My mom was obsessed with Elvis when I was a kid. By the time I hit my teens I already knew every Elvis song, I had seen every Elvis movie at least a dozen times, and my brain was packed with random Elvis trivia. But as I walked into the Elvis Presley Birthplace in Tupelo I just could not seem to remember the name of that one movie where Elvis parks a truck on the side of the road and ends up living there for the next ten years.
Note: This is the first of a three-part series about my adventures in Tupelo, Mississippi. Click here to read A Tupelo Story, Part II.
Elvis Presley needs no introduction. But if you want to understand the man behind the music that shaped “rock and roll” you need only visit the small two-room house at the corner of the Elvis Presley Birthplace. The original wood frame house built by Elvis’ father and uncle still stands at the exact same location as it did when Elvis and his still-born twin brother Jesse were born in 1935.
Just before walking into the museum my phone vibrated in my pocket. I didn’t need to look to see it was my mom calling. “When you go inside I want you to tell me everything they have in the gift shop,” she said excitedly. I could already tell I’d be spending a little extra money while I was here. My mom’s eagerness to know every item in the gift shop rattled my concentration, so by the time I purchased my admission ticket for the Grand Tour (included a tour of the museum, house, and church) I had completely forgotten to ask about the name to that movie.
The gift shop had just about every kind of Elvis item you could imagine: clothing, cups and mugs, neon signs, clocks, pens and pencils, stationary, and trinkets. I spent twenty minutes on the phone with my mom describing everything to her. I ignored the “No Photography” signs and surreptitiously captured a few photos so my mom could see the items I described. I walked out with a big bag full of goodies, hoping she would forget and I could give them to her for Christmas (she didn’t forget).
The museum was beyond entertaining. It was educational and absolutely jaw dropping. It was much more than just a collection of childhood clothing and previous instruments Elvis played; it was a chronicle of his life. This is where I learned for the first time that Elvis had a twin brother who was born first, but still born. The museum guided me through his life as a loner in elementary school through his years in the church gospel and eventual rise to fame. By the time I walked out of the museum I had a much better understanding of the “King of Rock and Roll” than ever before.
Outside along a short paved path was the two-room house where Elvis was born and raised. A lady at the door took my ticket and opened the door for me to peak inside. It was just two rooms; a large bed in one room and a small kitchen and table in the other. Looking at this tiny house, realizing three people lived here, and considering where Elvis ended up, it was awe inspiring.
The Elvis Presley Birthplace is more than just a museum, a house, and a church. I stopped by the original Assembly of God Church and watched a fascinating multimedia presentation (seriously I’m not going to ruin it for you but you have to see this for yourself). Then I found the park. Behind the museum and gift shop a winding path gently climbed a short hill. The path split; one route ended at the “Becoming” statue, the other at a reflection pond.
It took a couple of hours to get through everything. I could have spent longer outside if that unbearably humid summer heat wasn’t pressing down on my chest. I had almost made it back to my van when I realized I never figured out the name of that movie. I popped back inside the museum for a moment and blurted out, “I’m trying to remember the name of this Elvis movie my mom would watch over and over. All I remember was that Elvis was driving a truck, it broke down on the side of a road, and so he built a house and just lived there.”
The lady smiled back at me. “Follow That Dream. It’s one of my favorites.”
Elvis’ favorite food was the infamous peanut butter, banana, and bacon sandwich. I have yet to try it although I’m partial to anything with peanut butter, bananas, and bacon so I’ll probably love it. But during his youth growing up in Tupelo he loved a different, simpler kind of food: cheeseburgers and RC colas. And there was one place in town he would go for his favorite childhood food.
Johnnie’s Drive-In is a tiny drive in eatery just minutes from the Elvis Presley Birthplace. The cash-only eatery is a local favorite. The menu is simple enough that it only needs a single piece of painted plywood hanging on the wall, but the food is delicious. I parked under the cover of a slanted metal roof and almost immediately a waiter was standing by the window. I ordered the same kind of cheeseburger Elvis loved all those years ago but sadly they no longer had RC cola.
The food arrived within minutes, cooked to order. The onion rings were thick, crunchy, and juicy. They were almost a meal on their own. Then I delved in to the burger. I wasn’t disappointed. It took quite a few minutes to finish off the meal. I decided to walk it off a bit and walked around the front of the drive in. The Cheeseburger Booth is a simple concrete table and bench under the front cover of the drive in with a plaque commemorating this as a place Elvis would eat.
The Tupelo Automotive Museum was the most amazing museum of cars I had ever visited. A giant warehouse filled with cars lined up in chronological order and in pristine condition. It was a thrilling experience (more on that tomorrow) to wonder through the museum.
But off to one side, surrounded by barrier chains and a lifesize Elvis cardboard cutout, was a blue 1976 Lincoln Continental that Elvis used to drive. It’s a thrilling and rather appropriate addition to this fine museum, bringing fans just a little bit closer to the life of Elvis.
In 1956 Elvis returned to his home for a concert at the Tupelo Fairgrounds right in the middle of town. Today the site of the fairgrounds is the location of the larger-than-life Elvis Presley Homecoming Statue. Surrounded by a large park with city hall in the background, it’s the perfect photo-op to commemorate your Elvis experience in Tupelo.
When Elvis’ mom asked her teenage son what he wanted for his birthday he immediately said he wanted a rifle. Not eager to give her son a gun she instead convinced him to buy a guitar at Tupelo Hardware Company. Gladys browsed through the small collection and picked out an instrument that would forever change her son’s life and shape the future of music around the world.
Today that same hardware company is still located in the same building on Main Street. Tour groups and visitors pop inside all the time to take a look around the historic location. At least, it’s historic for Elvis. Inside you won’t find a museum or a curator, but rather you’ll find bins filled with nails and screws, power tools in boxes stacked on shelves, and people buying a door or air conditioner. Visitors are still welcomed and the friendly staff will tell a few stories and show a picture of what the hardware company looked like back then.
As a bit of a tradition the hardware store still sells guitars. They are starter guitars, not very fancy, but how cool would it be to buy your first guitar in the same place Elvis bought his?
In all my travels I am always either a day late or a week early. That was exactly the case when I came to Tupelo. “You know the Elvis Festival is next weekend, right? Why don’t you stay here for the week?” When the lady inside the two-room house where Elvis was born asked those questions my heart hit the floor. I was on a tight deadline and didn’t have any wiggle room left in my schedule.
The Tupelo Elvis Festival is held the second weekend of June each year. The 5-day event features concerts throughout the day, a parade through downtown, and special activities all around town. Hundreds of Elvis impersonators descend upon the historic birthplace town while thousands of fans, both of Elvis and just good rock ‘n roll in general, flood the streets day and night.
It’s a fantastic event that I was sad to miss so do me a favor? Enjoy it for me.
Continue the adventure with A Tupelo Story, Part II.