The King comes to London – a personal tour of Elvis The Exhibition

Graceland’s VP of Archive and Exhibits walks us through her favourite items on show at The Arches as Elvis returns to the UK

“There is just something about him,” smiles Angie Marchese, the Vice President of Archives & Exhibits at Graceland, and she would know. Having first taken a summer job as a tour guide at Elvis Presley’s mansion-turned-museum at the age of 17, 35 years on and Marchese has never left. 

The enduring legacy of Elvis sees hundreds of thousands of visitors head to Graceland every single year, some making a real once-in-a-lifetime pilgrimage to visit the home of the King of Rock ‘n Roll. Though it’s now an experience made all the more accessible, thanks to Direct From Graceland: Elvis The Exhibition which is ongoing at The Arches, London Bridge. 

Described as a ‘kaleidoscopic retrospective of the global sensation Elvis Presley’, Marchese is thrilled to have the opportunity to take the artist on tour and bring the ineffable joy of Graceland to the English capital. 

“It is so exciting that we have been able to bring Elvis back to London for another run of this exhibition,” she says. “This time we curated the exhibition a little bit differently, we actually curated it thematically, so when you walk through the exhibit, you’re immersed in different time periods of Elvis’ life and you’re immersed in Elvis’ world.”

The exhibition taps into the allure of Elvis; a man who simultaneously feels like he’s completely untouchable, as though a fictional character, and yet so real and relatable at the same time. “He was very authentic to who he was as a person and I think people connected with that, even though they didn’t know that’s what they were connecting with,” Marchese says. “I just think who he was as a person, in his soul, was so true and authentic that he just radiated it. You fall in love with the story of this kid who was born in Tupelo, Mississippi with nothing, and he rises to the highest rank of star that you could possibly become; he is known worldwide by one name.”

As someone who is so bedded into his life, and so involved across the full collection on display – Marchese felt the perfect person to run through her five favourite exhibits, in no particular order. In her own words, she guides us through the items that mean the most to her personally, as well as those she simply loves sharing with the public.  

Elvis’ personal case

Elvis' gold telephone at Direct From Graceland: Elvis The Exhibition in London

“This is the case that came together last because it was the most important one, as it’s the very first case you see when you walk into the exhibit. I really took a lot of time and effort to think about what this exhibit really was, and because you are so close to all the items it feels like a really personal exhibit. That first case has his gold-plated telephone from his bedroom; it has his hair spray (Pantene, if you’re curious). It has a jar of cotton balls and stuff from his bathroom. It is very personal, immediately. Behind it, we have four TVs that are showing off his career, so you have this personal item, but you’re surrounded by the icon that is Elvis Presley. But you think, this could be at my house. Well, maybe not the gold phone… It really gives you that personal connection to him. That is probably my favourite case in the entire visit. 

“You know, you can read about all his career, it’s all in books and people talk about it all the time. But the one thing about Graceland – and I think what translates through this exhibit – is that guy behind the icon. The guy who put on his shoes, one at a time, has a pair of slippers still sitting under his bed upstairs in his bedroom. The guy who used Pantene hairspray and brushed his teeth with Colgate. The human side of him that a lot of people forget.”

The briefcase telephone

“This is in the ‘Elvis the Man’ section, and this one has a funny story, and it’s so Elvis. He saw the James Bond movie From Russia With Love, and at the very beginning of the movie, James Bond takes a phone call from his car. Elvis then becomes obsessed with getting a phone for his car. He’s like, ‘if James Bond can have a phone, even though he is fictional, and it’s a movie, why can’t I have a phone in my car?’. Fast forward and not only did Elvis have one portable telephone, but he ended up having two. 

“When you open it up, there is a piece of paper inside with Elvis’s handwriting on it, on how to use the telephone, and what the phone number is. It’s also heavy as heck, compared to what we carry around today, and I could just see one of the guys having to carry a briefcase around for whenever Elvis wanted to plug in to the car and make a phone call, and then him opening up the phone and thinking – ‘how do I use this again?’ – and having to read instructions he wrote.”

Inside Direct From Graceland: Elvis The Exhibition in London

The gold belt

“It’s one of my favourite pieces in the entire collection, because of its significance, and not only is it so iconic, but it also meant something to him personally. The belt was given to him in 1969 from [Las Vegas hotel] The International for shattering all of the city’s attendance records. He performed 57 sold out shows in 28 days. He was so proud of the achievement and, again, it was something that he wore both on and off stage, for years. He wore it all the time, including in the Oval Office with President Nixon. It was something he incorporated into his personal wardrobe.

“It’s also part of the ‘White Glove’ experience at the exhibition. If you take this experience, you actually get to hold the belt. It’s a priceless experience to be able to interact with the artefacts, so being able to offer this experience is a great way to let our guests have that one-on-one connection with something special. I remember when I first held it, I thought I was going to drop it, it was heavier than I thought it was going to be. I just remember being really careful with it, like it was a brand-new baby. But this thing is heavy – how did he wear this all the time and just walk around in it? It jingles and makes noise, so he wasn’t a quiet person when he wearing that belt either, he couldn’t sneak up on anybody.”

Elvis’ wallet

“The one piece that is on display in London that is my all-time personal favourite, is Elvis’ wallet. This is my number one artefact. I mean, I have a favourite jumpsuit and I have a favourite car, I have lots of favourite things. But if I had to pick one thing out, it’s Elvis’ wallet, and that’s because you don’t get any more personal than somebody’s wallet. It seems to be the catch-all for everything personal, and Elvis’ wallet is no different. 

“When you open the wallet there’s a picture of him and Lisa and he’s kissing her on the head. Of course, today when people ask how your kids are, you pull out your phone and you have 50 million photos of them, but back then it was all about the wallet photo, and you might have one or two, and that was it. I can imagine him pulling his wallet out, to show off the picture as a proud dad. Then there were business cards in there with phone numbers on them from different police officers he met in different cities; there were insurance cards, his credit cards. There’s even a movie ticket stub – he went to see a movie and it cost $1.50, but it was torn in half so I have no idea what movie it is, but the stub ended up in the wallet. There also was a newspaper clipping of an article from [Memphis newspaper] The Commercial Appeal about Elvis getting a black belt, and he clipped it out, folded it up and put it in his wallet and carried it with him until he passed away. It’s still in there. So the wallet is something very personal that people can relate to, and it has that intimate feeling about it.” 

The Viva Las Vegas room at Direct From Graceland: Elvis The Exhibition in London

 The Viva Las Vegas Jacket

My favourite scene in Viva Las Vegas is Elvis sitting at the piano, singing ‘Today, Tomorrow And Forever’ with Ann-Margaret. He was wearing a jacket in that scene, and that jacket is part of the exhibit in the Hollywood section. I remember seeing that scene and going, ‘I hope one day that somebody looks at me the way that Elvis looked at Ann-Margaret…!’. It was my favourite scene from the movie, and it’s very personal to me, it goes back to what I remember; Elvis the movie star. I used to think he was so dreamy. 

Today, Tomorrow and Forever - Elvis Presley in Viva Las Vegas 1964

“We actually purchased the item from auction back in the mid-90s. But there were a few items that Elvis kept from the studio. If there was something that Elvis wanted to keep, he would ask, and 9 times out of ten they’d let the actors keep a piece of wardrobe or something, so there were a few pieces we had, but this jacket we bought. When I saw it up at auction, that was one of the key pieces I knew we had to get back, we just had to. It’s so cool.”

Direct From Graceland: Elvis The Exhibition is open now at The Arches. Find tickets here