A too-late trip to Graceland Too in Holly Springs still proves memorable.
- story and photos by Ellis Anderson
Of course, I had idolized the Elvis of my youth, the dark haired boy/man with the hips that wriggled like a fish on a hook. He still wore plain old blue jeans then. Although I was only ten when I saw “Clambake,” I was attracted to his bad-boy persona, because he wasn’t scary-bad at all. Beneath the bravado of his movie roles, we could all see his sweet nature.
But he wasn’t sharp either, like Cary Grant or Sean Connery. You could tell he’d be the first to go down on Jeopardy - if he bribed somebody enough to get past the auditions. That was part of his charm though. Girls instinctively knew they could outsmart him.
The older Elvis had just seemed pathetic, wearing spangled white jumpsuits that would make a majorette swoon, with collars high enough to rub the top of his ears raw.
But if I’d kept up better about Later-Elvis-Lore, I’d have made the pilgrimage to Holly Springs, Mississippi years ago. I wind up going in June of this year, with my husband Larry, his son David and Jenny, who is David’s wife. The young couple live in New York City and are professionals working in the city’s stratosphere of art and architecture.
They have flown into Memphis, where we pick them up for a family reunion of sorts. Afterward, we have a choice of city attractions to visit. The real Graceland is one of them. The choice to skip it is easily unanimous.
Instead we are seduced by the bizarre glass pyramid that houses what must be the most gigantic Bass Pro Shop in the universe. At its energy vortex, a laser-lit glass elevator shoots up over fake cypress swamps that are meant to recreate the wetlands of Louisiana, except here, t-shirt and souvenir shops ring the ponds.
We pay to ride the elevator up to the pyramid’s apex and then force ourselves to stand on a clear glass deck 300 feet above the parking lot below. Something about the juxtaposition of Jetsons and Cajuns sort of explodes the brain, making rational thought impossible for a time.
So later that night in our Holly Springs Bed & Breakfast, when Jenny stumbles across Graceland Too on an internet search of fun area things to do, we are sold.
Although the small town of Holly Springs is filled with an extraordinary number of antebellum mansions, Graceland Too has popped up near the top of every search Jenny’s done. She reads us a few reviews, like this one, by Irene S. of San Diego (whose phone’s auto-cap feature must have been broken):
it is open 24 hours a day. you can go there and ring the bell anytime. paul mcleod is always ready for you and you know why? because he drinks 24 cans of coca cola a day. when we knocked he yelled "five minutes!" and surely did open the door five minutes later. he put in his dentures but not very well because they kept slipping out, especially when he started singing heartbreak hotel.
Even though it is nearing midnight and we’ve all had a grueling day and a pyramid adventure, we are instantly revved up and ready to walk the few blocks over to the Elvis shrine, bearing six packs of caffeine-laden soft drinks that will supposedly grant us admittance.
Then Jenny discovers more recent postings revealing that owner Paul McLeod is dead, and has been since summer of 2014. He passed away quietly in a rocker on the porch of his memorabilia-stuffed house - the day after he’d shot an intruder dead, right in the museum.
Authorities stated that McLeod’s heart probably gave out from the stress of killing a neighbor. Graceland Too is closed. In the past year, it’s been the site of an unsuccessful auction attempting to liquidate the eccentric’s estate.
The next morning after breakfast, the four of us stroll over to see what remains. We particularly hope to see the non-functioning electric chair we’d viewed online. It’d been part of a “Jailhouse Rock” theme McLeod had been developing in the back yard.
But the yard has been cannibalized and is cordoned off by a tall, plastic-tarped fence. Peeking through, we don’t see the electric chair contraption. Presumably, it was one of the items that did sell at auction (who could resist?). The lions on the front steps and the big black fountain in the yard still have price tags on them.
The house had been painted dozens of colors over the years, including an electric blue that sizzled in the images we’d seen online. Now, it’s mostly covered with a flat beige, a lackluster shroud that’s been sprayed over the whole shebang. The light color just highlights the ramshackle condition of what once might have been a lovely house. McLeod built frames around siding on the front to create extra windows, so the front would more closely resemble Graceland One. But the real windows here are painted over. There’s not a piece of clear glass we can see. The interior must be mausoleum dark.
Most poignant are the photo montages left to the elements behind the fence. Hundreds of images have been mounted on boards and covered with plastic. Each shows museum visitors posing with a life-sized cut-out figure of Elvis. All of them are smiling. McLeod’s in a few too. He’s more serious.
We walk a few blocks to the real museum in Holly Springs and the friendly docents seem disappointed that we only ask questions about Graceland Too. Jenny, who is an actual curator, is disappointed too, but for different reasons. She wishes that someone in town had had the vision to save this installation of “outsider art” collection in its entirety – including the house itself. Now it’s too late.
As we drove away from Holly Springs, I thought of a favorite song written by Irish musician Richard Thompson: “From Galway to Graceland.”
The lyrics tell of a woman who is so obsessed with Elvis that she runs away from her husband in Galway, Ireland to be with the King at Graceland. She is so delusional that she believes Elvis talks to her in her dreams - if she sleeps on his grave.
It ends badly. The police drag her away while she’s protesting that Elvis is really her husband. “Don’t you know that we’re married? See, I’m wearing his ring! I’ve come from Galway to Graceland to be with the King.”
Richard Thompson doesn’t have to tell us that she’s going to wind up in the looney bin and her poor husband back in Ireland will have to spend his life savings to spring her. Then she’ll still spend the rest of her life mooning over Elvis.
I wonder if the ending would have been better for all involved if she’d taken a six-pack of Pepsi for Paul and knocked on the door of Graceland Too instead.