The King and us

At GracelandToo, a father-and-son team is determined to capture every Elvis mention alive.

By Christina Boufis

Published August 12, 1997 10:39AM (EDT)

after one of my friends visited Graceland, he half-jokingly
insisted that everyone he knew do the same. "It is not your duty as an
American," he would say, "but a requirement for salvation in the next
life." Certainly Graceland is, in many ways, America's Canterbury, and the
750,000 fans who visit each year -- particularly during the
anniversary week of Elvis' Aug. 16, 1977, death -- come not as tourists, but as pilgrims.

With my friend's words in mind, I recently went to Memphis
expressly to visit 3734 Elvis Presley Blvd., in the hopes of receiving a
little grace myself. But the day I visited, it was pouring, which seemed to
dampen whatever spirits might be hanging around the place. The audio
portion of the tour was cloyingly saccharine, with Priscilla
recounting all the "fun" Elvis had sitting around the dining room table
laughing with his "Memphis Mafia" pals. Other than the three Elvis impersonators, who posed
over the grave in the Meditation Garden, the tour was more soggy than
spiritual, and certainly less than I'd hoped.

Fortunately, I'd heard from another friend about
GracelandToo, the museum-home of Paul B. MacLeod and his son, Elvis Aaron
Presley MacLeod. The MacLeods claim to be the "world's No. 1 Elvis fans" and to have
the largest reference collection of Elvis information anywhere. I don't
doubt it. Located in the tiny town of Holly Springs, Miss.,
auspiciously between Memphis and Tupelo, Elvis' birthplace, GracelandToo and its inhabitants
almost defy description. I would say they are Elvis apostles, only they
will be the first to tell you that the King was a man, not a god, and that
they are not interested in deifying him, only in amassing any references to
him in any medium -- TV, print, digital, vinyl. They do this 24 hours a day,
365 (and a quarter) days a year, taking turns sleeping only a few hours
a night in order to keep up
with the plethora of new information that arrives daily. They find as many
as 70 new items to catalog each day: The Internet, needless to say, has
added much to their labors.

The father, Paul, has been compiling information about Elvis for
the last 41 years. The son, Elvis, who is 24, has been doing the same for
only a couple of decades. Mrs. MacLeod, according to local legend (and the
National Inquirer article Paul claimed was true), left the family when the
collection became just too much for her to compete with. This isn't
surprising; there just isn't room for anyone else in the overstuffed
environs of GracelandToo.

From the outside, the MacLeod house is unprepossessing, if a little
ramshackle. Other than a giant poster of Elvis in an upstairs window and
the Grecian columns on the front, it would be hard to associate it with its
namesake. A hand-painted sign says "Yes We're Open" -- luckily, for you wouldn't know it otherwise.

I was greeted at the door by the son, who looks like a larger
version of a youthful Elvis Presley -- only one played at 33 rpm instead of the usual 45 -- and ushered into the TV Guide room. Soft-spoken and deadly
serious, the live Elvis explained a little about the collection, starting
with the numerous TV Guides that are clipped with plastic paper clips
(metal ones will rust) marking any mention of Elvis' name. There are over
100,000 citations. These references are then scanned into the computer and
stored, but it doesn't appear that the books are discarded in favor of the
digitized version: the more citations the better. There are multiple copies
of most everything -- books, records, clippings, VCR tapes -- and the
MacLeods don't seem to favor one medium over any other. Although they have
five of every record Elvis ever made (including one copy of a very rare
interview), some of which are warehoused in three other states, they never
play them because, the younger MacLeod explained, "vinyl is not a very
durable medium."

From the TV entrance room, I was led into a "library" that
contains a large bed covered with CDs and walls plastered with records,
many in their original unbroken packaging. There is a copy of Elvis' gold
lamé suit (which Paul MacLeod hopes to be buried in) hanging in one corner
and a glass altar made by one of Elvis' friends. After pointing out every
object, Elvis MacLeod paused and softly asked if I had any questions. He
seemed genuinely disappointed when I didn't, so I asked the only thing I
could think of: What really happened on Aug. 16, 1977? Unlike at
Graceland, Elvis MacLeod spoke freely about the other Elvis' drug abuse,
listing all 18 drugs found in the King's body and speculating that
such drug use first began when Presley was stationed overseas in the Army.
"It's the truth," Elvis MacLeod said about the drug overdose, "and we're not
afraid of it."

I wondered about this statement during the rest of the tour. Was it "the truth" the MacLeods were searching for in their endless
retrieval and storage of Elvis information? But I never got to ask the
younger MacLeod because he disappeared, though not before
documenting my visit first. All visitors, he explained, are photographed (if
they're willing) and cataloged (by state). In the six years that they have
been giving tours, GracelandToo has received over 50,000 visitors.
(By comparison, Graceland One will receive approximately that number during "Elvis Week,"
the nine-day celebration commemorating the King's life and death.)

When the elder MacLeod took over, halfway through the tour, he denied being an Elvis impersonator, even though he dyes his hair 12 times a
year. He may not think of himself as an impersonator, but when he put on a record and sang and danced for us, he sounded an awful lot like you know who.

This wasn't as kitschy as it sounds. In fact,
the entire tour wasn't kitschy at all. The MacLeods are far too sincere
to be campy. But I kept wondering what drives this father and son team to spend every waking moment archiving Elvis. It was unlikely they did this out of greed. The MacLeods could quote the price of every record and bit of memorabilia
they owned, but they seemed strangely
removed from connecting these items with any monetary gain. It wasn't probable that this display stemmed from a zealous love of Elvis' music. The
MacLeods were more interested in discussing their research than concerts or music. And with their love of Elvis references in
all media, the TV Guide citations were almost as important as
the original 45s.

Perhaps their endless information search was
one way of keeping him alive. Unlike many other Elvis fanatics, the MacLeods believe in the finality of the King's death. Still, in their relentless tracking of memorabilia and references, were they trying to construct the flesh from the sum of a billion parts? I asked Paul.
His response was to begin telling several stories all at once of Elvis'
charitable acts -- how he gave away this Cadillac or other car, or how he helped
this stranger or that one. Certainly this charity is noteworthy, but just
how many notes do such actions warrant?

If the son is a soft-spoken version of Elvis played at 33 rpm, then
his father is one played at 78. He talked so fast the entire time, I was
sure his dentures were going to fly out of his mouth. And when he spoke
about Elvis (whom MacLeod referred to as He), it was, well, reverential.
"Ever hear of an actor named Clint Eastwood?" he asked, with complete
guilelessness. When I said yes, he immediately launched into a story about
Elvis and Clint in which the latter played nothing more than an extra. In
the MacLeod universe, there is only one star.

"Ever hear of a magazine called Harper's Bazaar?" he asked. I
had. Paul then explained that they were coming to GracelandToo the next day
to do a photo shoot (the original Graceland wouldn't let them use Elvis
memorabilia as props). MacLeod hadn't heard of the magazine before, or the
supermodel (Kate Moss), but he was grateful that they were paying him a
location fee: It would enable him to pay his high electric bills. Keeping
track of Elvis is not cheap, he said; the MacLeods have 15 televisions running at
all times (one more than Graceland) so that they can scan the closed
captioning looking for references on the news or soap operas. At this point I
expected a sales pitch of some kind, or at least to be asked
for more money; but I was wrong. Paul even offered to refund the $5
admission fee if I wasn't completely satisfied. I assured him I was,
which was all he needed to immediately take off again, this time talking
nonstop about his neighbors, all of whom seemed, improbably, to have some connection to Elvis.

The tour culminated in a walk down a long hallway lined with
photographs (many of GracelandToo visitors), including ones of the night
Elvis died. Paul happened to be standing outside Graceland that evening, as
he often did, with his young son. He heard a sound. It was Elvis revving up
his Harley. Paul quickly grabbed his camcorder and shot the last footage of
the King alive as he came down the driveway, and continued shooting when
Elvis changed his mind and headed back up toward the house. In addition to
this rare footage, Paul also pointed to an eerily overexposed photograph,
in which, he claimed, you could see Elvis' spirit rising. I was genuinely
spooked at this point, and I'd had enough information. It didn't help that
MacLeod kept his hand on my shoulder the entire time he spoke; I felt
marked, as if I too were going to die soon, perhaps in a fiery motorcycle
crash. And the hallway itself was beginning to feel like an entrance into
an Elvis underworld; I wasn't sure I would even make it out alive.

Sensing my restlessness, Paul apologized for taking up so much of
my time (an hour and a half), then encouraged me to fill out comment
sheets, which would, of course, be typed and cataloged. I wrote that the
MacLeods were the only people on the planet who seemed to be working toward
a Ph.D. in Elvis, but that didn't seem adequate. Language fails after such
an experience.

Paul then accompanied me outside (though according to the waitress
at the local cafe, the MacLeods are rarely seen outdoors) and I gave him
the reference to Elvis Presley and Graceland from my travel guide to
Memphis. "Why, thank you," he said, genuinely pleased. "This will go right
up on the wall." I am sure it will. He looks like a man who keeps His word --
as many as he can find.

Christina Boufis

Christina Boufis teaches at Stanford University and San Francisco County Jail. She is the co-editor, along with Victoria C. Olsen, of "On the Market."

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