The Panoramic Encyclopedia of Everything Elvis
From the outside, the old Loudermilk Boarding House looks normal and respectable; it even has a National Register of Historic Places plaque mounted to its front fence.
But inside, the Panoramic Encyclopedia of Everything Elvis is open for business.
In its own way, the Experience is respectable too -- the only Elvis attraction we know of that displays a body part of The King. It's the creation of artist Joni Mabe, who spent most of the 1990s restoring the boarding house, then installed the Experience on its upper floor. She opened it to the public in 1999.
"When you first become infatuated with somebody, it's intense," said Joni, who dates her Elvis obsession to the day that he died, August 16, 1977. "You wait for the phone to ring, but it never rang because he was dead."
Joni channeled her passion into Elvis art -- she made her first piece that very night -- then began trading it for rare Elvis relics. The collective result is the Experience, an unpretentious and fun museum/gallery that fills five rooms floor-to-ceiling with spangled reliquary and bubbly fandom.
A key part of the Experience is Joni herself, a cheerful host attired in fantastic hand-made Elvis art finery. Elvis songs, broadcast from hidden speakers, lure visitors up the "Stairway to Elvis Heaven" to one of Joni's large glitter portraits, "Angel Elvis." He looks bloated. "Back then there was no Jenny Craig, no Betty Ford Clinic where he could go for his problems," said Joni.
The Experience embraces Elvis's flaws as well as his triumphs -- and no flaw is more memorable than Joni's most prized relic, the Elvis Wart. Cradled in red velvet, preserved in a vial of formaldehyde, the wart was supposedly removed from Elvis's wrist by a doctor in Memphis who later sold it to Joni (Photos of young Elvis in the Experience indeed show the wart; later photos do not).
Some have speculated that Elvis could be cloned from the wart, but Joni has refused all offers. "It wouldn't be right," she said. "He wouldn't be happy."
Displayed next to the wart is a tag that was purportedly looped around Elvis's toe in the mortuary, and next to that is the Maybe Elvis Toenail that Joni found in the Jungle Room at Graceland during a 1983 tour.
"I wanted to touch where he'd walked," Joni said, explaining how she ran her fingers through the shag carpet and came across the relic. Joni calls it a "Maybe" toenail because she can't prove that it belonged to Elvis -- but, she asks, who else would be clipping their toenails in the Jungle Room at Graceland?
Joni graciously explains everything that we point at, and the Experience is so densely packed -- it has over 30,000 items -- that there's no way to see it all. On one wall hangs a barbershop sign from Africa listing six different Elvis hair styles; on another is a baby crib shrine with Elvis and Einstein, hung beneath a black velvet painting of Jesus walking on water. There are Elvis tapestries, busts, whisky decanters, clocks, an Elvis postage stamp bedspread, an Elvis lava lamp, a pair of Elvis-head fuzzy bedroom slippers.
And there are more frocks from Joni's Elvis wardrobe, including a dress covered in 3,000 hand-made Elvis buttons ("It's really heavy; about 40 pounds."). Joni said that some day she'd like to meet the Button King, who she learned about on RoadsideAmerica.com. She also showed us a cease-and-desist letter from Elvis Presley Enterprises, threatening legal action if she continued selling her Elvis Hair Buttons.
"I had some Elvis hair from his barber in L.A.," Joni said. "Then I'd go to the barber shop in town and sweep up the hair and mix it in a big salad bowl." No longer available in the gift shop, one of the buttons is now framed as yet another exhibit in the Experience -- along with the threatening letter.
"Look at all the lawyers on the letterhead!" Joni said with a surprised smile.
Also on display, on a special pillow, is Joni's confession of her own frailty: a pair of tickets to an Elvis concert that she spurned in 1976. "Back then it was like he was Wayne Newton. It wasn't hip to be an Elvis fan," said Joni. "My friend saw him but I think I went to Lynyrd Skynyrd instead."
Joni atoned for that sin long ago, and the flame that flared in her in 1977 still burns. "I'm adding more all the time," she said of both her reliquary and her art, which has grown so prolific that she now sells examples in the Experience gift shop. "Elvis and me, it's sort of like a marriage. I look at it like that," she said with a laugh. "I'm long term."