Reopened Graceland gives Elvis fans intimate experience thanks to small crowds, social distancing

John Beifuss, Memphis Commercial Appeal

If Graceland is back in business, can Memphis — and America — be far behind?

That was among the narratives pushed by the caretakers of the Elvis Presley legacy this week as one of the most iconic homes in the world reopened Thursday morning to an apparently eager public.

"People need to get the economy started again, and we're glad to play a part in that," said Debbie Miller, chief marketing officer at Graceland. "We know we're a big tourist driver for Memphis, and we think a lot of people will come here when they hear Graceland is open again."

But if marketers and tourism officials had at least one eye on the big picture, Graceland visitors during the attraction's first day of operation after nine weeks of coronavirus-motivated shutdown were focused on a portrait of Elvis presented — unexpectedly — in extreme closeup.

Kristyn Walker welcomes tourists into the mansion at Graceland in Memphis on Thursday, May 21, 2020. Graceland reopened for the first time since closing March 20 amid the coronavirus pandemic.
Kristyn Walker welcomes tourists into the mansion at Graceland in Memphis on Thursday, May 21, 2020. Graceland reopened for the first time since closing March 20 amid the coronavirus pandemic.

Thanks to social distancing measures and much lower than usual attendance (Graceland had announced its reopening only four days earlier), visitors Thursday were, dare we say, graced with an unusually intimate Elvis experience.

On a typical May day, 3,000 to 4,000 people would tour the mansion, Miller said. Thursday, the number was closer to 250.

As a result, visitors — or "guests," in Graceland parlance — found themselves in tour groups with as few as six people. This enabled them to spend alone time with their thoughts — and with the narration provided by their iPad audio tour guides — as they contemplated Elvis' white piano, his peacock stained-glass windows and his Jungle Room zebra stripes.

"We ended up in the Meditation Garden by ourselves, so it was probably a little bit of a spiritual experience," said Randy Wink, 61, referring to the small gravesite on the mansion grounds where Elvis and three family members — his parents, Vernon and Gladys Presley, and his paternal grandmother, Minnie Mae Presley — are buried.

"There's no question the COVID situation makes us take stock of our lives and what matters to us," said Wink, pointing out that Elvis died at 42.

"Bottom line, family was what mattered to him," said Wink's wife, Kim Wink, 59.

Driving back home to McCook Lake, South Dakota, from Florida, the Winks made a point to stop in Memphis when they learned Graceland was reopening. In fact, many of Thursday's guests said they were travelers who extended their time in Memphis or made a detour here after they heard the Graceland news.

Lindsay and Rhett Tress and their two children tour Elvis Presley's Memphis home at Graceland on Thursday, May 21, 2020. Graceland reopened for the first time since closing March 20 amid the coronavirus pandemic.
Lindsay and Rhett Tress and their two children tour Elvis Presley's Memphis home at Graceland on Thursday, May 21, 2020. Graceland reopened for the first time since closing March 20 amid the coronavirus pandemic.

There was a family of four from Denver. A man in a Trump 2020 camo cap from Houston. A tan blonde from Newport Beach, California. And that was just in Thursday's first half-hour of operation.

"We were going to leave yesterday, but we stayed an extra day," said Mechelle Hopping, 50, of Dunnellon, Florida, who said a visit to Graceland had been on her "bucket list."

Already in Memphis while on a driving tour in the South, Hopping was one of several Graceland "guests" who said they had time to travel because they were newly unemployed, thanks to the economic devastation caused by COVID-19.

Most visitors were first-timers, but any returnees would have noticed several unromantic coronavirus-related changes to their "Date with Elvis" (to borrow the title of the singer's 1959 compilation album).

All visitors are required to have their temperature taken at the main gates before they tour the mansion at Graceland in Memphis on Thursday, May 21, 2020. Graceland reopened for the first time since closing March 20 amid the coronavirus pandemic.
All visitors are required to have their temperature taken at the main gates before they tour the mansion at Graceland in Memphis on Thursday, May 21, 2020. Graceland reopened for the first time since closing March 20 amid the coronavirus pandemic.

For example, before being allowed to enter the Graceland campus, each visitor has his or her temperature scanned with a handheld thermal thermometer. Visitors with a fever of 100.4 degrees or higher will not be permitted to enter.

The temperature-taker is wearing a mask, as are all Graceland employees — or "associates," to again use Graceland parlance. Not coincidentally, the masks — patterned with reproductions of the Graceland mansion logo — are on sale in the gift shops for $7.50 each, or four for $20. (Visitors are "highly encouraged" but "not required" to wear masks, according to health and safety protocols posted at Graceland.)

Meanwhile, cleverly designed Elvis-themed social distancing reminders are all over Elvis Presley's Memphis, the Graceland campus across from the mansion that includes museum exhibit areas, gift shops, restaurants and the welcome center-style ticketing concourse.

Blue suede shoe social distancing markers have been added to the floor of the Graceland welcome center.
Blue suede shoe social distancing markers have been added to the floor of the Graceland welcome center.

Social distancing markers in the form of blue suede shoe footsteps are on the floor, while placards on walls and video screens introduce an Elvis-centric unit of measure: According to these signs, 6 feet is equivalent to "2 Guitars," "3 Hound Dogs," "6 Gold Records," "6 Teddy Bears" and "1 Elvis." All this, for a singer whose discography is relatively resistant to COVID-19 metaphors, although the 1960 hit "Stuck on You" — with its chorus of "I'm gonna stick like glue/ Because I'm stuck on you" — could be the anthem of a proud coronavirus, bragging about the grappling-hook efficiency of its protein spikes.

Kandis Cunningham, a Graceland tour guide for 12 years, escorted a group of six visitors Thursday from Chicago, Seattle and Oklahoma. Her spiel was the same as usual — Graceland was built in 1939; it was bought by the 22-year-old Elvis in 1957; the property consists of 13.8 acres — but the mask she delivered it through was new (as was the side effect of fogged eyeglasses). "I worried about it being a barrier, but if they can hear me, fine," she said, only slightly muffled.

Miller said small crowds should be the new normal at Graceland for at least a few weeks, or until Graceland in early summer launches a series of television advertisements aimed at "the driving market," i.e., people who take road trips. In fact, road warriors represent Graceland's most loyal customer base even in the healthiest of times, with 65%-70% of the estate's 750,000 or so annual visitors arriving by automobile, RV or some other self-driven vehicle.

If Elvis fans and other tourists were happy to be received at Graceland, "associates" were happy to be back, too — and not just because of the paycheck, they said.

"It's a fun environment," said Tamica Granderson, 38, a "ticket associate." "I find myself singing the songs," she said as Elvis' version of Chuck Berry's tribute to American motion, "Promised Land," played over the speakers in the welcome center lobby: "Tell the folks back home this is the promised land callin'/ And the poor boy's on the line."

This article originally appeared on Memphis Commercial Appeal: Coronavirus: Elvis Presley's Graceland reopens in Memphis