Las Vegas, Nevada
Twenty years ago, we last saw Elvis-A-Rama -- an 85-foot-long, 10-foot-high mural of Elvis's life. It sat in a small corner of the strip known as "Music Row" in Nashville. It had been painted by an obscure country music songwriter, Mitchell Torok, and the lure of it was that visitors could sign their names to its periphery for three bucks. Torok wanted a million signatures, and the total then had already reached 300,000 -- not a bad return for an investment of a few buckets of paint.
The Music Row storefront eventually closed and we lost track of Elvis-A-Rama. We figured that it had ended up in a landfill, or was locked in a shed somewhere. But Elvis-A-Rama survived. The mural was bought in 1994 by another obscure musician, Jimmy Velvet, and moved to Branson, Missouri. Four years after that it was bought by another Elvis collector and moved back to Las Vegas, where it now stands behind a velvet rope at a strip mall a few blocks from the strip.
During its odyssey, Elivis-A-Rama lost its companion "eternal flame" (a gas jet on a wooden stand) and apparently attained its target milestone of one million signatures. Other than that, the mural appears unchanged.
The Elvis-A-Rama Experience - as it's now called -- was crowded when we visited. Signs caution the faithful not to autograph the mural. They are, however, encouraged to scrutinize it for the scrawls of B- and C-list celebrities such as Chet Akins, Archie Campbell, Sonny James, and Maria Shriver.
Most of the tourists didn't seem to notice the mural, but that's only because there was so much more to see -- the "experience" part of the attraction. For example, Elvis "tribute" performances are given in a small theater several times a day by a rotating troop of Elvis impersonators. We were told by one, who was running the ticket booth, that the gift shop had recently sold two pairs of Elvis's stage underwear -- one clean pair for $800 , and a dirty pair for $1,200 -- and that they'd been purchased by women.
Then there's all the stuff that surrounds the mural, part of the "world's largest private collection of Elvis-owned memorabilia," the possessions of Chris Davidson, editor of Hot Boat magazine. Elvis's original blue suede shoes are here, along with his first Cadillac and his turquoise karate outfit with the eagle rhinestone appliqués. One display holds the hotel bill from Elvis's first gig in Las Vegas, and shows that in two weeks he spent only $207.07.
A display of weapons showcases Elvis's 1970 Smith & Wesson .38 Special with a gold-plated trigger, and a can of Mace that Elvis gave to the wife of the guy who designed his TCB pendant. A plaque holds a Las Vegas International Hotel drinking glass, retrieved from Elvis's suite by Mrs. Sheila Walters, with a sign informing the curious that, "Elvis favored drinking Pepsi, Mountain Valley Spring Water, and Nesbitt Orange."
To our surprise, sitting in front of Elvis's 1968 comeback special electric guitar, signing autographs for $10 apiece, was Jimmy Velvet, the former owner of Elvis-A-Rama! Jimmy was happy to be recognized and full of stories. He recalled that he opened the first Elvis museum only ten months after The King had died, in an old gas station across the street from Graceland. He remembered how Vernon, Elvis's dad, took him up the street to a dry cleaner where 62 of Elvis's jump suits were hanging. "Would someone buy them for $500 apiece?" Vernon asked Jimmy. "At my auction," Jimmy remembered with a smile, "they brought 100 grand apiece."
Jimmy walked us around the museum, pointing out other objects that had once belonged to him, and recalling the profit that he had made on each one. Elvis's gold-plated Carl Walther Waffenfabrik pistol, for example, was purchased by Jimmy for $1,000 and later sold by him for $150,000. "Back then," he recalled, "people said, 'You're crazy buying all this stuff!' But I've always preached the gospel: Elvis will always be known."
We wondered why Jimmy Velvet, the #1 Elvis collector, who bought so low and sold so high, was sitting at a card table selling his autograph for ten bucks. The answer: Jimmy Velvet is no longer wealthy. The man who once operated six Elvis museums -- we visited most of them -- had nearly everything taken away from him in the 1990s because of a bad business deal and a messy divorce. Jimmy sold it all, much of it to the current owner of The Elvis-a-Rama Experience. "I grew up with nothing," Jimmy said of his poverty, "so I'm used to it."
And the Elvis churn isn't over. According to Velvet, Chris Davidson, who bought out Jimmy, has himself been bought out by Graceland, which has been scouring the country, persuading one Elvis attraction after another to close shop. Elvis-A-Rama will be shuttered forever in Las Vegas on October 1. Graceland has given Chris permission to exile himself, the mural, and whatever else that Graceland doesn't want, to Hawaii, where Chris will be allowed to open another museum under license from the Elvis brand folks. Meanwhile, Graceland has paid $68 million for Las Vegas property next to the Harley-Davidson Cafe, where rumor has it that an Elvis museum/casino will be built.
"I'm happy to see what they're doing," says Jimmy, who perhaps would feel otherwise if he were the one being run out of town. "I think it's marvelous."
Elvis-A-Rama is a survivor, so we're confident that it will weather this latest storm as it has all of its others. But those who want to see it before it sails off across the Pacific, along with items such as Elvis's American Express card and his Rolls Royce car insurance policy, should do so now. Who knows -- last minute visitors could get lucky. Perhaps the gift shop will unearth another pair of Elvis' soiled undies, and Jimmy Velvet, who has some of Elvis's DNA, will be at his card table, willing and able to verify its provenance for a small fee.