Still taking care of business

"The universe's, the galaxy's, the planet's and the world's ultimate Elvis fan" spends every minute of every day filling Graceland Too with -- with what?

Published June 27, 2001 7:00PM (EDT)

His name is Paul MacLeod and he lives in Holly Springs, Miss. He is the world's biggest Elvis fan. He has sired only one child in his 58 years, a son, whose birth name is Elvis Aaron Presley MacLeod. Four years ago, his wife and the mother of his child, Serita, gave him an ultimatum: "Choose me or choose Elvis." MacLeod chose Elvis.

Boy, did he choose Elvis.

With a deep Southern twang, mighty sideburns and a freewheeling pair of dentures, MacLeod says he has welcomed over 220,000 curiosity seekers into his overstuffed antebellum home, which the girthy, Mississippi-born quinquagenarian calls Graceland Too. In fact, the two-story house, built in 1853, is so crammed with Elvis paraphernalia that it's unclear where this former Detroit autoworker sleeps. Certainly not on the second floor: Elvis phones, Elvis dolls, Elvis pillows and three cardboard Elvis models take up each and every step leading to the second story. Even if you could traverse the labyrinth of rockabilly kitsch, you'd still have to contend with a mountain of newspaper clippings, record albums and Elvis-related magazines once you reached the landing.

MacLeod is an excitable man. He believes that Elvis Presley is the "greatest entertainer I think bar none the world has ever seen," and he's got 55,000 newspaper clippings that he says prove "the King's unparalleled influence on international pop culture at large and in the universe." MacLeod will open his home up to anyone, day or night, because, he says, he never sleeps. He's too busy completing his life's work: From "Cheers" to "The Sopranos" to "Days of Our Lives," MacLeod has taped every TV program that has mentioned Elvis since the King died, in his Graceland bathroom, on Aug. 16, 1977. All this information -- whether in newspapers, on VHS tape or printed in a magazine -- is meticulously cross-referenced and stored in steamer trunks, which cover an entire wall in his living room. What he plans to do with this information, however -- "the house is full from floor to wall to ceiling, I'm telling you, boxes, boxes, boxes" -- remains unclear.

Here are some of the things MacLeod's got: 10 guitars allegedly used by the King; over 1,000 original pressings of Elvis LPs and singles; a carpet clipping that once adorned the floor of Graceland's infamous Jungle Room; tickets to Elvis' final concert; a Graceland security guard jacket; a Hughes High School yearbook denoting "Elvis Priestly" as the winner of an April 9, 1953, talent contest (the name is misspelled, "like the guy on the 90210 TV show," he says); and a Longhorn Elementary report card dating back to 1951 in which the King flunked music class. MacLeod says he even has a petal from the first flower ever placed on Elvis' grave.

But his most prized possession? A Super 8 film that MacLeod claims contains the last images of Elvis before his death. Of course, MacLeod won't show it to anyone and keeps this film under lock and key in the back of his house. To date, he says, no one except his son has ever seen it.

There's not a whole lot to do in Holly Springs. With a population of just 7,000, the quaint, sleepy town has a pleasant feel, smells like magnolia trees and has an aura that makes you want to drink sweet tea in a rocking chair while wearing overalls. According to a tourist pamphlet issued by the Holly Springs Tourism and Recreational Bureau, outsiders should visit the Bank of Holly Springs, the state's oldest charter bank, or Rust College, the state's oldest black college. If that doesn't suit tastes, the town's "world famous hamburgers and homegrown blues" are available, respectively, at Phillips Grocery and the annual Memphis Street Blues and Gospel Festival, a gathering said to bring more than 1,000 visitors to town each fall. If all else fails, visitors can kill quail at Dunn's Shooting Grounds just outside the town limits. Otherwise, Graceland Too is more or less your last resort.

But for Elvis fans, the town has a strategic, almost mythical location. Holly Springs sits just about halfway between Memphis, Tenn. -- where Elvis died -- and Tupelo, Miss., where Presley was born on Jan. 8, 1935, to Vernon and Gladys Presley. (The tight, two-room house was built in 1933 by Vernon and his brother, Vester, with the help of a $180 loan from Tupelo landlord Orville Bean. It was Bean who had the elder Presley jailed three years later for forging a check following the sale of a hog.) In that house, Elvis spent the first year of his life, the only survivor of a twin birth. His brother, Jessie Garon, emerged stillborn 35 minutes before Elvis came along.

So, between Memphis, Tupelo and Holly Springs, Elvis faithful can find a megalopolis of Elvis lore all within a little over an hour's drive. If Las Vegas were due west about 30 miles, Holly Springs would be smack-dab in the middle of the Elvis Bermuda Triangle. And if that were the case, MacLeod would be a noble thane in this great domain.

"Aw hell," he told me over the phone a few days after I visited, "when you were here, what you saw, that ain't half of it, what I got coming in here. Shit, I got three more semis worth of Elvis stuff coming." MacLeod doesn't own a car. "Everything you can think of connected with Elvis. Got eight TVs running, I got 31,000 tapes in here at four-and-a-half hours apiece. That's a lot of stuff mentioning Elvis. You won't believe it. That's just in video, that's nothing to do with radio and all that stuff. I tell you, we got 25,000 books in here on Elvis already. The house is full from floor to wall to ceiling and when Disney came down here" -- it's unclear whether the entertainment company, in fact, did -- "they had the whole collection listed at $10.5 million. But I ain't selling nothing. I'm trying to preserve a piece of history. This kind of history ain't worth any amount of money."

Whether it's history or not, the collection is certainly unique and has attracted its share of high-profile visitors. When Robert Altman's film "Cookie's Fortune" was filmed in Holly Springs in 1997, cast members Glenn Close, Chris O'Donnell and Lyle Lovett each visited Graceland Too. In addition, MacLeod claims that everyone from Montel Williams (a picture seems to prove it) to the late Minnesota Fats to Priscilla Presley's chauffeur has walked through its doors.

"Mr. MacLeod is obviously a great connoisseur of the history of Elvis Presley and he has been very instrumental in bringing tourists to the city to visit the site," says Holly Springs' current mayor, Andre Deberry, who took over after Mayor Eddie Lee Smith died in February. "I understand he has probably one of the best collections of artifacts, of historical and, I guess, personal artifacts of Elvis, and we view that as being positive for the city. Anytime we can have people coming into the city to view the city for whatever reasons, for tourist attractions, bringing celebrities to enjoy things as well as regular folk, we are more than happy to have such a person bring in that sort of clientele to the city."

"I got movie companies coming in here from all over the world, documentary companies; some of them want to pay up to $10,000 just to shoot in here," MacLeod says. He reiterates regularly that production companies have offered him a $10,000 sum at least 100 times. "People from Switzerland, Sweden, Paris, France, Germany, ABC, NBC, CBS, South Africa, Belgium, China, VH1, MTV, Discovery, PBS -- and they just shot a big-ass thing down here for tourism called 'Mississippi Roads.' And I don't know if you ever heard of a country western show that comes out of Nashville, the "Crook & Chase Show." It's real famous now. They ended up doing one of the nicest interviews I've ever seen done on this property out of any film crew I'd ever seen here. I was scared to let them in 'cause I thought they were kind of making fun of something, but they didn't -- they said the collection is worth $5.5 million. They sent one lady here that had a few Elvis items in her house from San Francisco. When she got here she went right out the front door and cried her ass off like Niagara Falls, Canada. She thought she had Elvis stuff, but she saw this Elvis stuff and she went out crying like hell."

MacLeod was born Oct. 17, 1942, and grew up in the house that would eventually become Graceland Too. His Elvis obsession began in 1956 when he purchased Presley's debut recording, "That's All Right"/"Blue Moon of Kentucky," the double-sided 45 recorded at Memphis' legendary Sun Studios for the paltry sum of $4.

In the early '60s, MacLeod migrated north to work at "Elvis' favorite car manufacturer, Cadillac Motor Car Division, in Detroit, where I worked on the assembly line, where they built the cars." Whether in Michigan, Tennessee, Mississippi or Vegas -- he's spent plenty of time in all four locales -- MacLeod continued to collect Elvis memorabilia. (One time in Vegas, MacLeod says, he hustled $250,000 away from Col. Tom Parker, Elvis' enigmatic manager who was the mastermind behind the King's rise to fame.) When son Elvis Aaron Presley MacLeod came along in 1974, the boy was soon enlisted to help Dad collect more stuff.

"The house here belonged to my family, and for a long time here, my wife lived here with me," he says. "Long, long time we lived here. Serita and me had a perfect marriage. I don't know, one day she just told me, 'Make up your mind,' either her or the Elvis collection. I told her 'bye' and that was the last time I seen her. She had to do what makes her happy, I had to do what makes me happy. I hope she's happy wherever the hell she's at."

With Serita gone and his son zestfully aboard the Elvis fan wagon -- MacLeod Jr. is now 27 years old, is 6-4 and weighs in at a hefty 240 pounds -- MacLeod Sr. continued his collection in private until a few years ago when a wayfaring couple came knocking on his door.

"They [the couple] was making a pilgrimage down I-78 to see Elvis' birthplace in Tupelo and they stopped in town to get some grub and told a waitress lady about how they was just at Graceland," MacLeod recalls. "'Hell,' the waitress lady says, 'if you been to Graceland and you're going down to Tupelo, why don't you go right down the street here and knock on this guy's door. His son is named Elvis Aaron Presley and they got the world's largest collection, you won't believe it. Maybe if you knocked on the door and told them who you are, what you're doing, maybe they'll let you take a look.' People are now showing up here from every damn where from word of mouth."

Among the hundreds of thousands of people MacLeod has welcomed into his home, over 3,000 of them, he says, have been Elvis impersonators. This population subset has been a disparate bunch, according to the proprietor, ranging from a 12-day-old baby who, when placed in MacLeod's 1950s greaser leather jacket, allegedly raised his left hand and swaggered his hips, Elvis style, to a 105-year-old woman who imitated the King while eating a peanut butter and banana sandwich, Elvis' well-known plate of choice. Before Elvis' longtime cook, Mary Jenkins Langston, passed on in June 2000, she made a visit. Even Elvis Presley Enterprises, the corporation controlled with iron fists by Priscilla and Lisa Marie Presley, has sent representatives to Holly Springs to get a piece of MacLeod. The company once asked him to participate in a video collage for the company's flagship restaurant, Elvis Presley's Memphis, on Beale Street in downtown Memphis.

"We planned on having several collections of clips depicting Elvis' permeation of modern-day media and culture," said Todd Morgan, director of media and creative development at Graceland and Elvis Presley Enterprises. "We knew Paul had kept vigil with his VCRs for many years, trying to catch on tape all he could of the mentions of Elvis on television, so we hooked the producer up with Paul. I don't think he found anything in Paul's collection that we could use for the project. But Paul and his son were most gracious and helpful and we appreciated it."

This perhaps is the most uncanny fact about Graceland Too: It's no more far-fetched, imbalanced and wrought with Elvis mythology than the legitimate Graceland in Memphis. In the 24-plus years since Presley was discovered by then-lover Ginger Alden face down on his bathroom tile, the victim of heart failure at age 42, Graceland proper has morphed into as much of an American original as its bizarro junior just 30 minutes to the south.

Just look at the Graceland Mansion tour. There is no live guide. Visitors pay $16 for admission and an audio guide that offers about half an hour of clumsily rewritten history that glosses over the less savory aspects of Elvis' life. During the tour's finale, the narrator talks ever so briefly about Elvis and Priscilla's divorce in 1973. This was the event largely credited with sending the King into drug abuse and ending his much-ballyhooed "second career," as Graceland calls it, launched by the 1968 comeback special where he donned his leather jacket and sang all his pre-film hits. "Although they were divorced in 1973," says the voice, "Elvis and Priscilla still remained good, good friends." Never mind the duo's alleged extramarital dalliances -- it has been whispered for years that the former couple hardly spoke after their divorce.

Once the tour is complete, all you have to do is look across Elvis Presley Boulevard to catch a glimpse of a piece of Elvis history that may be the purest embodiment of the King's final moment as a true rock star: a red, white and chrome 1976 Harley-Davidson Electra Glide 1200 motorcycle, the one MacLeod claims Elvis was riding during the last night of his life, the motorcycle MacLeod claims he has Elvis riding on Super 8 film.

"I was up there every night for a month before he died," MacLeod says, his eyes burning like a minister's. "I knew all the guards at Graceland at that time, and I was up there morning, noon and night doing rounds with the guards. I had a Super 8 millimeter and I was carrying a 35 millimeter Minolta camera tripod carrying case with a 400-foot high-powered lens. That thing could get pictures of your eyelashes way down the street. Now this was before he died; I got him riding the motorcycle that night, red and chrome Harley-Davidson Electra Glide, same one they got in that museum. Ginger Alden, that girl who found him, the world's greatest living entertainer dead, she's on the back of the bike."

Whether that tape really exists hardly matters. By the time you've traveled from Memphis to Holly Springs to Tupelo and back, you want to believe that the last image of Elvis Aaron Presley that exists -- no matter how bloated and drugged out the King may have been -- is of him riding a primo Harley with a 21-year-old girl on the back. It doesn't get much more rock 'n' roll than that.

By Mike Batistick

Mike Batistick is a journalist and playwright living in New York City.

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