- Associated Press - Thursday, June 14, 2012

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 moneymaking business that has 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,” Priscilla Presley said 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.”

The King died on Aug. 16, 1977, and 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 Miss 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, even Disney World — 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 Miss Presley with her plan.

Tourists arrive through the front door of Graceland, Elvis Presley's home in Memphis, Tenn. (Associated Press)
Tourists arrive through the front door of Graceland, Elvis Presley’s home in ... more >

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 Mr. 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, attracts tens of thousands of people.

Graceland, 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 that illuminate 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. Mr. Dow said he liked Elvis — he recalled watching the young singer on a small black-and-white TV — and pointed out that he was married on Jan. 8, Elvis‘ birthday.

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