For the first time, Tupelo has partnered with Elvis Presley Enterprises, which runs Graceland, to install a Tupelo-focused exhibit.
“The story of Tupelo is about a child – not a star, not an icon,” said Angie Marchese, the director of archives for Elvis Presley Enterprises. “It’s about a family trying to survive. It just so happens it was Elvis.”
The “Elvis’ Tupelo” exhibit is inside the Bijou Theatre, which is prominently located next to the loading area for the Graceland bus.
When tourists walk into the theater, exhibit designer Carolyn Perkins immediately wanted them to feel the 1950s vibe, so she incorporated a white, baby blue and pink color theme.
The exhibit opens into a mini movie theater that plays “Tupelove” on a loop. The promotional movie shows the story of a fictional businessman whose car breaks down and he kills time by seeing the sites in Tupelo. It also plays a short film featuring people who knew Elvis as a child.
The walls are covered with Elvis Festival posters, timelines of Vernon and Gladys’ life in Tupelo and pictures of Elvis during his time in Tupelo and his later concert in Tupelo.
The exhibit even has one of the metal guitar sculptures that line Main Street in downtown Tupelo.
The goal of the exhibit, said officials from the Tupelo Convention and Visitors Bureau, is to entice Graceland tourists to visit Tupelo. The Tupelo organization spent $20,500 to install the exhibit.
The exhibit opened Oct. 2 and has been popular with visitors so far. Linda and Larry Turrell, tourists from Imlay City, Mich., visited the exhibit Thursday after seeing Tupelo for themselves Wednesday.
“I didn’t realize Elvis was from Tupelo,” Larry Turrell said. “I always associated him with Memphis.”
They were on their way back from vacation in Florida when they got a brochure at the Mississippi Welcome Center for the Elvis birthplace in Tupelo.
So, they visited the birthplace and then did the Elvis driving tour around town before heading to Memphis. They toured Graceland on Thursday and were surprised to see the Tupelo exhibit.
They spent some time exploring the display, which includes Vernon’s 1946 checks drawn from The Peoples Bank and Trust Co., a $10 receipt from W.H. Baker Furniture Co., postcards Vernon wrote to Gladys while he was in jail and 1943 tax paperwork from Vernon’s earnings at L.P. McCarty and Son Jr.
The papers were found inside an old, weathered steamer trunk that was stored in a warehouse. Marchese said when they opened the trunk, they found the papers, Elvis’ third-grade report card, Vernon’s painting pants and an empty box of crayons.
“They are things a mom would collect,” Marchese said. “It was a real personal piece.”
The third-grade report card is on display in Liverpool as part of an exhibit about Elvis’ influence on the Beatles.
Also a part of that Liverpool display is the key to Tupelo Elvis was given in 1956.
Any Elvis display that is not based in Memphis begins with artifacts from Tupelo, she said.
“You can’t get to who Elvis Presley is without talking about Tupelo,” Marchese said.
The exhibit also features the black dress and purse Gladys wore to Elvis’ homecoming concert in Tupelo in 1956. The shiny, white purse has three gray poodles on it embellished with rhinestones. Plus, the exhibit has a TV that plays footage from the 1956 concert. The video shows the throngs of people at the fairgrounds, now the Fairpark district, and the woman who jumped on stage to get closer to the rock star.
“I always thought the most interesting thing with the Elvis story is he left Tupelo with almost nothing and he returned eight years later on top of the world,” said Neal McCoy, executive director of the Tupelo CVB.
Want to visit
The Bijou Theatre is on the grounds of Graceland in Memphis. Admission is free. Visitors don’t need a ticket for Graceland to see the Tupelo exhibit, but they will have to pay for parking.
The exhibit is open during Graceland’s regular hours of 10 a.m. to 4 p.m.
every day. During the summer, Graceland is open from 9 a.m. to 5
p.m. The exhibit will be in Memphis until September 2015.
For local Elvis flair, visit the temporary exhibit of jumpsuits inside the Tupelo Convention and Visitors Bureau lobby. Admission is free.