Bendigo Art Gallery hosts landmark Elvis Presley exhibition

As with any Elvis exhibition, you’d be expecting Bendigo’s Elvis, Direct from Graceland to be showy, over the top and visually dazzling.

It is all that, but it’s also deeply personal and a fascinating glimpse into the man behind the carefully crafted public persona.

The room containing his bejewelled jumpsuits is especially popular – and rightly so as they are astonishing, especially up close. As are his MG, Harley-Davidson and the myriad movie stills.

Equally fascinating are the intensely personal items such the last record he ever listened to – still on the player – as well as the actual keys to Graceland and Elvis’s travelling trunk full of his favourite books.

Graceland’s vice-president of archives and exhibits and exhibition co-curator, Angie Marchese, attended the opening days of the exhibition and said Elvis’s wallet was her favourite item on display.

“It has a photo of him and Lisa Marie inside and I can just imagine him bringing it out to show people. It makes him one of us,” she said.

The hundreds of pieces on display at Bendigo Gallery have been selected from about 1.5 million artefacts that Graceland maintains.

All offer a glimpse into an astonishing figure that Ms Marchese largely attributes to Elvis’s parents.

“Growing up poor, every time Elvis would redecorate, Vernon would just put everything in storage because he never knew when this was all going to go away,” she said.

“In 1995, they also acquired Tom Parker’s (Elvis’s manager) collection, which combined his private life with his public performances. The two collections work very well together to tell his story.”

The exhibition is loosely chronological, starting off with his deprived childhood, moving on to his early music career, to his movie career and finally to the glitzy Vegas days.

Graceland is a constant background presence.

Visitors will witness his transformation from the breakthrough rebellious years as he began to craft his image, through to the polished, suave Hollywood leading man and on to his iconic Las Vegas performances.

Bendigo Art Gallery curator Lauren Ellis said that while Elvis was obviously the star of the exhibition, Graceland was both the inspiration and source for the exhibits.

“Graceland is the protagonist in this story, a key character in his journey,” she said

“For all his wealth and fame, he bought a house an hour from the shack he grew up in.

“He was a bundle of contradictions. He had a global presence, but geographically his world was tiny.”

Priscilla Presley attended the launch and is largely credited for burnishing Elvis’s legacy and turning Graceland into the second most famous house in the US – behind the White House. Graceland welcomes 500,000 visitors a year and 90 per cent of those are first-time visitors.

Priscilla said she was motivated to keep Graceland in Elvis’s memory.

“Elvis would never have wanted to sell it,” she said.

“It was our private world. Very few people actually came to Graceland. We would shut ourselves out of the world.

“It was a sacred place for him. He was a very, very, private man.”

Priscilla was visibly moved when discussing the exhibition.

“Elvis never thought he’d be remembered,” she said.

“He knew he was popular but there was still a part of him that questioned how long this would all last, so it’s wonderful to share him with the world like this 45 years later.”

Priscilla said the most personal pieces in the exhibition for her were her wedding dress and Elvis’s wedding tuxedo although “there was a little bit of him in everything”.

“People made fun of those jumpsuits, but they were all about pleasing his audience and throwing the scarves into the crowd was him giving them a part of himself,” she said.

“Things didn’t mean much to Elvis. He’d give you the shirt off his back.”

Elvis, Direct from Graceland is a coup for the regional gallery that has a history of surprising the art world, having presented exhibitions covering Marilyn Munro through to English royalty.

It is the largest exhibition of Elvis memorabilia outside of Graceland, eclipsing similar shows in London and Sao Paulo, Brazil.

The gallery also sold more pre-sales tickets than for any previous exhibition.

Unsurprisingly, when first approached about an exhibition, Ms Marchese had never heard of Bendigo.

“I said, ‘Bendigo, where’s Bendigo?'” she said.

“But once we learnt more, we were so impressed with their experience it seemed like the perfect place to hold an exhibition.

“We are very selective. Each time we send out an exhibition it tells a story, and this is an opportunity to showcase pieces that would otherwise never be showcased.

“There are only 11 items we took off display from Graceland, everything else was in storage.”

Ms Marchese said Elvis was a cultural phenomenon who still had the power to move an audience.

“There was something about Elvis’s authenticity, his connection with fans who actually got to see him perform, that was passed down from that generation to the next,” she said.

“It’s amazing how even today you can put Elvis up on the big screen and he still resonates with whomever is watching him.

“And he’s still doing it, all these years later. I hope fans come to Bendigo, it’s an opportunity for people who might never come to Graceland to experience it.”

Elvis: Direct from Graceland runs at Bendigo Art Gallery until 17 July. Visit: Bendigo Art Gallery to book tickets or for more information.

Bendigo Art Gallery
42 View Street, Bendigo VIC 3550 | 19 Mar 22-17 Jul 22 | Monday-Sunday : 10am – 5pm

Gallery member (Bendigo Art Gallery and PGAV member galleries)$20
Children under 16 years$15
Children under 5 yearsFree
Family (2 adults, 2 children)$75

Written by Jan Fisher