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."
Mr. Trophy: Hartford, Connecticut
People visit Mr. Trophy, a family-run trophy shop across the interstate from the Hartford airport, for two reasons: to purchase a trophy, plaque, or similiar commemorative item, or to see owner Joseph "Butch" Surwilo's Elvis Room.
"I get customers that have been here and want their wives to see it or husbands to see it," Surwilo says. "They'll stop in from all over Connecticut just to see the Elvis room."
Surwilo didn't intend to build a special Elvis room in his trophy shop, but as a lifelong fan of the King, he found that friends and family tended to give him Elvis memorabilia as presents. Eventually, his collection grew so large that his wife laid down the law. "My wife said to me, 'Hon, we have no room here! You gotta get this stuff out of the house.'"
Surwilo decided to convert a small room in his trophy shop—which had been previously used for storage—into a space dedicated to his Elvis collection. "I didn’t think it was going to become such a big deal, but it has been," he says. "I wish my trophy room was as popular as the Elvis room!"
By his own estimates, Surwilo figures he has upwards of 1,200 different Elvis-related items on display, from a complete set of Bradford Exchange Elvis plates (valued at around $100,000) to a solid gold lightning bold with the letters TCB (for "Taking Care of Business") engraved on it, identical to one that Elvis wore. But one of Surwilo's favorite Elvis-related items isn't kept in his room—it's a gold plaque that Surwilo personally made for Elvis to commemorate the King's 1976 show in Hartford.
"I bought 20 tickets, and took 10 couples to the show," Surwilo remembers. "I made a plaque, a wall plaque, because that’s my business, and I had a gold guitar made from the people who make the Academy Awards. I engraved it 'To Elvis, Welcome to Hartford, From Your #1 Fan at Mr. Trophy.'" At the show, Surwilo gave the plaque to one of Elvis' security guards, and asked that they try to get the item to Elvis. The next year, Surwilo again bought 20 tickets to Elvis' Hartford show, but the singer died the week of the performance.
"I forgot all about the plaque," Surwilo says. "Eight or nine years later, we were on a cross-country trip with my family, and we stopped at Graceland." It was Surwilo's young daughter who spotted her father's plaque, hanging on a wall in a room of plaques and trophies in Elvis' Memphis home. It still hangs there to this day.
Back in Surwilo's Elvis Room, the performer's legacy lives on. Today, it's mostly customers that bring him new items to add to the room.
"If you're in your car and a song starts, within the first five seconds you know that's an Elvis song," Surwilo says. "He was one of a kind, never to be duplicated. There's a lot of great ones, but there's never been one like this guy."
Elvis Museum: Pigeon Forge, Tennessee
According to Michael Britt Moon, known as Britt, it all started because of boiled peanuts.
Britt is the son of Mike L. Moon, the founder of the Elvis Museum, home to what some have called the largest private collection of Elvis memorabilia in the world. Mike was good friends with J.D. Sumner, a member of the Stamps Quartet, which Elvis used throughout the 1970s as his backup group. Through Sumner, Elvis discovered that Mike dabbled in peanut farming—and began asking Mike to send him boiled peanuts after his shows in Las Vegas.
"It wasn't unusual for him to get a phone call around three or four in the morning, which was about midnight [in Las Vegas], when they got done with the show, and Elvis wanted boiled peanuts," Britt says. "Dad would get up the next morning, drive to the next town over and ship them by airline out to Vegas."
Years of faithfully delivering boiled peanuts eventually led to an invitation to meet Elvis, cementing Mike's ties to the Stamps Quartet. After Elvis' death, the Quartet—along with Mike—corralled some of Elvis' personal belongings and other Elvis-related items into a collection. In 1979, the Elvis Museum opened in Pigeon Forge.
"The majority of these objects were acquired from people that were associated with Elvis," Britt explains, noting that Sumner and the members of the Stamps Quartet are credited throughout the museum for their role in bringing the collection together.
Items of note in the museum include Elvis' (worn) underwear, his last personal limousine and the original TCB ring. "It's probably the cornerstone of our collection," Britt says of the ring, which includes a 9-carat solitaire diamond.
"There were a couple of different TCB rings made—the one that we have is the first and the original," Britt explains. "It was gifted to J.D. Sumner by Elvis on stage. Elvis had outgrown the ring, and it hurt his finger, so he gave it to J.D. and then had another, slightly different one made. The second one, the copy, is the one that’s on display at Graceland."
At one time, there were five offshoots of the Pigeon Forge museum located around the country (in the 1980s, Mike Moon partnered with Guinness and Museums International to expand the museum nationally), but today, the Pigeon Forge location is the last remaining bastion. The museum has been housed in three separate locations since 1979, moving for the last time in 2013.
"The man was extremely talented, and he is and always will be an American icon," Britt says. "When you think of American rock 'n' roll, most people are going to think about Elvis."
Panoramic Encyclopedia of Everything Elvis: Cornelia, Georgia
Joni Mabe was an art student at the University of Georgia when she heard the news that Elvis was dead. "The radio played a day-long tribute, all of his songs," she says, "and that's when I became obsessed with Elvis."
Mabe began creating Elvis-themed art for her undergraduate studies, then completed a thesis project on Elvis in order to receive her Masters of Fine Art. "My first Elvis show, I wallpapered the whole gallery in black and white Elvis paper and put my art on top of that," she explains. The show was complete with Elvis impersonators and a jukebox playing Elvis music, and Mabe guesses it was the first time the University of Georgia had seen a thesis on Elvis. "That was 1983, and that's really how the Panoramic Encyclopedia of Everything Elvis began."
For years, Mabe traveled around the world, showing her art in various galleries and museums from New York to London. After 14 years of exhibiting Elvis-themed art—and amassing a personal collection of Elvis-related items—she returned to Cornelia, Georgia, to take on a different challenge. The historic Loudermilk Boarding House, which her great-grandparents built in 1908, was set to be burned down by the city fire department. "I felt like I had to save it and get it on the National Historic Register of Places," she says, which she accomplished in 2001. Today, the boardinghouse operates as a museum dedicated to the building's history—at least on the first two floors.
In 1999, Mabe installed her collection of Elvis art and paraphernalia on the third floor, dubbing it the Panoramic Encyclopedia of Everything Elvis. By her estimates, the museum houses around 30,000 pieces of art and other items related to the singer.
The museum offers visitors the expected—collector's plates, posters, and the like—along with the deeply unexpected. One of Mabe's most prized possessions is an actual wart taken from Elvis' right wrist, sold to her by a Memphis doctor in 1991. For that wart, Mabe has received some strange propositions. "There are people that want to clone Elvis from the wart," she says, "but I don't want Elvis cloned. I don't want Elvis as a baby, I'd be like his grandmother!"
Mabe estimates that the museum has drawn in thousands of visitors over the years. Each summer, she also hosts an Elvis-themed festival for the city of Cornelia, which has become so popular that last year it had to be moved from the front lawn of the boardinghouse to the local Veterans of Foreign Wars building (a space that Made says the festival has already outgrown).
"He just had the 'it,'" Mabe says. "I can't quite figure him out—I think that keeps me interested in him."
Little Graceland: Los Fresnos, Texas
Simon Vega first began purchasing Elvis memorabilia after seeing the singer on the "Ed Sullivan Show" in 1956. Two years later, as a young man entering the army at Fort Hood in Texas, Vega met Elvis face-to-face. The two began a friendship that continued through their overseas posting in Germany, and when Vega returned, he continued to collect items related to his friend.
For nearly three decades, Vega collected Elvis-related objects. After being devastated by his death in 1977, Vega felt it was important to preserve the memory of his friend.
In 1985, Vega and his family decided to do something special in honor of Elvis. They started two Elvis-themed festivals in Los Fresnos, where they lived: one in August, and one on January 8, in honor of Elvis' birthday (due to inclement weather, this year's festival will be held on January 17).
"People from the valley, in Texas, they can't go all the way to Graceland," Vega says. "But they come here, and they like it. They get a good idea of what Graceland is at Little Graceland."
Outside of the museum, which is open to visitors Friday and Saturdays (and by appointment), Vega installed a smaller replica of the musical gates found at the original Graceland. Inside, visitors can view Vega's collection of Elvis-related items, including a 1955 Cadillac (Vega calls this the museum's newest attraction), Elvis' jumpsuits and an army dress uniform. But Vega's most prized possessions are those from his time with Elvis—the photographs he has of himself and the singer, or his wife and the singer, from his time in the army.
"If I had known [the museum] was going to happen," Vega jokes, "I would have taken more and more pictures."
Now in his 80s, Vega hopes the museum and festivals continue well into the future. "We want to make people happy," he says. "Elvis told me one time that his main wish in the world was to make people happy with his music. We're trying to do the same, keeping his music going and his name going."