Category Archives: Travel

Tops in Waikiki: The Rock-a-Hula Extravaganza

Aloha From Hawaii! BLURT’s Travel Desk Editor heads to Waikiki for plenty of surf ‘n’ turf ‘n’ The King… (photos follow the story – Hashtag: #Elvis). Incidentally, Ms. Gaar has written previously about Hawaii – and Hawaii-related Elvis matters – for the magazine. Check out “Waikiki After Dark” and “Dancing Barefoot: The Great Waikiki Mai Tai Taste Off,” should you dare.

BY GILLIAN G. GAAR

I’ve been a fan of the Rock-a-Hula show in Waikiki since it opened seven years ago, and have seen it in its various incarnations. Initially, this tribute artist show (created by Legends in Concert Las Vegas) simply presented sets by four different impersonators. In 2014, the show boosted the Hawaiian quotient, and made it a more lavish production, with multi-screen projections, decorative sets, and dancers. They’ve recently given the show another facelift, cutting back on the tribute artists, and adding even more of that Hawaiian spirit.

I was offered the opportunity to check out the show again, choosing whatever package I wanted. I eagerly accepted, choosing the top package, the Green Room “Ultimate Experience.”

This is the package to choose if you want to go all out, and get the very best seats in the house (there are also cheaper options; I’ll get to those later). The Green Room package spares no attention to detail from the moment you check in, when you’re given a backstage pass to wear around your neck. Green Room attendees are welcomed into the Royal Hawaiian Theater before anyone else, escorted down the red carpet while hula dancers perform. You’re taken to — where else? — the Green Room, where you’re greeted by one of the evening’s tribute artists (the night I attended, it was Michael Jackson), who poses for a picture with you (a free print is included in the package). The Green Room is supposed to be an homage to the tropical themed “Jungle Room” at Elvis Presley’s Graceland mansion, which, well, wasn’t green. Never mind. There are glasses of sparkling wine awaiting you, along with hors d’oeuvres. Get snacking!

You’re then taken on a backstage tour, getting an idea of what the dancers deal with when they have to race through the small corridors between numbers. We were allowed to try on the Tahitian headdresses the dancers wear (very heavy!), and you get to pose on stage with the huge Taiko drum. Next, you arrive at your stageside table, where you’re served a four-course meal, including beef tenderloin and wild Alaskan salmon and Maine lobster with your salad. Two free drinks as well. Everything was delicious. And now, on with the show….

Rock-a-Hula is a multi-media production; there are screens on both sides of the stage, and one at the rear. It’s also very much a live show; the band is placed right on stage, and none of the performers are lip-syncing. One fun element is how the film footage is used to underscore the live action on stage. The show opens with footage of the SS Lurline arriving in Honolulu, illustrating how most tourists visited the island before air travel took off. Then a large prop ship comes out on stage and the dancers re-create the kind of pier-side hula that greeted the new arrivals; a surfer even hangs from the ceiling, in a Cirque du Soleil touch. A panorama of images on the screens highlight Hawaiian legends of the past, like singer Alfred Apaka (some explanatory text on these pictures would be useful for those who might not immediately recognize the performers).

It all builds to the arrival of the first tribute artist to appear, Elvis Presley. The King is played by Rock-a-Hula veteran Johnny Fortuno, who handles the ’60s and ’70s Elvis eras with ease, starting out in the outfit Elvis wore while performing “Rock-a-Hula” in his first Hawaiian film, Blue Hawaii, then graduating to a jumpsuit, for his homage to Elvis’ 1973 Aloha From Hawaii satellite broadcast. Among the well-known stuff (“Hound Dog,” “Can’t Help Falling in Love”), there’s also a rarity; “Slicin’ Sand,” from Blue Hawaii, a song I don’t believe I’ve ever heard an Elvis tribute artist perform. Fortuno also gets up close and personal with audience, passing out scarves, kisses, and handshakes to the faithful during “Suspicious Minds.”

Michael Jackson (as performed by Jason Jarrett) is the only other tribute artist featured in the show. Aside from a quick nod to his Jackson 5 past (“I Want You Back”), it’s mostly the latter day Jackson that’s on display: “Shake Your Body,” “Thriller,” “Billie Jean” (complete with moonwalking). It’s a set that’s as heavy on dancing as it is on singing, and Jarrett has the moves down.

Though the show has no underlying narrative, there is an unifying theme; Rock-a-Hula is meant to take you on a “Hawaiian Journey,” the idea of a trip being referenced from that first footage of the SS Lurline. There are more dance numbers, with the energetic troupe performing to a medley of surf tunes, as well as traditional Hawaiian dancing (the Tahitian dancing is especially thrilling). The fire knife dancing is another highlight. No, it’s not a knife; think of it as a torch, or a baton, lit at one or both ends, and then vigorously spun around.

Also new to the show are spots for a local singer (who will rotate; Hirie was the performer when I attended). Hirie was featured in the show’s opening, and throughout the rest of the performance; in one moving sequence, when footage of Hawaiian legend Israel Kamakawiwoʻole was shown while his medley of “Over the Rainbow”/“What a Wonderful World” was played, the song segued into Hirie performing the final verse live. The show comes to a heartwarming conclusion with the entire cast on stage, leading everyone through the chorus of “Aloha ‘Oe,” written by Queen Lili‘uokalani (Hawaii’s last ruler). Afterwards, everyone’s welcome to meet the cast in the lobby, where they happily pose for photos and sign autographs.

 It’s a lively and engaging show, and making it more of a theatrical production than it was in its original incarnation has definitely made it more exciting. But in this latest iteration, I felt the tribute artists were a bit short-changed, with their spots cut back to allow for more dancing and the local singer.

Elvis in particular I felt was underused. If you want to make the show more Hawaiian-flavored, why not draw on more of the songs he performed in his other Hawaiian films (Girls! Girls! Girls! and Paradise, Hawaiian Style)? Including Hawaiian-born songwriter Kui Lee’s “I’ll Remember You” would also be a good touch during the “Aloha From Hawaii” sequence (the concert was a benefit for the Kui Lee Cancer Fund). It felt like Elvis was in and out too quickly. And while I enjoyed Hirie, since she wasn’t playing a character herself, it made the show feel like a bit of a mish-mash. Is it a tribute artist show? Or a Hawaiian production where Elvis and Michael Jackson drop in for a couple of numbers?

It’s still a show I highly recommend. It’s just too much fun to pass up. And there’s so much going on, you can’t properly take it all in, in one viewing. That’s why I look forward to seeing Rock-a-Hula again.

Now, about those other ticket packages. The theater seats 750, with most seats in the upper auditorium (which they call the mezzanine), and Green Room and Stageside VIP packages seated at tables down front. The cheapest package is the Rockin’ Show ($69 adult/$41 child) which gets you a seat in the rear part of the mezzanine. I’ve sat in a variety of places in this venue and the view is good wherever you sit. But of course it’s more exciting to get as close as you can to the performers, so if you don’t want to do one of the deluxe packages, I recommend the Luau package ($109 adult/$66 child), which, you’ve guessed it, includes a very tasty luau buffet, with all the luau staples (roast pig, hulihuli chicken, lomilomi salmon), a mai tai, and better seating in the mezzanine. The Stageside VIP ($149 adult/$89 child) includes a reception before you’re seated at your not-quite-as-good-as-the-Green-Room-seating-but-still-pretty-good table, where you’re served the same dinner as the Green Room package, and you get two free drinks. The Green Room package isn’t that much more ($185 adult/$111 child), and consider that you also get an extra drink (that glass of sparkling wine in the Green Room itself) and a free souvenir photo (which otherwise costs $25). Depending on your budget, it might be worth the upgrade.

Tip: Be sure and take some time to explore the lobby, which features various rock memorabilia. There’s also a bar, and you’re allowed to take drinks into the auditorium. Want a scarf from Elvis? The stageside seating, or the front row and aisle seats of the mezzanine, give you the best chance.

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 Jumpsuit Elvis (Johnny Fortuno) sends you plenty of Alooooooha!

The ever-energetic dance troupe of Rock-a-Hula

All hail the awesome fire knife dancer!

The swanky Green Room. Sparkling wine and snacks to spare.

Local non-character performers are now part of the Rock-a-Hula show. Pop-reggae artist Hirie was one of the rotating performers.

Jason Jerrett cops all the right moves as Michael Jackson.

Can you feel it? Michael Jackson (Jason Jerrett) gets it on with a Rock-a-Hula dancer.

Maine lobster, flown all the way to Waikiki — just for you.

Your humble correspondent and Johnny Fortuno, après the show.

Johnny Fortuno in action as the Blue Hawaii-era Elvis.

WAIKIKI AFTER DARK (Blurt Edition)

In which our Travel Editor—and resident Elvis authority—guides us through some fine, and in places, quirky, dining spots along the Honolulu beachfront. (Additional reading: “Dancing Barefoot: The Great Waikiki Mai Tai Taste Off,” Gaar’s guide to Hawaii’s  finest mixology establishments.) (Above: King of Hawaii: Johnny Fortuno as Elvis in Rock-a-Hula.)

BY GILLIAN G. GAAR

In Waikiki, everyone wants to snag a good seat to enjoy the inevitably beautiful sunset, and Blurt’s given you some suggestions as to where to do exactly that. But what about after the sun goes down? If you’re not heading to a luau (we’ll cover those later), here’s a look at what you’ll find in Waikiki, offering more than just hula dancing:

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Magic of Polynesia: This production gives a Hawaiian twist to a magic show. But it’s a bit of an uneasy mashup that would’ve worked better if there was something specifically “Hawaiian” about the tricks. Instead, it alternates between tricks, some hula, more tricks, some fire knife dancing, and so on. The tricks are pretty standard stuff (e.g. the assistant gets in a box and disappears, reappearing in the auditorium), but still enjoyable. Whoever the magician is (they alternate) adds some comedy to the proceedings as well. There are four packages: show only, one cocktail, dinner, and deluxe dinner. I’ve seen this a show a couple of times, but haven’t had the dinner. The main advantage of buying a dinner package is better seating. Ditto the cheaper tickets; you could do the show only ticket, and buy two cocktails, and that would still be cheaper than the cocktail package; but you’d get better seating at the latter. Rating: Fun show, but lacks the fire to make it a must-see. (Below: No rabbits, no hats: it’s the Magic of Polynesia.)

Star of Honolulu Dinner Cruise: The appeal of a dinner cruise in Honolulu is obvious, since you’re in one of the most picturesque places on earth. This company prides itself on presentation and customer service, which are both first rate. There’s transportation via bus to the dock at Aloha Tower (at one time the tallest building in the islands), where hula dancers entertain you until it’s time to board. There are four dinner options, and I’ve done two. The Pacific Star Sunset package, the cheapest, offers a buffet and Polynesian-themed show. The Star Sunset package has all-you-can-eat crab and tenderloin of beef, and a “60 Years of Aloha” show. I’ve experienced the Three Star Dinner package, with lobster and tenderloin of beef, plus the “Aloha” show. (Below: The picturesque presentation of the Star of Honolulu’s Five Star Sunset Dining.)I was disappointed that the “champagne” toast wasn’t sparkling wine but non-alcoholic. I was told this was because some of the guests were under 21; fine, give them the sparking cider, and sparkling wine to the rest of us. The mixed drinks were also weak; I asked for an additional shot in mine. The food was tasty and plentiful. The Five Star Sunset Dining & Jazz is the swanky one. The meal has seven courses, starting with appetizers on the top deck where you meet the captain, followed by soup, salad, lobster, sorbet to cleanse your palate, prime tenderloin of beef, and two small desserts (more fun than one big one). The dining room here is less crowded; it’s more cramped on the lower floors. And instead of a Polynesian-themed show, you get a jazz vocalist following your meal. I enjoyed getting a taste of the high life. Whatever deck you’re on, try to get a window table. You’re free to wander about the ship during the voyage, so be sure to go outside and deck to enjoy the view. I also recommend paying the extra fee to go on Friday night, when the ship stays out later to see the weekly fireworks display at the Hilton Hawaiian Village. The cruise isn’t cheap (prices start at $97), so reserve it for a special night out. Rating: It’s worth taking to the time to see the island from a different perspective — on the sea. (Below: Jazzin’ it up on the Star of Honolulu dinner cruise.)

Blue Note Hawaii: The Outrigger Waikiki used to be host to the long running variety show Society of Seven. It was then decided that the show was too long in the tooth, so it was closed down, the space was remodeled, and reopened as the Hawaii branch of the Blue Note jazz club chain. One nice thing about Blue Note Hawaii is there’s a good mix of local and national talent; shows with local acts are cheaper as well. The space seats over 300, but the design makes it feel relatively intimate, so you can get a decent view pretty much wherever you sit; the cheapest seats are at the bar at the back. (Below: The Winston Marsalis “Star Table” at Blue Note Hawaii.)There are two shows a night, with food available. On my last visit, I had the Chocolate Macadamia Nut Martini — like drinking a liquid chocolate bar (and it needed more alcohol). One drawback: you’re forced to order something, because there’s a $10 food/beverage minimum — which always makes ordering feel like more an imposition, than something you’re doing for pleasure. Another drawback is the wait in lobby before you’re admitted (especially for the second set, as you’re only admitted a half hour before showtime), something that could easily be solved by having reserved seats. Note also that because of the smaller size, popular acts (like Herb Alpert or Chris Botti) tend to sell out fast, so if you’re interested in such a show, don’t delay in getting a ticket. Rating: A quality venue with a good range of talent, and a nice change of pace from the tropical drink bar scene. (Below: All that jazz at Blue Note Hawaii.)

Rock-a-Hula: My hands down favorite show in Waikiki. They’ve just updated the show and I plan to see it on my next trip and tell you all about it, so I’ll just give an overview here. The show was created by Legends in Concert, who put on tribute shows in Vegas. There’s a rotating cast of tribute artists, but there’s always an Elvis (the wonderful Johnny Fortuno), who of course has a strong connection to Hawaii, having made three films here, not to mention his Aloha From Hawaii by Satellite concert from 1973 — and songs from his films and the ’73 concert are very much a part of this production (it’s even named after an Elvis song from Blue Hawaii). There are five packages here; show only, one cocktail, luau dinner, “Stageside VIP” dinner, and the deluxe “Green Room” package (which gives you a backstage tour). I recommend the Luau package (a great meal and good seats), but if you can spring for it, the “Green Room” package is terrific fun. Drinks are on the weak side; ask for an extra shot. After the show, stick around and meet the cast in the lobby. Rating: The strong performances and high production values of this show make it a guaranteed good night out. (Elvis and Michael Jackson in Rock-a-Hula, Waikiki’s best stage show.)

Lewers Lounge: This venue is tucked away in the ritzy Halekulani hotel. The lighting is low, and it’s the kind of place people casually drop into and out of throughout the evening; the perfect place to escape the hectic activity of Waikiki. There’s jazz every night, starting at 8:30 p.m. (most of the time you’ll see Maggie Herron, who’s on Wednesday through Sunday), and a menu of interesting cocktails and snacks; my favorite is the Lost Passion, a “sophisticated blend of tequila, Cointreau and fresh juices, topped with Champagne.” (Below: Double the fun: The delectable “Lost Passion” at Halekulani’s Lewers Lounge.)

Note that there’s a dress code here: “Casual Elegant Attire — casual t-shirts, tank tops, beachwear, exercise attire or flip-flops are not permitted,” and I have seen people turned away at the door for being deemed underdressed. I myself favor a black ensemble on my visits and have had no difficulties. Rating: A classy, sophisticated venue. A great place to stop in for a nightcap, or indulge yourself and stay all evening. And say hello to Maggie for me! (Below: Catch Maggie Heron Wednesday through Sunday at Halekulani’s Lewers Lounge.)

ROCKIN’ ON THE ROAD: Memphis—Music (and Elvis) City USA

In which our Travel Editor—and resident Elvis authority—gives you the lowdown on where you gotta go and what you gotta see if you are serious about making your pilgrimage to one of the unquestioned cradles of modern musical civilization. Pictured above: Elvis is still rocking on Beale Street in Memphis.  (Additional reading: “Dancing Barefoot: The Great Waikiki Mai Tai Taste Off,” Gaar’s guide to Hawaii’s  finest mixology establishments.)

BY GILLIAN G. GAAR

August 16 marks the 40th anniversary of Elvis Presley’s death. By then, the annual event known as “Elvis Week” will be in full swing; a week’s worth of panel discussions, music events, and an immersion into full-on Elvis-ness. The biggest gathering of the faithful will come on August 15 at the annual Candlelight Service, when fans bearing candles will march solemnly up the driveway of Graceland to the Meditation Garden, where Elvis, his parents Gladys and Vernon, and his grandmother Minnie Mae are buried, to pay their respects. With this year expected to draw record crowds, it’s a procession that will last through the night.

Graceland is certainly the Memphis site most associated with Elvis. But there’s a lot more to experience in the city if you’re an El-fan — or simply a music fan, for Memphis is a city rich in musical history: the blues, R&B, and rock ‘n’ roll. Let’s take a look at some of the places in the city with an Elvis connection that a visitor shouldn’t miss.

Graceland  The King’s castle is pictured above (courtesy Graceland.com). Where better to start? You don’t have to be an Elvis fan to enjoy visiting Graceland (and certainly every El-fan should make a pilgrimage to Elvis’ home at least once in their life); I think anyone with an interest in pop culture will get a kick out of seeing the most famous of rock star mansions. Graceland was opened to the public nearly five years after Elvis’ death, on June 7, 1982, and was an instant success, going on to become the second-most visited home in the U.S., after the White House. On November 7, 1991, it was added to the National Registry of Historic Places.

In the interest of managing the crowds, tours start across the street at the new Elvis Presley’s Memphis complex (more on that in a bit), where you board a shuttle which takes you over to the mansion. The mansion’s exterior looks like something out of Gone With the Wind, but what strikes you the most when you first go inside is how small the place actually is. The living room, to your right as you enter, is large enough to contain the pristine white 15-foot sofa, but it’s not much bigger than that. The dining room, to the left, whose most ornate touch is a chandelier, is of a similar size. The rooms are big, but not oversized; this is no mega-mansion.

Don’t touch that dial: the sharp color scheme of the TV Room:

The homiest place in a house is often the kitchen, and Graceland is no exception; it’s a room so cozy you can readily imagine sitting down at the counter for a snack of snickerdoodles and lemonade. But it also seems frozen in time in the ‘70s: brown-patterned carpet, wood-paneled cabinetry, Tiffany lamp shades (part of a vintage craze of the era). Though a bit more elaborate than the average kitchen (there are two ranges), it still has the kind of suburban look that wouldn’t be out of place on The Brady Bunch.

The comfy confines of the vintage ‘70s-era Pool Room:

No one’s allowed to see the other most personal area in a home — Elvis’ bedroom — but you are able to see the rooms that fully illustrate the excessive side of his nature. Climbing down a dizzying stairwell lined in mirrors (hold on to the handrails), you’ll find the TV Room, starkly decorated in yellow, dark blue, and white: a dark blue couch with white and yellow sparkly accent pillows; a yellow wet bar; Elvis’ trademark “TCB” logo — a lightning bolt — zigzagging down one wall; a mirrored ceiling. You barely notice the three TVs amidst all the bright primary colors. Next door is the Pool Room (as in pool table), swathed in yards of gingham-style fabric that hangs from the walls and the ceiling. Back up on the main floor is the famed “Jungle Room” (which only got that name after Elvis’ death), with its heavy, elaborately carved wooden chairs, waterfall that trickles down one wall, numerous animal figurines (a tiger, a ram’s head, a lion), and green shag carpet, both on the floor and the ceiling (Elvis actually recorded two albums in this room, From Elvis Presley Boulevard, Memphis, Tennessee and Moody Blue).

The kitschy delight of the “Jungle Room” (Photo courtesy Graceland.com):

That’s the most dazzling — if somewhat claustrophobic — part of the mansion experience. The rest of the tour encompasses the office used by Elvis’ father, Vernon, and the Racquetball Building that Elvis had built in 1975 (trivia: early in the morning on the day of his death, Elvis hit a few balls in the court along with his cousin, Billy Smith, then sat down at the piano and played a few songs, the last being Willie Nelson’s “Blue Eyes Crying in the Rain”). And there’s a new display in the Trophy Room building, which previously displayed artifacts from Elvis’ career; now it focuses on the Presley family and items related to Graceland itself — everything from his grandmother’s passport to the silver Tiffany cups Lisa Marie received as a birthday present.

Elvis and kin in the Meditation Garden:

The tour ends at the Meditation Garden, a tranquil area next to the (again, surprisingly small) swimming pool, designed by a friend for Elvis in the mid-1960s, when he took up what we’d now call “New Age” interests. After his death, Elvis was initially interred in a mausoleum in nearby Forest Hills Cemetery with his mother. But because of security concerns, Vernon petitioned the city to have their bodies moved back home to Graceland.

Dipped in leather: the fabulous black suit Elvis wore during his 1968 “comeback” TV special, Elvis:


It’s well worth the time to see more than just the mansion, for the full Elvis Experience. Ticket packages offer the opportunity to get inside Elvis’ planes (the famous Lisa Marie and the smaller Hound Dog II), and inside the Elvis Presley’s Memphis complex, where you’ll find museums dedicated to every aspect of Elvis’ life. It’s a story of great fame, and great consumption, with Elvis apparently hanging on to everything he ever owned (not to mention the thousands of items that were added to the collection when Elvis Presley Enterprises acquired the archives of his manager, Colonel Tom Parker).

The most famous Cadillac in the world:

The new complex is five times as large as the previous Graceland Plaza exhibit area, so there’s much more to see. Of course it’s a thrill to see such iconic items as Elvis’ famous pink Cadillac, the black leather suit he wore during his 1968 TV special Elvis, or the bejeweled jumpsuit he wore for his “Aloha From Hawaii” live broadcast. There’s poignancy too, in seeing the jumpsuit he wore for his very last show, on June 26, 1977, in Indianapolis, Indiana. This is the only place in the world that has as many artifacts to draw from in illustrating Elvis’ life story. Revel in the bounty.

Elvis has left the building: Elvis wore this Mexican Sundial jumpsuit for his last ever concert, June 26, 1977:

Tip: Most mornings, from 7:30 a.m. to 8:30 a.m., you’re allowed to walk up Graceland’s driveway to the Meditation Garden, for free; well worth doing if you want to miss the crowds. During Elvis Week, there’s also an evening walk up, from 7 p.m. to 9 p.m., when you’ll find the gravesite overflowing with floral tributes sent in from around the world.

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The birthplace of rock ‘n’ roll:

Sun Studio  This is the Memphis site most associated with Elvis after Graceland — though of course he wasn’t the only one admitted into that hallowed space. Howlin’ Wolf, Carl Perkins, Jerry Lee Lewis, Roy Orbison, and Rufus Thomas were among the legendary talents that recorded in this unprepossessing room, which has been open to the public since 1987. Tours are offered every hour on the half hour, where you first go to a small museum above the studio, which displays such choice artifacts as the tape deck Sam used to record all those great sounds, while the tour guide relates the history of the studio (with appropriate sound clips).

 

The Elvis Microphone:

Then it’s back downstairs to the room itself, where it’s no hyperbole at all to say rock ‘n’ roll was born; what many historians consider to be the first rock ‘n’ roll single, “Rocket 88” by Jackie Brenston and His Delta Cats (including one Ike Turner) was recorded in this very space. There’s a framed photo of the “Million Dollar Quartet” (Elvis, Jerry Lee Lewis, Carl Perkins, and Johnny Cash) on the wall, but otherwise the room looks much like it did back in the 1950s. A vintage microphone, said to have been used by the King himself, is on display, inspiring a flurry of selfie-taking. You don’t get inside the control room (it’s still a working studio), but you do see the outer office, where owner Sam Phillips’ business partner and office manager, Marion Keisker, held court. She’s the unsung hero of Elvis’ story, the one who kept urging Sam to give him a call, after he’d come in to make a few personal acetates. After recording him when he made his first acetate (of “My Happiness” and “That’s When Your Heartaches Begin”), she took down Elvis’ name and number and added the note, “Good ballad singer. Hold.”

Tip: There’s a free shuttle that leaves from the taxi stand at Graceland at the top of the hour, that stops at Sun, then goes on to the Memphis Rock n Soul Museum.

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The gates of 1034 Audubon Drive, Elvis’ home prior to Graceland:

Memphis Road Tours  The hands down, best book on Elvis sites in Memphis is Memphis Elvis-Style, by Mike Freeman and his then-wife Cindy Hazen (sadly out of print, but readily available used on amazon.com or abebooks.com; yes, I urged Mike it’s time for an update!). No site is too small to be overlooked in this book (like the former site of the grocery store where Elvis used to hang out while visiting his cousin who worked there), but if you’d rather leave the driving to someone else, Freeman offers private tours, and he’s an expert guide (as he likes to say, other tours offer you an “Elvis 101” experience; his is the graduate level course). Freeman knows his subject literally inside out — he and his former wife lived for a time at 1034 Audubon Drive, the first home Elvis ever bought, just prior to moving into Graceland. He’s also a member of the Shelby County Historical Commission and has had a hand in writing a number of the historical markers in front of Elvis-related sites, such as Humes High School, and Lauderdale Courts (his next marker will honor Marion Keisker).

His connections will also get you into places other tours can’t. Lauderdale Courts (above) was once public housing, and was the first place the Presleys lived where they had their own bathroom. The apartment the family lived in, #328, is now available for overnight stays (and tours are offered during Elvis Week), but if the apartment is unoccupied on the day of your tour, Mike can take you inside.

Elvis played one of his first shows here, on July 30, 1954, when the venue was known as the Overton Shell. Memphis Road Tours owner Mike Freeman is on the left:

During my recent visit to Memphis, we roamed all over the city, taking in the First Assembly of God church (now the Alpha Church), where Elvis met his first serious girlfriend; the site where the much-missed Poplar Tunes record shop once stood; the Overton Park Shell (now Levitt Shell) and Lamar-Airways Shopping Center, where Elvis played some early shows; the site where the legendary American Sound Studio once stood (it’s where Elvis recorded “Suspicious Minds”); the Mid-South Coliseum, where he performed his last Memphis show in 1976; the mausoleum (pictured below) he shared with his mother at Forest Hill Cemetery, before they were both moved to Graceland.

It’s the closest you’ll get to walking in Elvis’ footsteps. And you quickly see that no matter how big a city is, the circles a person moves in are generally much smaller; it’s easy to imagine Elvis racing the short distance from his home on Alabama Ave. to Sun Studio when Sam Phillips called and asked him to come by, once you see how short the distance is between the two places. Unlike other stars, Elvis never permanently relocated to New York or LA when he made it big; though he had homes in California, Memphis was always where his heart was. When he returned from the army in 1960 and was asked what he missed most about Memphis, he said, “Everything.” And Mike’s tour gives you a real appreciation for the city that Elvis loved. (He also offers a daylong trip to Tupelo, where Elvis was born, among other tours).

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You’re on Beale St. — drink up!

Beale Street  At one time, Beale was known as the “Main Street of Negro America,” one place in a highly segregated city where blacks could come and go freely. It’s where Elvis would go to check out the hip fashions at Lansky Bros. clothing store, or take in the sounds wafting from the nightclubs.

It’s not quite like it was in Elvis’ day (though A. Schwab’s Dry Goods likely is; established in 1876, its motto is “If you can’t find it at Schwab’s, you’re better off without it”). Now it’s an entertainment district for tourists, closed to vehicles (with some exceptions; when I visited, a plethora of motorcycles lined both sides of the street), and with open carry — of alcohol — allowed. Yes, if you’re of legal age you can stroll on up to a window, order a “Big Ass Beer to Go” (32 oz. cup for $5.25), and ramble on down the street with your drink in hand as you partake of the sights and sounds around you. There are pieces of history all around. Musical notes bearing the name of a music legend are embedded in the sidewalk. You’ll find the original Stax Studio sign at Alfred’s On Beale. The work of legendary African-American photographer Ernst Withers can be found at the Withers Collection Museum & Gallery. Elvis’ hep cat clothier, Lansky Bros., can be found in its original location (though now tucked inside the Hard Rock Café; other branches are in the nearby Peabody Hotel). W.C. Handy, the “Father of the Blues,” never lived on Beale, but his house was moved there as a tourist attraction nonetheless.

B.B. King’s Blues Club and Jerry Lee Lewis’ Café & Honky Tonk are also on Beale; I enjoyed the Catfish Dinner (fried catfish, hush puppies, French fries, cole slaw) and “Jerry Lee’s Million Dollar Margarita” at the latter. Among the displays of Jerry Lee artifacts, the most startling is a 1983 Cadillac El Ballero, once owned by the Killer, cut into thirds, with one of those thirds mounted on the wall (you’ll find another third at the Memphis Music Hall of Fame, pictured below). I also stopped in at Wet Willie’s, which specializes in alcohol-laced slushies; I chose the “Attitude Improvement” (“A tangy orange taste complemented by 190° grain alcohol, Bacardi rum, and Bacardi Select”).

The most intriguing place I found was the Absinthe Room, above the King’s Palace Café. As I maneuvered along the sidewalk among crowds similarly improving their attitudes, I spied a door lined with green neon that everyone else was simply passing by. Beyond the door, I spied a steep stairway, also lit by green neon. Curious, I made my way up the stairs, feeling like I was walking into a David Lynch film.

Once I left the chaos of Beale behind, I found huge, cool rooms, and a mere smattering of patrons. The bartender, ensconced in another room watching TV, came back to the bar to serve me. When I noted how quiet it was, he told me, “Most people don’t get here until eleven.” I didn’t mind; it was nice to know I’d found a rare island of tranquility.

Tip: Don’t overlook the Elvis statue at the corner of Beale and S. 2nd St, pictured at the top of the page.

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The gold coat and colorful trunks of Memphis wrestler Sputnik Monroe at the Rock N Soul Museum:

Memphis Rock n Soul Museum  Not only is Beale St. central to downtown, there are a number of museums in the immediate vicinity to visit as well. This museum, created by the Smithsonian Institution, puts Elvis’ story in context, as just one of part of Memphis’ long and storied music history. The galleries start back in the days when the area was largely rural; as farm work increasingly became done by machines, people were then drawn to the city for work. The music created at Sun Studio helped bring the rhythm & blues and rock ‘n’ roll to national attention, followed by the success of soul-based labels like Stax, Hi, and Satellite. There’s a terrific range of items on display from all these eras: a 1936 radio owned by Willie Smith, who played saxophone in the Jimmie Lunceford Orchestra; a spangly gold jacket and boots worn as a costume by the infamous Memphis wrestler Sputnik; a transmitter used by WHER, the first radio station with all female disc jockeys (“1000 Beautiful Watts”); a mink coat owned by Isaac Hayes. Audio guides allow you to access first hand interviews and play selections on the jukeboxes in each gallery, which really help bring the story to life.

Tip: If you want take a tour of Beale Street at your own pace, you can pick up an audio guide at the Museum, which will lead you through your own walking tour.

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 Mark James wrote Elvis’ classic hit “Suspicious Minds” on this organ:

Memphis Music Hall of Fame  This museum celebrates the cream of the crop of Memphis music folk; think of it as a “greatest hits” approach. There are plenty of interesting artifacts to examine: a black pinstripe suit owned by Johnny Cash, and purchased at the original Lansky Bros. shop that was once in this very building; a test pressing of the “Theme from Shaft”; one of Elvis’ karate outfits; and that other third of Jerry Lee Lewis’ Cadillac. The most unique item has to be a baby grand piano, salvaged from Stax Studio and left fully exposed to the elements at producer Jim Dickinson’s “Zebra Ranch” in Coldwater, Mississippi. Be sure to check out the interactive displays, where you can listen to music of artists you’re not familiar with.

The beautifully disintegrating Stax piano:

Tip: If you’re planning to visit both the Memphis Music Hall of Fame and the Memphis Rock ‘n’ Soul Museum, you can purchase a combo ticket that offers a reduced rate.

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Stax’s famous marquee was re-created for the new museum:

Stax  Stax was the last professional studio in Memphis that Elvis recorded in, in July and October 1973, when he recorded tracks for the albums Raised On Rock, Good Times, and Promised Land. The original Stax studio was in a former movie theater; when the label went bankrupt in 1975, the building was sold to the Southside Church of God in Christ, but due to neglect it was eventually torn down in 1989 — a sorry end to an enormously influential label. But a rebirth was in the cards, and after two years of construction, the Stax Museum of American Soul Music was opened in May 2003 (the site now also hosts the Stax Music Academy and Soulsville Charter School).

The Stax historical marker:

The first exhibit brings you back to the real home of soul — it’s a replica of a turn of the century country church. There’s also a replica of Stax’s Studio A, featuring a sloped floor like the original studio had (remember, it was once a movie theater). It’s also one of the few museums that has a dance floor so you can get down and boogie a little, while clips from Soul Train are projected on the walls around you. The most notable artifact is Isaac Hayes’ 1972 Cadillac El Dorado (those Memphis musicians did love their caddys!). Check their website for other events, like live music concerts in Studio A.

Royal Studios, home of Hi Records:

Tip: The former location of Royal Sound Studio is in the same neighborhood, at 1329 S. Lauderdale St. Bill Black’s Combo, headed up by Elvis’ first bass player, recorded their hit song “Smokie — Part 2” here.

Bonus tip: Check out Boulevard Souvenirs at 3706 Elvis Presley Blvd. for a great range of Elvis items — and signed copies of my Elvis books.

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All photos by Gillian G. Gaar except where otherwise noted. Gillian G. Gaar has written three books on Elvis: Return of the King: Elvis Presley’s Great Comeback; 100 Things Elvis Fans Should Know and Do Before They Die; and Elvis: The Legend (previously published as Elvis Remembered). She loves introducing people to one of Elvis’ lesser known songs, “Tomorrow is a Long Time.”