Arts Remembrance: Visiting the Birthplace of the King

By Gerald Peary

Our last Mississippi destination was a major reason for my trip South. I told Bob I wanted to see the boyhood home of Elvis Presley in the small town of Tupelo, the singer’s Bethlehem.

Elvis Presley’s Tupelo home. Photo: Wiki Common

Because my father was assigned to a local army base, I was born quite arbitrarily in Jackson, Mississippi. Though our family moved elsewhere before I was age one, and though I’ve resided in New England for 45 years, I’ve always insisted on a bit of an Ole Miss identity. For instance, when I was a graduate student at the University of Wisconsin, I made great friends with one whom I called “a fellow Mississippian,” and he often invited me into his tranquil home with a wife and two fine children. Over the years I learned he was a secret alcoholic and a very secret shamed homosexual, and his self-hating went further with his belief that he was an academic imposter. He wrote a brilliant PhD dissertation on the North Carolina regionalist playwright Paul Green, and Green, so impressed, endowed my pal Bob with the task of writing his literary biography. Bob promised, Green died, and Bob never wrote one word.

In 1991, Bob invited me for a trip around his Mississippi, where I’d never been since my babyhood. We visited his sweet mother outside Jackson, we met a bunch of his relatives, and I got an immediate crush on a tight-jeans white trash blonde cousin. We stood outside the locked gates of Eudora Welty’s Jackson home and peered in at the house and garden. Miss Welty had seen Bob in several high school plays and she’d been an admirer of his thespian talents. She autographed several books to him, which Bob somehow lost. We went to several great Black barbecue joints and drove to Natchez, Mississippi. Richard Wright had been born there, but there was no plaque anywhere to honor the African-American author of Native Son.

Our last Mississippi destination was a major reason for my trip South. I told Bob I wanted to see the boyhood home of Elvis Presley in the small town of Tupelo, the singer’s Bethlehem. The humble birthplace had been preserved: right off Highway 78, we took a left on Elvis Presley Drive past a Dairy Queen, perhaps gone, and Southern Video, definitely gone, and drove down a couple of blocks. Then as now there stands a two-room shotgun shack without indoor plumbing or running water. It was in 1935 a desirable domicile for dirt poor white folks like Elvis’s pa and ma, Vernon and Gladys Presley. Vernon borrowed $180 to build the place. After a time, he fell behind in his payments, and, in 1938, Vernon, Gladys, and Elvis had to rent elsewhere in Tupelo.

Elvis’s house has been open to the public since 1971. He once brought his wife, Priscilla, to show her where it all began. “The furniture,” our tour guide tells us, “is authentic to the period but it’s not the Presleys. We couldn’t find a single piece of Presley furniture. It’s a sad fact.” The Depression-era bed in the front room is not the one Elvis was born in on January 8, 1935. The stove in the back room is not the one Gladys cooked on. And so forth.

When we were in Tupelo in 1991, Bob and I made do by seeing the Elvis Presley Memorial Chapel with Elvis’s “personal Bible” and the modest Elvis Presley Park and its slide, swings, and a Little League field. In Tupelo 2023, there’s an Elvis Presley Museum and, quoth Wikipedia, “the photo-op ‘Elvis at 13’ statue” for the enjoyment of the 50,000 or so annual visitors. Then and now, many tourists come here because of wanting even more Elvis after they’ve been on a pilgrimage to Graceland, two hours away in Memphis. “We drove 600 miles yesterday from Birmingham, coming from Disneyworld in Florida,” two women explained to me in the gift shop. “We’re driving to Nashville to Opryland and possibly also to Dollywood, depending on the weather.”

“We’ve been to Graceland many times,” said a husband with his wife from Oklahoma City. “We have a big Elvis canvas picture in our boys’ room. And we have videos of all his concerts.” “He didn’t expect people to worship him,” reported the wife. “A lady once offered him a crown, but Elvis refused it. ‘There’s only one King’ is what Elvis said.”

Bob and I were told by our guide that Jackson Browne and actress Patricia Neal had been quite recently to Elvis’s Tupelo home. “We get people from Russia, China, Japan, Great Britain. Some are fans, some aren’t, who are on a tour package. On an icy day we’ll still have 10 or 20 diehards who push through and make it.” And, of course, this is a de rigueur site for Elvis impersonators.

“In summer 1987 I came out of the ladies’ room and I did a double-take,” said our guide. Elvis the Pelvis was standing in the gift shop. “Except for his Australian accent, I couldn’t tell the difference.” And another story. “We had a guy once who came in with black shoes covered with white polish and wearing lots of jewelry. He said, ‘I’m Elvis. Do you have any mail for me?’”

Speaking of impersonators: Bob was, though much agonized, portraying a straight man. He never indicated otherwise during our trip through Mississippi. It was years later that, choking, he came out to me: “What would you think if I told you I was gay?” “I wouldn’t think anything,” I answered. “Who cares?” It took more years for him to totally believe me. My final visit with Bob was in Iowa where he’d taught, where he was dying of cancer but surrounded, happily, with cute young men. I well remember you, my fellow Mississippian.

Gerald Peary is a Professor Emeritus at Suffolk University, Boston; ex-curator of the Boston University Cinematheque; and the general editor of the “Conversations with Filmmakers” series from the University Press of Mississippi. A critic for the late Boston Phoenix, he is the author of nine books on cinema; writer-director of the documentaries For the Love of Movies: The Story of American Film Criticism and Archie’s Betty; and a featured actor in the 2013 independent narrative Computer Chess. His latest feature documentary, The Rabbi Goes West, co-directed by Amy Geller, has played at film festivals around the world.

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