Elvis
Monday, 30 November -0001

The King is back…

As a dazzling Elvis exhibition opens in London, his former wife Priscilla talks to Richard Barber about her memories of the icon

Written by Richard Barber
Angie Marchese started working as a tour guide at Elvis Presley’s home, Graceland, in Memphis, in 1989 and has now been involved with the King non-stop for 25 years.

‘It was the summer that never ended,’ she says. Nor is it likely to. As director of archives, and with responsibility for all Elvis exhibitions from conception to installation, Angie clearly has a job for life.

Graceland, set in more than 13 acres of prime Tennessee real estate, was opened as a museum in June 1982 following Elvis’s untimely death, at the age of just 42, in August 1977. Now, the largest ever exhibition outside of his former home has just opened at The O2 in London, where it will remain until the end of August.

It boasts more than 300 original pieces of Elvis memorabilia, which, for two months from mid-February, will include the black leather suit he wore for his famous 1968 TV special (there’s a room in the exhibition dedicated to this landmark show, something of a comeback after his career had begun to dwindle). The gold lamé outfit he wore in the 1950s can be seen from April. And in June, the King’s 1955 pink Cadillac will go on display.

Elvis-Jan16-02-590Clockwise from top left: The ‘TCB’ ring designed by Elvis and Priscilla. Elvis’s karate jacket. The King’s gold telephone

Even if you weren’t alive at the time of his global fame, Elvis was such an icon of the 20th century that many of the artefacts on show will seem instantly familiar. There’s the Sun Records room, for instance, dedicated to the small recording studio where, in August 1953, Elvis paid for a few minutes of studio time to record a two-sided acetate disc: My Happiness and That’s When Your Heartaches Begin.

Then there’s a room devoted to his time doing national service in the army; there’s his den, known as the Jungle Room; a Hollywood room celebrating his film career; his 1956 Lincoln Continental Mk II, bought while on tour in Miami; and a collection of golf carts which he drove round Graceland’s landscaped acres, including one in powder blue that he bought for his daughter, Lisa Marie, when she was seven.

Elvis was also a keen motorcycle rider, and one of his many bikes, a Harley-Davidson Electra-Glide bought in 1976, the year before he died, is on display too.

But it’s not all boys’ toys. Preserved under glass is a letter from President Nixon in reply to a handwritten five page missive Elvis wrote on a plane trip to Washington, with which he managed to talk his way into the Oval Office:

Elvis-Jan16-03-590Graceland

‘Dear Mr Presley, it was a pleasure to meet you in my office recently, and I want you to know once again how much I appreciate your thoughtfulness in giving me the commemorative World War II Colt .45 pistol, encased in a handsome wooden chest. You were particularly kind to remember me with this impressive gift, as well as your family photographs, and I am delighted to have them for my collection of special mementos. With my best wishes to you, Mrs Presley, and to your daughter, Lisa, for a happy and peaceful 1971. Sincerely, Richard Nixon.’

For his part, Nixon gave Elvis a badge from the Bureau of Narcotics and Dangerous Drugs as well as a set of cufflinks and a pin for Priscilla, each bearing the presidential seal.

Aged just 21, Priscilla Beaulieu married Elvis on 1 May 1967. Although the marriage ended in divorce in 1973, it was to change her life forever.

In the UK to appear as the ‘mean queen’ (her words) in Snow White in Manchester, Priscilla, now 69, took a day out to revisit her own past courtesy of the O2 exhibition.

Elvis-Jan16-04-590-quote

‘It took my breath away,’ she says. ‘It felt like that chapter of my life flashing before my eyes, a mix of poignant nostalgia and fond memories.

‘Graceland was our home and it was full of Elvis’s playthings. The golf carts are a good example. He loved driving round the grounds and showing off for his fans, who could see him from Elvis Presley Boulevard at the front of the property by standing on the tops of their cars or at the house’s iron gates.’

More than four decades have since passed. ‘I was from a completely different world. I was brought up in Brooklyn; my father was in the military. I was very young, very naive when I first met Elvis. Looking back, I now appreciate so much more the extraordinary turn my life took. When you’re in the middle of something, I don’t think you’re able to get any real perspective on what’s happening. Now, as a mature adult, I can understand so much more about that surreal experience.’

She wouldn’t be human if she didn’t sometimes ask herself: what if? ‘I do, but I try not to dwell on that, because it would drive me crazy. Obviously, it wasn’t in the plan that we should stay together. But there’s nothing I can do about the bad things, which is why I concentrate on appreciating all the good ones.’

Elvis-Jan16-05-590From left: Elvis’s Aloha cape. Elvis pictured in 1968

Earlier this month, had he lived, Elvis would have celebrated his 80th birthday. ‘I must admit,’ says Priscilla, ‘that gives me pause for thought. He was just 42 when he died – so young. I texted my daughter just yesterday discussing this very thing.’ Lisa has already outlived her father; she’ll be 47 on 1 February.

Priscilla has great affection for Elvis’s British fans. ‘They always got him. And he always wanted to perform in Britain, to pay back their loyalty. He once touched down at Prestwick Airport in Scotland when he was a serving soldier, but he was planning a European tour right before he died and England was on the list. So it gives me so much pleasure to be a part of presenting him in this exhibition, particularly for people who can’t make it to Graceland for whatever reason.’

If she had to choose the two items on display that best evoke the essence of her former husband, which would they be? Priscilla immediately nominates the solitaire diamond ‘TCB’ ring – it stands for Taking Care of Business – which she and Elvis designed together during a storm on a fl ight from LA to Memphis, and had made by Lowell Hays Jewellers of Memphis.

Then there’s the letter he wrote to his long-time manager, Colonel Tom Parker, when he was about to come out of the army:

Elvis-Jan16-06-590A room in the O2 exhibition dedicated to Elvis’s 1968 TV ‘Comeback Special’

‘Dear Colonel, please convey my thanks to the various groups in Memphis who have suggested a special homecoming for me… However, I wish to return to Memphis the same way that any other serviceman returns to his hometown, without ceremony or fanfare.’

‘Elvis was asking Colonel Parker not to arrange anything special for when he arrived home. He wanted to be treated like any other young soldier. To me, that shows you the man behind the name, what he was really all about,’ says Priscilla. ‘At heart, Elvis was a sensitive, regular guy.’ 

Elvis At The O2 runs until 31 August. Tickets are £9-£20 (£50 for families): 0844-856 0202, www.elvisattheo2.com


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