For 30 years, tourists from around the world have paid money to get a look at two airplanes once owned by Elvis Presley at Graceland in Memphis, Tennessee. Fans enjoy touring the planes for their direct connection to Presley and his jet-setting lifestyle, a sort of touchstone to the life of the King of Rock and Roll and his family.
By April of next year, the planes named Lisa Marie and Hound Dog II could be gone.
Elvis Presley Enterprises, which operates the Graceland tourist attraction, has written to the planes’ owners saying they should prepare to remove the jets from Graceland by next spring.
The planes have been a tourist attraction since the mid-1980s. They had been sold after Presley’s death, and were eventually purchased by OKC Partnership in Memphis.
OKC Partnership and Graceland agreed to bring the two jets to Graceland. The agreement called for OKC Partnership to receive a cut of ticket sales in return for keeping the planes there.
In an April 7 letter to OKC Partnership’s K.G. Coker, Elvis Presley Enterprises CEO Jack Soden said the company is exercising its option to end the agreement and asks Coker “to make arrangements for the removal of the airplanes and the restoration of the site on or shortly after April 26, 2015.”
Their removal could cause an uproar among fans, especially those who visit Graceland every year as part of an annual pilgrimage to events such as Elvis Week and the candlelight vigil commemorating Presley’s death.
Dedicated Elvis fan Paul Fivelson of Algonquin, Illinois, said he expects many fans will be upset to hear the planes may be leaving.
“The people who come to Memphis for Elvis Week like seeing those planes there because it’s just part of the whole aura of what Elvis was about,” Fivelson said Tuesday. “It would be kind of blasphemous to take them away, and I think there are probably a lot of fans who will feel the same way.”
The disclosure also raises questions about the future use of the site where the airplanes now sit, across the street from Presley’s longtime home.
In November, New York-based Authentic Brands Group bought Elvis Presley Enterprises and the licensing and merchandising rights for Presley’s music and image from CORE Media Group. As part of the deal, Joel Weinshanker, founder of the National Entertainment Collectibles Association, acquired the operating rights to Graceland, which attracts about 500,000 visitors each year.
After the sale, Authentic Brands said upgrades to the tourist attraction were planned. Earlier this year, Elvis Presley Enterprises announced plans to build a 450-room hotel, theater and restaurant, with a projected opening date of August 2015. Their plan was approved Tuesday by the Memphis City Council.
Today, Graceland visitors can buy a ticket that includes a tour of Presley’s home-turned-museum and the two airplanes. Fans climb into the airplanes for an up-close look at their interiors.
The larger plane, a Convair 880 named after Presley’s daughter Lisa Marie, is like a customized flying limousine, complete with a large bed, a stereo system, conference room and gold-plated bathroom fixtures. It was renovated after Presley bought it from Delta Air Lines. Presley took his first flight on it in November 1975.
When Presley died on Aug. 16, 1977, Presley’s pilot flew the Lisa Marie to California to pick up Presley’s ex-wife, Priscilla Presley, to bring her back to Memphis.
The smaller jet, a JetStar named the Hound Dog II, was also used by Presley.
At one point, after the planes were sold following the singer’s death, the Lisa Marie was owned by Raymond Zimmerman, owner of the Service Merchandise chain, according to Coker. The Hound Dog II was in the hands of Hustler head Larry Flynt for a time, Coker said.
OKC Partnership eventually bought the planes and the Lisa Marie was installed at Graceland in 1984. The Hound Dog II came later.
Coker, 76, says OKC may sell the planes if they’re removed from Graceland, but he still hopes to negotiate a deal that would keep the planes there. Coker acknowledges that he and his partners would lose money from ticket sales if the planes were removed.
“I would love to see the airplanes stay where they are forever,” Coker said. “Millions of fans have toured those airplanes and there’s a real connection between fans and those airplanes. Those airplanes are part of the Elvis experience.”