Even before the tragic deaths that shut its doors open all night, the ramshackle antebellum Mississippi mansion known as “Graceland Too” was essentially a haunted house – haunted by memory if not the ghost of Elvis.
Long an irreverent shrine for boozy after-hours Ole Miss students, Memphis day-trippers, indie rockers and other weirdo aficionados from around the world, the two-story Holly Springs Shrine filled with memorabilia from Elvis Presley was shut down in 2014, after its fanatical Elvis owner, Paul MacLeod, fatally shot 28-year-old Dwight David Taylor Jr., a local handyman, on the mansion’s porch. Two days later MacLeod, 70, died on that porch of a heart attack.
Although the Graceland Too saga has inspired a few magazine articles, a book of photographs and a few songs (see Parquet Courts’ “Uncast Shadow of a Southern Myth”), the story of recent years has been more or less forgotten, even by those true crime podcasters and streaming service playwrights for whom surreal calamity is catnip.
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“It was in my head, but I kept thinking, ‘This is such a great story, someone else is going to write it,'” said Cordova/Memphis native Nicole Hughes. who now lives in New York. “I guess I didn’t have the confidence to think I would be the only one doing it until I realized no one else was doing it.”
This week, Graceland Too reopened, so to speak, but in an unlikely location: The mansion, its troubled inhabitant and its eerie history inspired a new play, ‘Graceland Too: The Building Elvis Never Left’, written by Hughes , 31, and led by another transplant from Memphis to New York, Maxx Reed, 32.
A third New York Mafia member from Memphis, Matt Wood (a classmate of Reed’s at Bolton High School), composed the music for the show. “It’s really funny how we all ended up in New York,” said Wood, 38, whose Memphis band Teenager Perspective played venues such as Newby’s and New Daisy.
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The Elvis Flower Connection
“Graceland Too,” the play, debuted Monday night at the New York Theater Festival, an annual event that provides what Hughes calls an “off-off-Broadway” showcase for new productions. Performances were scheduled to continue Friday and Sunday. After that, the play’s future is uncertain.
Hughes said she had only visited Graceland Too once, in 2008, when she was visiting friends at Ole Miss while a student at Auburn University. But she said that visit revealed a “strange”, albeit loose, bond between her and MacLeod.
Hughes said his great-uncle, Frank Hill, worked at the Memphis funeral home, “and his fame, I suppose, is that he embalmed Elvis.”
As a result, Hughes said, the family had flowers that had been used at Elvis’ funeral, which Hughes’ grandmother had pressed and framed. The “Elvis flowers” have become a major totem in the family tradition. “At the end of the day, they’re just dried flowers, aren’t they? But no, they’re not only flowers are Elvis’ flowers.”
At Graceland Too, Hughes learned during his visit, MacLeod also had what he called “Elvis’ grave flowers, but his were in a plastic bag taped to the wall.” Even so, there was another house with a proud display of Elvis flowers. “I thought, what if in some weird way we were connected through these flowers?”
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The story of Graceland Too
Originally from Elvis-obsessed Detroit, MacLeod moved to Holly Springs in the 1970s. In 1990, he turned his so-called “Graceland Too” home into a self-made tourist attraction. The nickname Graceland Too was not authorized by Elvis Presley Enterprises, but probably not unjustified: built in 1853, the house – auctioned off after MacLeod’s death – somehow resembles a mini-Graceland, with its columns colonial style and its stone lions.
Graceland Too is never closed to visitors. Anyone who showed up at MacLeod’s door at any time of the day or night any day of the year was welcome, as long as the person had the $5 entrance fee.
What those five seats bought was a MacLeod-led tour that wasn’t just a walk through the claustrophobic interior of Elvis’ stuffed home, but a delve into an equally precarious mind stuffed with Elvis. Highlights included MacLeod’s performance of “Jailhouse Rock” and his display of Polaroid photographs in which ectoplasmic evidence of Elvis’ approving spirit was said to be visible in lens flare. Says Hughes: “He definitely thought Elvis lived in the flickering lights.”
Worrying or fun? The answer, for most visitors, was “both”. But the pendulum swung to the dark side on the night of July 15, 2014, when MacLeod killed Taylor with what a Paris Review article called “one of his many weapons.” The men would have been sometimes close, sometimes combative friends; according to reports, Taylor had come to Graceland Too to demand payment for a repair job he had done for MacLeod. Regardless, MacLeod died two days later, and within a year his house and Elvis collection had been auctioned off.
How the ‘Graceland Too’ piece came together
According to Hughes, “Graceland Too: The Building Elvis Never Left” is a work of “historical fiction”, inhabited by actors portraying real people in a dramatized storyline. In musical terms, “Our first act is blues and our second act is gospel,” Hughes said.
Charles F. Wagner plays MacLeod, while Qaasim Middleton is Taylor. A barbecue restaurateur character who represents “the heart and soul” of Holly Springs is played by Toni searightwho in 1987 was the first black woman to win the Miss Mississippi pageant and represent that state in the Miss America competition.
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While focusing on the particular personalities of the two men, the play also touches on other relevant topics, including gun ownership, mental health, “Elvis culture” and race. MacLeod was a white man, Taylor was a black man; Holly Springs police did not charge MacLeod after the shooting. “Dwight didn’t really get justice,” Hughes said.
Reed said Hughes had “a very, very special gift for history,” but in tandem, he and Hughes made what he called “a perfect partnership” for the project: Hughes is white, while Reed – her fiancé as well as her collaborator – is black.
The piece is produced in collaboration with the Taylor family. “We are honored because the Taylor family has allowed us to use their name and tell their story,” Hughes said. The family contributed an open letter about Taylor to the play’s program guide (he was “a loving, kind, gentle child who was taken from us unexpectedly”) and asks viewers to make a contribution in Taylor’s memory at Le Bonheur Children’s Hospital.
After years of contemplating the material, Hughes said she wrote the play relatively quickly, specifically for submission to the New York Theater Festival. After he was accepted in July, she and Reed had to fundraise to produce the piece for the event. A crowdfunding campaign on the Indiegogo site raised nearly $10,000.
Auditions, casting and rehearsals were accomplished in the space of a few weeks before the start of the play. “It was a mad scramble to get him produced,” said Reed, who has her own Graceland connection if not Graceland Too: her aunt, Dr. Susanne Taylor, is a veterinarian whose clients have included horses from the Presley estate (including including Moriah, Lisa Marie’s Shetland pony).
The duo’s artistic experience helped them achieve their “crazy stampede”. Hughes makes a living working for a digital health company, but has long been involved in various stage, film and social justice projects (she was a social action campaign producer for the documentary “Coded Bias”, now on Netflix). Reed – who trained at the New Ballet Ensemble here – is an actor, dancer and producer who appeared on Broadway in “Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark”.
“It’s nice to have it standing,” Hughes said of “Graceland Too.” But will the house remain standing? With nearly 90 plays, one-acts and sketches presented at the New York Theater Festival through July, it can be hard to get noticed.
“We’re definitely hoping to bring it to Memphis, but we’d also like an off-Broadway run, or whatever,” she said. “We hope it will last.”