MEMPHIS, Tenn. — They love him tender. They love him sweet. And they love to buy his souvenirs--millions of dollars worth each year--when they hit Memphis, the home of the king of rock 'n' roll, Elvis Presley.
One can buy Elvis memorabilia in Los Angeles or New York, of course. And these days, the best places to find rare, vintage Elvis items are probably collector's shops.
But you don't have $5,000 to spend on authentic Elvis exotica. You're visiting Tennessee. And none of your Los Angeles friends will forgive you if you don't bring them a memento from the King's final resting place.
When the moment comes, it won't matter whether you are into post-modern kitsch or cross-your-heart-and-hope-to-die Elvis worship. Nothing beats the sheer, unadulterated pleasure of a trip to Graceland souvenir shops, after dropping in at Graceland Mansion, of course--the second most-visited home in the United States after the White House, according to our perky, uniformed tour guide.
The marketing of Elvis' name, image, music and anything else related to him is tightly controlled by Presley's estate. That doesn't eliminate all non-authorized Elvis products, but it does keep non-licensed products somewhat at bay.
Since Priscilla Presley took control of her ex-husband's estate in the late 1970s, Elvis has made more money each year than he ever did while alive. The estate co-execu tors launched shrewd marketing and merchandising campaigns. They threw open Graceland's doors to the public, at $18.50 a pop for the grand tour. And in the last decade, the Presley estate has brought suit more than two dozen times against those who issue unauthorized Elvis memorabilia, a spokesman said. Nevertheless, lured by profits, the copycats keep coming.
To capitalize on Elvis' name, the Presley empire in 1988 built a $1.5-million strip of buildings, called Graceland Plaza, across from Graceland to house its ticket booths, an Elvis mini-museum and a merchandising complex.
The Graceland shops, which sell 2,700 products, do well. The average tourist spends more than $25 on tour tickets and Elvis souvenirs. Although the estate won't release current figures, it made more than $15 million in 1989, a spokesman said.
That's not counting the unauthorized souvenir emporiums that opened in a mini-mall next door. Perhaps in response, the Presley estate has built a big wall between its shopping complex that somewhat blocks it from view.
While this is a bane for the Elvis estate, it offers a boon for the voracious Elvis souvenir hunter. One can check out the authorized Elvis souvenirs, including everything from a guitar-shaped clock sporting Elvis in a gold lame suit ($19.95), to a sort of Elvis-in-ice sculpture that lights up ($49.95).
Then it's easy to slip across the fence into enemy territory, to the mall called Graceland Crossing, which houses places such as Souvenirs of Elvis that offer what are arguably more garish items, some of them licensed and others that might not be.
Samples: Elvis nail clippers ($2.95), a $1 bill with Elvis' face on it ($4.95) and, for big spenders, the Elvis Eagle Belt ($350), made of "genuine leather, solid brass eagles and chains with beautiful fine rhinestones."
Several years ago, Elvis Presley Enterprises refused to license a T-shirt it considered in poor taste. But the shirt became a runaway bestseller on Elvis Presley Boulevard, where the shops and Graceland are. The front read "Elvis Tour 1988/89." The back listed alleged Elvis sightings, such as "Burger King, Kalamazoo, Mich." and "Walking around Town, Encino, Ca."
Times pop music critic Robert Hilburn once wrote that "Licensed Elvis souvenirs often invite employment of the word tacky." But Graceland officials say it's no use marketing tasteful souvenirs because the public just won't buy them. The estate claims it actually had "better stuff" made in the 1980s, such as cocktail glasses with gold leaf rims. But the glasses sat in a warehouse because Elvis fans--who are mostly unpretentious folks--just said "no."
Then there were the fuzzy bedroom slippers with Elvis heads on the toes. After they showed up on the David Letterman show one night and became the butt of media jokes, the co-executors refused to renew the manufacture's license. Now they're collectors' items.
Although all the items in the souvenir shops are new, Elvis as a merchandising gimmick dates back to 1956. On display in the trophy room at the Graceland Mansion are little plastic overnight bags that girls took to slumber parties a generation ago, Elvis record players and Elvis lipstick, advertised with the legend, "Keep me always on your lips."
Today, another toiletry item sits proudly on display--Elvis Cologne ($14.95): For All the King's Men. The scent lingers for hours, more Brut than Gray Flannel.
Some Graceland shoppers have been known to come down with Elvis Fever and run up bills of $500 or more. It's not difficult, considering the cornucopia of choices.