Sunday, July 27, 2008

The King will rock forever in small Mississippi town

By TOMIE LUNSFORD
Telegram Staff Writer

TUPELO, Miss. - Go up three brown steps.
A porch swing sways on your left. To the right, you can see a church across the sidewalk.
Straight ahead, the screen door of a white house hangs open.
It's not big or fancy, but that's the building Elvis never left. It's where the King was born.
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A treat for a road trip fiend, my time at the Birthplace of Elvis Presley wasn't planned.
The excursion to Tupelo was a spontaneous affair. It occurred on my second day of meeting the in-laws - err, my boyfriend's relatives.
We had just finished up an afternoon of fishing, a.k.a. feeding crickets to catfish, at a pond in nearby Pontotoc. The conversation focused on what to do next.
'I guess we could go to Tupelo,' said Ricky Parks, my boyfriend's dad. 'That's the place where Elvis Presley was born, you know.'
I squealed in response to the offer. I'd already been to Elvis Presley's Graceland Mansion in Memphis, Tenn., and to several 'Heartbreak Hotels' - the one in Memphis and a couple of others in Las Vegas and South Dakota. So for consistency's sake, I had to go.
Rusty, the boyfriend - he rolled his eyes but was happy to oblige. He grew up in Tupelo, you see, so it wasn't that big of a deal to him.
It wasn't a novelty for his dad, either. A local exterminator, Mr. Parks sees the Birthplace of Elvis Presley at least once a week, keeping the site free of pests.
'I can't tell you how many times I've been here for free,' Mr. Parks joked upon arrival. 'Can't believe I'm paying to get in.'
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I knew that Elvis had a twin. I knew that the twin died in childbirth.
I had forgot the twin's name was Jesse Garon Presley.
What I didn't know, the trip taught me. I learned that the Presley boys were born Jan. 8, 1935, in a modest, two-room home in the woods of Tupelo. The tour guide said the mother, Gladys, gave birth on the cotton bed displayed near the entryway.
The home's structure is part of the Elvis Presley legacy. His father, Vernon, built it with his two hands, spending $180 for supplies.
The city of Tupelo came into possession of the Presley house in 1956, the same year the song 'Heartbreak Hotel' topped the charts. The King of Rock 'n' Roll donated it to his hometown along with the proceeds of a concert he gave to generate support for a neighborhood park.
Now an official Mississippi landmark, the King's birthplace is part of the 15-acre Elvis Presley Park.
The park's central feature is the Elvis Presley Memorial Museum. Artifacts include photographs, memorabilia and stories from people who knew Elvis as a neighbor or 'just another boy in school.'
Having come along for the trip, Rusty's granny recognized someone standing next to to Elvis in a childhood photograph.
'That's Mary Bedford,' said Joyce Parks of Tupelo, pointing at a little girl. 'She's a Simmons now, married to one of my cousins.'
Ms. Parks wasn't in the same class as Elvis, but she did attend the same school, Lawhorn Elementary.
'We went to assemblies then,' Ms. Parks said. 'Elvis, he always carried around his guitar. At the assemblies, we'd have speakers, a preacher would come or something like that. Well, at a couple of them, Elvis sang. Once, it was a song about an old, yellow cat.'
Tourists can visit the grounds of Lawhorn Elementary on a self-guided driving tour of the Elvis Presley Park.
Covering several city blocks, the tour stops at the following locations:s
The refurbished Assembly of God Church, where Elvis and his family worshiped under the Rev. Frank Smith.s
Johnnie's Drive-In, where Elvis was often seen munching on cheeseburgers and sipping on RC Cola.s
The Tupelo Fairgrounds, where Elvis performed in 1956 and 1957.s
The Tupelo Hardware Store, where Elvis bought his first guitar.s
The Lee County Courthouse, where Elvis performed his first live radio show. Hosted by Mississippi Slim, the show was aired on the WELO radio station.
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If you go
WHAT: The Elvis Presley Birthplace and Museum
WHERE: 306 Elvis Presley Drive in Tupelo, Miss.
HOURS: Monday-Saturday, 9 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. May-September or 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. October-April. Sunday hours are 1-5 p.m. year-round. It is closed for Thanksgiving and Christmas.
COST:$10 for adults, $5 for children.
NOTE:Group tours are available upon request. Call 662-841-1245, email dguyton@redmagnet.com or visit www.elvispresleybirthplace.com.

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