Saturday, June 29, 2013

Memphis, Part 3: Graceland

On Thursday morning (6/6), Ellie woke up a bit earlier than we may have liked. Considering that she was fighting off a cold and we had really worn her out the day before, we were hoping she would sleep in. But, babies don't care what you hope, do they?

However, we were able to make the most of our early wake-up call. Our plan for the morning was to go to Graceland for more Elvis tourism before saying farewell to Memphis. I had read that between 7:30-8:30 a.m., the Meditation Garden (one of Elvis's favorite places on the grounds, and where he, his parents and his grandmother are buried) is free and open to the public. We thought that if we hurried, we may just be able to make the free hours before going on our paid tour. We put it in high gear and lo and behold, we did make it (thanks to a bit of uphill running) with about five minutes to spare.

I was really glad we were able to make it for that free time. Tours of Graceland hadn't yet started for the day, so it was very quiet and peaceful. We were able to visit the garden with the place almost entirely to ourselves, without throngs of tourists traipsing through. It was very nice.

The Meditation Garden

Presley family graves at Graceland

Left: Elvis's grave. Right: Due to security concerns, Elvis's father had the bodies of Elvis and his mother moved from Forest Hill Cemetery to Graceland in 1977. The large marble cross was Elvis's mother's original monument at the cemetery.

Memorial stone for Elvis's stillborn twin brother

The graves were adorned by flowers and tributes sent from Elvis fans all around the world. All remembrances are accepted. Live flowers are kept until they wilt (sometimes, some are put in the racquetball building so they'll last longer), and plastic or silk arrangements are kept until they start to show signs of the weather.

Before we knew it, a security guard was kicking us out of the garden. However, we took advantage of the tourist-free time to snap some pictures in front of the house before they really chased us off the grounds altogether. This ended up being a great plan, because later the driveway would be littered with tour buses and lines of people.


Ellie rockin' her blue suede shoes in front of Graceland. (Not literally, of course. Clearly we had to buy her an appropriate onesie for the occasion, but we drew the line at the shoes.)

In front of Graceland

When we left the grounds, we took some time to examine "the wall": the brick wall in front of the estate, which is covered in graffiti from adoring fans. It was quite impressive. This is also where Ellie chose to take a nosedive into the sidewalk, with me watching in horror as her little face skidded along the pavement, thus earning herself some scrapes that only looked worse and worse as time went on. Oh, toddlers.

Checking out all the signatures on the wall

She faceplanted, sure, but then got right back to it!

Then, it was back across the street to purchase our tour tickets. We got the most basic tour (mansion only), but there were also more inclusive (read: expensive) packages that would also give you access to Elvis's cars, airplanes, etc. Eh, we're mansion people. Let the tour begin!

Welcome to Graceland!

After you purchase your tickets, you get in line for the shuttle bus to take you across the street to the mansion. As you board the bus, they give you your headset for the audio tour.

Tour groups waiting to get inside

Ellie and Eric are ready to check this place out!

The tour included all of the house and grounds, with the exception of the second floor of the house. That was where Elvis's private quarters were, and we were told that Elvis never let people up there. When he came downstairs, he was always fully dressed for company because that was where he did his entertaining. Also, upstairs was where he died, and the family wished to keep the tour from attracting gawkers eager to see such things. Similarly, his room has not been touched since the day he died. It all remains private.

When you first enter the house, you see the living room to your right, staircase directly in front (with a little hallway to his parents' room beside it), and the dining room to the left.

The main entrance

Portrait of Elvis in the living room (and a handsome photographer reflected in the mirrored wall)

Elvis's living room

Elvis's parents' room

The dining room

I thought this was a beautiful portrait of Priscilla and Lisa Marie in the dining room

From the dining room you move into the kitchen, which was very, very dark. And carpeted! You sure don't see many carpeted kitchens these days.

The kitchen

More kitchen

From there we went down a staircase lined fully with mirrors (trippy!)...

Our reflection in the ceiling! the basement, where there was a media room (with three TVs, something Elvis was apparently very proud of, and a monkey statue that Ellie could not stop laughing at), a bar, and a billiards room that was covered completely in drapes. It was a very dark, heavy-feeling room - very unusual.

The media room

The bar

The billiards room

Left: Close-up of the draperies on the ceiling and walls; Right: A better view of the drape design on the ceiling

But the unusual decor didn't end there (shocking, I know). We exited the billiards room and went up a COMPLETELY carpeted set of stairs. We're talking bright green carpet on every surface - walls, ceiling, everything.

The green carpet staircase

Then it was up to the Jungle Room, which was just...jungle-y.

The Jungle Room

The opposite side of the Jungle Room

We then exited the main house and made our way to a small building behind the house, which housed Elvis's father's office and a shooting range (formerly a smokehouse).

Lisa's swingset outside of the office

Elvis's father's office

Then it was on to the trophy room, which housed a ton of Elvis's awards, gold/silver/platinum records and memorabilia from his life and career.

Elvis stuff!

A long hallway of gold records and such

Costumes from his movies

Elvis and Priscilla's wedding attire

Items from Lisa's nursery

From there we made our way past the pool...

The swimming pool the racquetball building, which Elvis had built in the early 1970s and included a weight training area, full size racquetball court, Jacuzzi and dressing rooms. Now it houses more awards and memorabilia.

Front part of the racquetball building

Some Elvis's stage outfits

More awards!

...and more.

Ellie is loving it!

The tour then concluded in the Meditation Garden, back where we started our day.

Tour groups passing by the gravesites

Ellie in the Meditation Garden

Ellie and Eric listening to the end of the audio tour

We then boarded our shuttle bus back to the main building, saying farewell to Graceland. Then we loaded ourselves back up into our car and set off back to St. Louis for the evening, stopping for lunch along the way. We still had one last baseball game to cross off our list before completing the sightseeing portion of our trip!

Coming up next: A ball game in St. Louis, then on to Bloomington!

To see more pictures from Graceland, click here.

Friday, June 28, 2013

Memphis, Part 2: Downtown

When I left off yesterday, we had just completed our awesome Duckmaster experience and were setting out to explore what else Memphis had to offer. Eric and I were ready to see the city, while our poor, sleepy sickie napped on my back.

Duckmaster-ing is tiring business!

Our first stop was the National Civil Rights Museum. I really wanted to go in, but given that we had quite a few things we wanted to see and were trying to trim our itinerary at the same time (for the sick baby's sake), we decided to pass. However, we were able to walk around outside of the Lorraine Motel, and see the balcony where Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. was shot. It was very quiet and somber, and it is always surreal to stand in a spot like that and know what a historical event happened there. It's hard to believe, a little bit.

The Lorraine Motel, with MLK's famous words on the marquis

Dr. King was shot right up there on that balcony, outside of room 306, where he was staying.
I particularly liked the Bible verse on the memorial in the foreground: "They said to one another, behold, here cometh the dreamer...let us slay him...and we shall see what will become of his dreams." (Genesis 37:19-20)

Fuller look at the Lorraine Motel

By that time, Ellie was awake and we were hungry so we went off in search of our lunch destination: Gus's Fried Chicken. Once again, as seemed to be a theme of our trip, we were struck by how deserted the streets of Memphis were. Are we just too used to the hustle and bustle of New York to really have a realistic gauge on how "happening" a city should be, even on a weekday afternoon? Is this standard? Or are we scaring people away?

Anyway, we found Gus's and as soon as we walked inside, we knew it was going to be good because the place was packed. Not a soul on the street, but there was a wait for a table at Gus's. We put our name in but didn't have long to wait, and we used our time to cool off (man, it was beastly hot) and review the menu to decide what we wanted.

Gus's Fried Chicken

Inside Gus's

When we were seated we placed our order: one two-piece white plate, one tenders plate, a selection of sides, sweet tea and lemonade. Ellie, however, chose to dine on her own food and she got right down to it.

Lunch in a pouch!

People, let's talk about this fried chicken. I am not one who goes nuts for fried chicken. KFC is fine, sure, and I'm not sure I've ever even had Popeye's and the like. But man, oh man. This fried chicken was divine. It was the best fried chicken I've ever eaten in my life. I am a believer in Gus's.

A plate of fried deliciousness with a side of sweet tea

Not only was the food excellent, but luck was on our side. Shortly after being seated at our table, we looked out the front door to see the absolutely pouring rain. If we had been 15 minutes later in arriving at Gus's, we would have been soaked. And then, by the time we finished our meal, the rain had cleared out! Gus's Lucky Chicken saved the day. What perfect timing!

When we finished our meal, I left Eric inside to pay the check and get us some drinks to go while I took Ellie outside to do a little walking in Memphis (yup, just like the song! She's got her feet 10 feet off Beale and everything).

Walking in Memphis

Speaking of Beale Street, that was our next destination, although we did pause to take in some of the sights of Memphis as we headed that way.

The Orpheum

They seem to like this guy in Memphis.

Beale Street itself was rather fun. There was live music everywhere, and lots of fun bars and such. It definitely had character. I would have liked to be able to go back at night and do a little bar-hopping, but alas, the one thing we forgot to pack for the baby was a babysitter.

Beale Street: "All the sharp men, pretty girls. The works!"

More Beale Street

I liked this sign: "First chance for a drink! Next chance, 25 feet." I like the way you think, Beale Street.

Big ass beers to go.

Left: Statue in Handy Park; Right: Music notes lined the sidewalk, like the stars on Hollywood Blvd.

W. family on Beale Street!

After checking out Beale Street we thought we would try to walk to Sun Studio, which ended up being much further than we anticipated. So much so that we ended up turning around after walking some distance. We headed back to the Peabody Hotel to retrieve our luggage and car while Ellie took the opportunity to nap and soak up some sun.

Sleep, baby, sleep.

When we were back in our car, we decided to drive to Sun Studio. A little history: Sun Studio is where Elvis Presley got his start. Back when Elvis was but 18 years old, anyone could go to Sun Studio and for a small fee ($3-4, I believe), you could record a track - one song, one take, one copy of the record. Elvis decided to do so as a gift for his mother. The receptionist there at the time, Marion Keisker, liked Elvis's sound and made note of him, passing along his name to owner Sam Phillips. Phillips was looking for someone with a different sound, and brought Elvis in to try him out. When the session wasn't turning out quite so well, Elvis picked up his guitar and started goofing off, playing Arthur Crudup's "That's All Right." Phillips loved it, recorded it, and passed it off to Memphis DJ Dewey Phillips to put on the air. Listeners loved it so much, they requested it a ridiculous amount of times in just a couple-hour span. And is how Elvis got "discovered" - all by making a recording for his mom at Sun Studio.

Sun Studio

You can go on a tour of the studio, which we hoped to do when we arrived. Our timing was perfect, as a tour was just beginning (they give them every 30 minutes). However, children under five years old are not allowed. We hadn't realized that. But, it actually worked out really well. Instead of turning us away altogether, they offered for one of us to take the tour for free while the other waited in the cafe with Ellie, with free drinks and snacks. Then, at the end of the tour, the waiting parent could also go into the actual studio to look around for a bit. The reason they limit children is just because the tour is less actual "touring" and more talking and listening to old recordings, something kids won't sit still for (true). I decided to stay back with Ellie while Eric took the tour. It really ended up being a great deal!

Let the tour begin!

Memphis Recording Service (the original name of Sun Studio)

Eric said the tour was really interesting. They talked about the Elvis history I briefly outlined above, plus discussed the Million Dollar Quartet: an impromptu jam session including Elvis, Jerry Lee Lewis, Carl Perkins and Johnny Cash. Apparently the session really happened completely by chance, and wouldn't that have been a sight to see?

The Million Dollar Quartet!

A photo of the session, records from each artist and their autographs

In addition to the history, there was a good bit of memorabilia to see, including newspaper and magazine articles about Elvis, and telegrams sent following some of his performances.

Left: A photo of Marion Keisker, the woman who discovered Elvis. Right: Elvis memorabilia

This telegram reads: Saw you on television. You were simply precious. Am looking forward to you coming back to Shreveport. Congratulations. Miss you." How cute is that, to send Elvis a telegram to tell him he's precious?!

Elvis trading cards and a diary

Meanwhile, as Eric was touring, Ellie and I were sipping Cherry Coke (well, I was) and hanging out by the jukebox.

Very important decisions.

When the tour reached the actual recording studio itself, Ellie and I were allowed to join Eric to check it all out. Apparently the ceiling and walls are all original, and an "x" marks the spot where Elvis stood when he last recorded at Sun Studio. We also got to see the little reception area where he first walked in to speak to Marion Keisker.

The studio

The ceiling

The reception area

Ellie standing where Elvis last stood!

Eric, really getting into the spirit of things!

And that was it for downtown, but not for Memphis! We were moving on to a new hotel (Comfort Suites, a less expensive hotel further out of town) for the night. We actually had a pretty negative experience with this one. I mean, it was cheap, so you don't expect much, but we booked it specifically because it claimed to be a suite with pocket doors separating the bedroom. When we got into our room, there was a pocket for a door, but no door. So, we had to move rooms, at the end of a very long day, with a sick, tired, hungry baby and a billion pounds of luggage. When we got to our new room, the door wouldn't stay closed - it would slide shut, then slide right back open again. When Eric called down to the front desk again, he was told that they "can't deal with this right now, we have a lobby full of people." Um, say what now? I don't care how cheap the hotel is or how busy you may be, but there is a much more polite way to address a guest who is having repeated issues. But hey, maybe I'm old school like that.

Needless to say we told the front desk to forget it and made do. We were able to maneuver the door shut so all worked out alright. Ellie and I got settled in then while Eric ran out to pick up some dinner: Corky's BBQ.

Our second Memphis hotel

As you may have noticed if you can make out Ellie's face in the pictures above, she lost it. It was just too much for her, the poor dear. She was sick, tired, hungry, and just DONE. She had a meltdown so epic, it reminded me of her newborn days. She got so upset during a diaper change that I ended up just holding her, still fully naked, in my lap and rocking and singing to her for the longest time. When I finally convinced her to eat some dinner, she would only do so if snuggled into me, without even lifting her head. It broke my heart into a million pieces and I felt so terrible for pushing her so far. She was such a trooper for so much of the trip but by Memphis, she was starting to wear thin.

Poor love is so over all this activity and just wants to rest.

Cuddles make it all better.

As soon as Eric returned, we finished Ellie's dinner and got her right to bed. We then ate our BBQ on our bed while watching some great true-crime TV. The BBQ verdict? Quite good. Overall, we were very pleased with all of our meals in Tennessee, and in Memphis in particular!

After dinner and some relaxing, it was off to bed for us, too. We had another rather long day of sightseeing ahead of us, our last of this trip (then with only Santiago's birthday party weekend remaining!).

Coming up next: Have you had enough of Elvis yet? I hope not, because we're headed to Graceland!

To see more pictures of downtown Memphis, click here.