What is it about Elvis Presley that keeps his image burning so brightly in our culture's consciousness? In the decades following his death, the singer—who would have turned 80 on January 8—has been elevated to levels bordering on the religious: the sites he visited turned into pilgrimage destinations, the items he touched transformed into pop culture relics.
Graceland, his Memphis home, averages 600,000 visitors a year and has spawned duplicates both miniature and life-size. But beyond the neon lights and shag carpets, in places like Connecticut and Arkansas, live people who believe deeply in the importance of preserving the history—and legacy—of Elvis Presley in unexpected ways.
Chaffee Barbershop Museum: Chaffee Crossing, Arkansas
Within Elvis' prolific career—spanning music and movies in a way that pop culture icons hadn't managed before—it's easy for a single haircut to get lost. For years, the building that once housed the Fort Chaffee barbershop, on the Arkansas base where Elvis enlisted in 1958, sat deteriorating. The building had no electricity, and the chairs and sinks that once lined the shop were gone—gutted with the rest of the building's interior when the space was converted to private use in 1990.
On March 25, 1958, when Elvis received his military buzzcut at Fort Chaffee, the area teemed with media and spectators. Some feared that in losing his trademark sideburns, Elvis would also lose his desire to continue with a career in music. Dubbed "the haircut heard round the world" by members of the press, the event was a major draw for Fort Chaffee, a historic World War II army base that opened in 1941 after Pearl Harbor.
The barbershop has been restored to its 1958 appearance, thanks to a 2008 restoration project. "Being a former military base, we find it very important to preserve the legacy of Elvis’ time at Chaffee," says Joseph Chasteen, director of Historic District & Museums with the Fort Chaffee Redevelopment Authority. "Not only did his military service show the world that he was not a bad rebel as many people thought, as he easily could have gotten out of it, it showed that he had pride and respect for his country, which is an important aspect of the military, and his attitude and judgment about joining the army made an impact on society and the young men and women who were his fans."
Today, the Chaffee Barbershop Museum houses a contemporary barber chair (though not necessarily from the barbershop) and the original barbershop pole from the time of Elvis' haircut. Original photographs taken of the haircut, as well as the camera used by a local photographer, are also on display.
Since restoring the barbershop, Fort Chaffee has seen an uptick in Elvis-related tourism. A year after opening the museum, on March 25, 2009, the barbershop hosted an Elvis-themed festival, complete with Elvis performers, a look-alike contest and Elvis-inspired haircuts. That year, 250 people came. Last year, the festival drew in over 3,500 visitors. This year's Elvis Haircut Day will be held April 11—and organizers are expecting it to be the largest event yet.
"The barbershop and the historic district is truly unique," Chasteen says. "Nowhere else can you visit the site where Elvis' sideburns were buzzed off and he was inducted into the army, as well as the [place where] thousands of soldiers that served our country in each major war since WWII have trained."