a Willie Mays autographed baseball. That’s simply a smidgen of what you’ll find.

Private Presley: Elvis in the Army
Angie marched me through this exhibit, which delves into Elvis’ stint in the Army from 1958 to 1960. Not only do you get to see his Army fatigues, dress uniforms and more, you get a history lesson to boot. Learn why U.S. troops were in Germany at the time and get a crash course in the draft.

Presley Motors and Presley Cycles

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When Angie and company were reimagining the previous car museum at Graceland, they wanted it to be something different. “So we went with the theme, if anyone should have a car lot, it would be Elvis,” Angie said. They call it Presley Motors, based on the name of a Memphis car lot operated by Elvis’ dad, Vernon, for a brief time in the 1960s. Of course, you’ll see the 1955 pink Cadillac and more, including the Mercedes limo from the documentary “Elvis on Tour.” A pair of cars are currently on loan from the Petersen Automotive Museum in Los Angeles, Calif. through Elvis Week. The yellow Pantera, which Elvis famously shot when it wouldn’t start, still has the bullet hole. Interestingly enough, the hot rod from “Easy Come, Easy Go” doubled as the Joker Mobile in the 1966 “Batman” TV series. The neighboring Presley Cycles exhibit showcases boats, motorcycles, golf carts, and all of the recreational toys that made Graceland one big playground.

ANGIE MARCHESE Q&A

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As director of archives for Elvis Presley Enterprises, Angie has an Elvis fan’s dream job, not to mention her white-gloved hands in a plethora of projects. In the following revealing interview, she allows us to step past the figurative velvet rope.

On the key pieces everyone expects to be on view:
“The pink Cadillac, the black leather suit from ‘The ’68 Comeback Special,’ the American eagle jumpsuit from ‘Aloha From Hawaii,’ and the gold lamé suit are the most popular items. Those are the key pieces that any guest —from a fan to a casual tourist to someone who’s just learning about Elvis—wants to see. Those outfits will always be represented on display, either by the outfit itself, a piece of video footage, or a photograph of Elvis in those outfits. For conservation purposes, we do have a conservation plan in place where we rotate things on and off display to avoid damage from lights, dirt, and wear from hanging on a mannequin. So, there might be sometime in February when the Aztec sun, the last jumpsuit he wore onstage, might not be on display, because it’s resting in the archives. But we’ll have a photo of him in the suit or some sort video that represents that time of his life. So, the tour will still be complete even though that physical outfit might be in storage.”

On discovering Elvis at a young age:
“My mom was a big Elvis fan, so I knew his music. She used to play his records every Saturday while we cleaned house. I remember the day he died, because I remember my mom was upset. Since I was 5, I couldn’t put two and two together. I actually remember watching the October 1977 CBS TV special. …Later, the first time I watched him on my own was ‘Elvis: That’s the Way It Is’ on television. When Elvis first hits the stage, he’s in this white jumpsuit with all of this fringe. It really struck me. Years later, I was working at Graceland, and we were in the process of cataloging the wardrobe. We had gone through shirts, pants, and all of these things. And we opened up this box of jumpsuits, and the fringe suit was right there. I thought, ‘Oh, my God! I can’t believe I’m looking at this outfit that I remember from when I was 10 years old!’ It’s still really special to me. When we loan it out to museums, I tell them, ‘Out of all of the jumpsuits, this is my favorite.’”

On the value of items such as the “Aloha From Hawaii” jumpsuit:
“Basically when we talk about values of artifacts, we go by what it would go for in an auction. If it were to be auctioned off, what would it go for? The most expensive jumpsuit ever sold was sold at one of our auctions for $300,000. Because of the eagle jumpsuit’s significance, the footage of where Elvis wore it, and how recognizable it is, it could easily be a $1 million to $2 million item. Of course, we’d never sell it. But that’s how things are valued. There are a few pieces that I could tell you right off of the top of my head that would go for $1 million. The 1956 Gibson guitar would be one and the black leather suit, hands down. The pink Cadillac? There’s no telling what that would go for.”


2 Comments

  1. Connie McConnell

    Wonderful article! Thank you both!

  2. Joanne Lortie

    Dear Angie! I am from Ottawa,Canada,we have driven to Memphis 3 times in the last 5 years, We are huge Elvis fans and are subscribers to Elvis Radio he is on as long as we are up ,in the car,in the house outside when we work, we never have enough of his beautiful voice! You are so blessed and lucky to have this amazing job, and to be part of the Elvis Presley family! We watch you and and the Gates of Graceland every time there is a new one,you do a fantastic job. We could not be there on his 40th Anniversary bu We will watch through livestream!
    Thank you for all you do and please if you can say Hi to Jimmy Gambill,Priscilla and dear Lisa Marie for us !

    TCB always!
    Joanne & Guy Lortie

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