By Sheena Barnett and Carlie Kollath Wells/NEMS Daily Journal
TUPELO – Several hundred U.S. and international visitors flocked to the Elvis Presley Birthplace on Thursday to be the first to see the newly expanded facility.
The event center was full of people with Elvis tattoos, T-shirts, purses, pins, “TCB” necklaces and a profuse love of Elvis.
“I’ve waited a long time to see a crowd in this room,” said birthplace Executive Director Dick Guyton.
The $4.3 million expansion is the first phase in a $6.3 million project. Thursday, the officials dedicated a 126-seat indoor theater, a 75-seat outdoor amphitheater, the event center, the snack bar, the exhibit hall, new bathrooms, a bigger parking lot and various picnic areas.
“Today is a game-changer for the Elvis legacy in Tupelo,” said Mayor Jack Reed Jr. before thetheater’s grand opening at noon.
The project broke ground in April 2011 and increased the covered square-footage of the birthplace from 6,000 to 16,000.
The goal of the expansion is to double the number of visitors to the birthplace during the next five years. It had about 40,000 paying visitors last year, according to the Tupelo Convention and Visitors Bureau.
The expansion immediately made an impression on David Wade, who on Thursday marked 40 years of leading international Elvis tours to Tupelo.
“This is one of the few places in the world that I get emotional,” he said as he thanked various Tupelo residents and birthplace employees for their hospitality over the years.
“Great” and “fantastic” were words husband and wife Raymond Woods and Jeanette Howearth and friend Patricia Taylor used to describe not only their first visit to the Elvis Presley Birthplace, but also to the U.S.
The Auckland, New Zealand, natives were among the first to view director Willy Bearden’s short film about Elvis’ life in Tupelo.
“It’s great, what you’ve done here,” Howearth said, pointing at the new theater.
The 26-minute movie, filmed earlier this year in Tupelo, depicts Elvis’ birth until the Presley family’s move to Memphis. Tupelo native Jake White stars as young Elvis.
The trio said the movie confirmed what they already knew about the legend.
“I’ve always thought of him as a lovely person with the best voice in the world,” Howearth said.
Bearden was on hand to welcome folks to the film, which will run on a loop at the theater for at least the next several days and can be seen for free.
“I get to do cool things with cool people every day – but this is the coolest,” Bearden said. “This is the greatest thing I’ve done in my career.”
The expansion wowed sisters Victoria, Sarah and Rachel Fleming, visitors from Great Britain. Victoria, 31, and Sarah, 26, visited the birthplace on the 30th anniversary, but it was 19-year-old Rachel’s first trip to Tupelo.
“It really leaves a stamp on you. The sense of community is amazing,” Sarah said.
“When you come to Tupelo, you can be who you are. You don’t have to put a cloud over it or cover it up. You don’t have to explain your love for Elvis,” she said.
Fan Appreciation Day began at 9 a.m. at the Lyric Theatre, with a screening of director Wsir Johnson’s documentary about the Shake Rag community in Tupelo.
Events continue the next few days as Elvis Presley Enterprises hosts Elvis Week next week in Memphis. Officials expect Monday will be the busiest visitation day in Tupelo. About 20 tour buses already are scheduled to visit the new expansion, according to birthplace Assistant Director Blair Hill.
The birthplace projects are funded partially by a $2.8 million tourism bond bill approved by the state in 2010. The bill required a 20 percent local match, which was provided by the city of Tupelo, the Tupelo Convention and Visitors Bureau and the Elvis Presley Memorial Foundation.
The Tupelo CVB board last year gave another $100,000 to the total project.
As of Thursday, the birthplace has raised about $3.9 million for the project, Hill said. He said he feels good about hitting the goal and moving toward raising the $2 million needed for phase two of the expansion.