Alan Chartock | I Publius: Memphis has changed, but the King still reigns
GREAT BARRINGTON >> This time, Roselle dragged me to Memphis so she could continue to research her new book on the King, Elvis Presley.
As Paul Simon instructed, we went to Graceland, the second most visited site in America after the White House. I have a friend who says that HE has a friend who has been to Graceland five times.
When Roselle asked me why I thought people would go so often, I replied, "For the same reason people go to church every Sunday." People save up for a lifetime to come and honor and even pray to the Elvis icon.
In many ways, it is the story of a poor child who became the most famous man in the world; who was adored; whose music lives on and who, it turns out, was a true friend and admirer of all who make up the human family. Ultimately, he fell victim to drugs, a sad fact that makes him more like the rest of the people who live and die in our country.
I cannot tell you the number of people I met in Memphis and here at home who worship and adore Elvis. The man was naive, brilliant, intuitive, and so generous that at the time of his death, his estate was a paltry million dollars, so greatly was he committed to taking care of those known as the Memphis Mafia or, by others, the hangers on.
If you lived in Memphis when Elvis reigned and if you knew him, you had it made for life. Many of these people have written books about their relationships with him. Some are slavishly devoted. Others, needing to be different, are mean beyond reason and have been ostracized from the inner sanctum.
'Tailor to the King'
Thanks to Roselle's in-depth research and networking, we got to know and enjoy the son of the "Tailor to the King," Hal Lansky. If you Google the family, you'll tear up at the story of how Bernie Lansky saw this thin, sensitive faced man standing outside his clothing store looking longingly at the unique and flashy clothing in the window.
He approached Elvis and invited him in. Elvis said he had no money but the old man told him that he would trust him. Elvis replied that he was going to make so much money that he would buy him out, and Bernie Lansky replied, "Don't buy me out, but buy from me."
That encounter made the Lanskys Memphis royalty. Bernie's son, Hal Lansky, is now in his sixties. He took an extraordinary amount of time showing us what is left of his Memphis, now largely decimated by urban renewal.
We went to the National Civil Rights Museum in the Lorraine Motel where Martin Luther King was shot. It makes you tremble to see that balcony. We remember the struggle. It's a great museum and should be on everyone's bucket list.
Ducks on parade
We stayed at the world-famous Peabody Hotel, known for its incredible Duck Walk. It started in 1933 when someone got the idea of training and marching five ducks from the roof to a fountain in the main lobby. Since then, every day at 11 a.m., the "Duck Master" makes an announcement and in march the ducks.
Apparently since ducks are a symbol of the hotel there is an agreement that duck will never be served at any of the restaurants in Peabody Hotel.
Hundreds of people and their young children yell and applaud. Just goes to show that when intuitive, brilliant marketers get a good idea, the sun shines.
But it is Elvis who really makes the town. Everywhere we went we saw pictures and statues of the young Elvis. He loved gospel music, he loved people, he loved to perform, he loved his mother, he loved being in the movies, he loved cars.
And the people loved him. If you haven't got it already, he is to some people a God-like figure.
Alan Chartock, a Great Barrington resident, is president and CEO of WAMC Northeast Public Radio and a professor emeritus of communications at SUNY-Albany.