Christmas at Graceland
By Karen Ott Mayer | Photography courtesy of Elvis Presley’s Graceland
Recognized as one of the nation’s Best Holiday Historic Home Tours, Graceland feels magical during the holidays thanks to Angie Marchese’s dedicated leadership and focus on authenticity, right down to the tinsel on the trees.
For the last 31 years, Angie Marchese has worked at Elvis Presley’s Graceland through every season. The holiday season, however, offers a time to celebrate in true Elvis style and reflect on the authenticity of the collections.
Graceland has been named the “Best Holiday Historic Home Tour” by 10Best.com in USA TODAY’s 10Best Readers’ Choice Awards for the last two years. Driven by fans, the award recognizes the reason behind Graceland’s holiday appeal.
“I think we were recognized because the holiday displays are authentic,” says Marchese. “Everything is exactly as Elvis would have decorated the house, right down to the original tinsel we put on the trees. In fact, we still have the original box for the tinsel!”
The holiday season offers a real glimpse into the personal side of the Presley family. “Elvis loved Christmas and the house is truly how he would have kept it,” she adds.
The Graceland team begins decorating the grounds a few weeks before Thanksgiving and leaves the decorations up until Elvis’ birthday on Jan. 8.
Marchese’s introduction to Elvis began when she heard his music and watched movies as a child. So, when she sat down with her high school counselor in 1989, the conversation revolved around work and something clicked.
“She asked me if I had a summer job and said I should apply to be a tour guide at Elvis Presley’s Graceland because I had an outgoing bubbly personality,” says Marchese. “Little did I know that would be the summer that never ended.” She began her career as a tour guide and is now the Vice President of Archives and Exhibits, overseeing displays from conception to installation.
“I like to say I get paid to play with Elvis’ stuff,” she says.
Visitors to the mansion will pass the front yard nativity scene first placed there in 1969, as well as the Santa, reindeer, and a Merry Christmas sign all dating to 1957. In the dining room, original ornaments decorate the tree.
Another fun story involves the blue lights that line the driveway. When Elvis spotted a California home with holiday blue lights, he called his father, Vernon Presley, and said he wanted to have the same lights at Graceland.
“Vernon’s only concern was that Graceland is located so close to the airport that he thought the planes might mistake the driveway for a runway,” Marchese says with a laugh.
Marchese believes Graceland is particularly special at Christmas. “It’s festive and there’s music on the plaza. The family still comes home on Christmas Eve to gather and exchange gifts just like when Elvis was living. It’s still all about following tradition.”
Graceland owns approximately 1.5 million artifacts that belonged to Elvis including clothing, costumes, records, letters, and memorabilia. According to Marchese, Elvis never threw anything away so the collection is massive. Unlike the mansion that remains largely the same to reflect exactly how Elvis lived, the museum and exhibitions located across the street at the Elvis Presley’s Memphis Entertainment Complex serve as homes for rotating exhibits.
“Guests may not realize that we’re constantly changing the exhibits in the museum,” Marchese says. “Even if you’ve visited the complex before, you’ll have a chance to see something different on your next visit. We want to shape our guest experience through the collection and tell stories that both entertain and educate.”
This month marks the 50th anniversary of Elvis’ visit to the White House and his meeting with President Richard Nixon. That meeting occurred on Dec. 21,1970, just before Christmas.
“I asked about the most requested photo from the archives. They said it’s the photo of when Elvis and Nixon met.” Marchese also had the honor of carrying Elvis’ suit that he wore to that meeting back to Washington, D.C., for an exhibit.
Over her career, Marchese has helped install Elvis Presley’s collections around the globe, including England and Brazil.
Despite the changing seasons and years, Marchese says the goal is still to share the Elvis story, even if how it is shared is changing.
“In 1989, many guests still had memories of Elvis and knew him so our words were, ‘You remember when…’ or ‘Remember when?’ Today, many guests don’t have those memories so our storytelling sounds more like, ‘Let me tell you about this… .’”
Marchese has witnessed and participated in Graceland’s growth over the years and expresses a profound gratitude at watching plans, like the museum and visitor’s complex, become a reality.
With Covid-19, Graceland has also adjusted with an ironic result. “It’s magical to take a tour at Christmas. With limited capacity and social distancing, it’s almost like taking a tour by yourself now.”
Marchese cherishes her role as a memory maker. “I’m able to provide new memories, relive old memories and help guests discover Elvis. That one high school job became my endless summer.”