By MICHAEL SCHUMAN
South Bend Tribune Correspondent, June 2005
Graceland this isn't.
There is no jungle room here. No 15-foot-long sofa. No billiards room. No Story & Clark baby grand. One would be hard pressed to fit a baby grand in this entire house.
This is Elvis' other home, his birthplace in Tupelo, Miss., all of two rooms and built in 1934 for a cost of $180. That's the total figure -- add no extra zeroes.
This is where The King first saw the light of day on Jan. 8, 1935. Today it is the focal point of Elvis Presley's multi-unit birthplace complex that includes a museum of Elvis memorabilia, a symbolic fountain, a statue of Elvis at the age of 13 and a story wall inscribed with quotes from Elvis' friends.
A stroll through the sharecropper's shack proves that this king was not born in a palace. Elvis slept with his parents in the bedroom which also served as the playroom, the living room, the family room and every other room with the exception of the kitchen. As for the Wheeler & Wilson sewing machine here, guide Nina Holcomb explained, "It was probably a lot less expensive than a Singer."
On a shelf in the kitchen, the only other room, is a kerosene can used to light the family lamps. Said Holcomb, "Tupelo had electricity, but most sharecroppers couldn't afford it."
Tupelo is the place to find Elvis the child, the only surviving son of sharecropper Vernon Presley and his wife, Gladys. Henry Dodge, chairman of the Elvis Presley Memorial Foundation in Tupelo, said, "We're trying to portray Elvis in the years before he went to Memphis with his family. We want to portray his humbleness, the innocence of his youth. There is no glaring music, no neon signs, no garishness. The essence of his nature here is nature, because he didn't have many material things."
This is where the young boy with the strange name attended Lawhon School, where elementary school kids still learn that when two vowels go walking the first does the talking. He wore overalls every day, not because they were the style of the times but because his family could not afford fancier clothes. It is here that he was fed in a crude white, wooden high chair, similar to the one by the kitchen window.
Elvis, his fans know, was a twin. His older brother, Jesse, was stillborn. Gladys was overprotective of her only living child. "She had had a rough delivery giving birth to the twins, and she could not have any more children," related Nina Holcomb.
His first guitar
As a boy Elvis wanted a bicycle. Or perhaps it was a rifle. There are different versions of the story. What is known for a fact is that Gladys entered Tupelo Hardware, still in business, and bought her son neither a bicycle nor a rifle. She purchased a guitar, which was cheaper than a bicycle. There was also less chance Gladys' little boy would hurt himself playing guitar than riding a bike or shooting a rifle. And that was the beginning of the story of Elvis the musician.
Vernon tried to support his family of three. He quit sharecropping and drove a milk truck, but that job became another casualty of the Great Depression. The Presleys lived in the 450-square-foot house for about three years. When Vernon could not repay the $180 loan on the materials he used to build his home, the house was repossessed. The family lived in other homes on the east side of town until Vernon, in search of better paying work, moved his family to the big city of Memphis in 1948.
The statue by the birthplace, "Elvis at 13," freezes a moment in time: the adolescent Presley, hair slicked back with a ridge, wearing oversized overalls and carrying his guitar by his side. More research than one might at first expect was put into the concept of the statue, long before North Carolina sculptor Michael Van der Sommen first began crafting the solid bronze work. According to Henry Dodge, a guitar Elvis owned at age 14 was tracked down in Pensacola, Fla., and used as a model. Admitted Dodge, "It was as close as we could get to the one he had in Tupelo."
The complex grows
Components to the complex added within the past year include a 1939 green Plymouth four-door sedan, similar to the one the Presleys drove when they moved from Tupelo to Memphis in 1948, as well as an elaborate Fountain of Life, with 13 upper spouts representing Elvis' childhood years in Tupelo and 29 lower spouts representing the remaining years of his life. There is symbolism to look for here; the upper fountains flow from a cap of granite, a hard stone and representative of the tough times and struggles of Presley's youth; the lower fountains flow from a cap of softer limestone, emblematic of his comfortable years of fortune.
Extending from either side of the fountain is the Story Wall, inscribed with anecdotes related by Presley's childhood friends. Attributed to classmate Roland Tindall, "Elvis would pick his guitar and sing and tell us one day he was going to be on the Grand Ole Opry. We were all very doubtful of that, but we didn't say anything to him about it."
More thorough looks at both the spiritual and worldly sides of Elvis Presley are found inside the museum; near the brassy jumpsuit he wore on stage are props he amassed for an allegorical still life photo on two themes close to his heart, music and religion. A guitar, a menorah and religious vestments are placed before a stained glass background.
To go from the sublime to the ridiculous, check out the nearby display telling the story of Elvis fanatic Liz Hill. She and two friends paid a security guard
$40 to procure for them a bath towel and two coffee cups Presley had used in a Monroe, La., motel. Hill kept the towel in her freezer for 17 years to preserve Elvis's moisture, and the towel is here in the Tupelo museum today.
But most of the displayed items came from one source: Elvis friend and collector Janelle McComb. She was the chairperson of the Elvis Presley Memorial Foundation for more than two decades before health concerns forced her to cede the post to a new board of directors, which credits her for originally engineering the Tupelo birthplace/museum project.
The overall Presley collection here forms an eclectic grouping: a hammer Vernon Presley used to construct his home, photos of Elvis' parents and grandparents, copies of the guitar man's marriage license and report card, an upholstered easy chair and a pair of his blue pajamas from Graceland. There is also an unusual 78 rpm recording of Presley's first No. 1 song, "Heartbreak Hotel."
And Elvis did get that bike he wanted. A framed photograph of boy and bicycle attests to that.
The last unit of the birthplace complex most visitors set foot into is the Memorial Chapel, smaller on the inside than it looks from the outside. The dozen pews were donated by Elvis fan clubs, relatives and personal friends. Recorded Gospel music soothes visitors' ears and Presley's personal Bible is preserved in a Plexiglas case.
"Elvis Presley is the supreme socio-cultural icon in the history of pop culture"
(Dr. Garry Enders)
" Elvis is the 'glue' which holds our society together....which subconciously gives our world meaning"
"Eventually everybody has to die, except Elvis"
(humorist Dave Barry)
"He is the "Big Bang", and the universe he detonated is still expanding, the pieces are still flying"
(Greil Marcus, "Dead Elvis")
"I think Elvis Presley will never be solved"