1034 Audubon Drive, Memphis, Tn. Wertheimer July 4, 1956. A Wertheimer

Where Elvis Became Elvis: the Story of 1034 Audubon Drive

By Alice Fugate, Rhodes Institute for Regional Studies, Rhodes College.

1034 Audubon Drive was Elvis Presley’s first purchased house in Memphis, Tennessee, bought in 1956 for his parents with the royalties of “Heartbreak Hotel.” The King only lived there for thirteen months, but from May, 1956 to May, 1957 he became Elvis, at least the early Elvis as the world knows him. While living here, he recorded “Hound Dog,” appeared on The Ed Sullivan Show, bought his mother a pink Cadillac, and played touch football with the neighborhood kids.

Audubon Drive in the 1950’s was a new neighborhood right at the edge of Memphis — the suburbs. It was an upper-middle class, almost all-white neighborhood, full of successful professionals and tons of children. Fame always hovered over the street. Residents have included Memphis politician E.H. “Boss” Crump’s granddaughter, Federal Express founder Frederick W. Smith, and fashion designer Dana Buchman. And of course, Elvis Presley. It was the nicest house the Presleys had ever lived in and the first one they had owned for themselves. They became a part of the neighborhood. Gladys visited with her neighbors, let the children use their pool, and planted a vegetable garden. Elvis gave the kids motorcycle rides and teddy bears. He carried a boy back to his mother after a brick fell on his head. But they were always out of place on Audubon.

As his fame was rising, and fans flooded the street, Elvis tried to establish privacy for himself and his family by building a fence around the house. Even though he wanted to make it work, it became too much, and the family moved to Graceland in 1957. It was only thirteen months, but those thirteen months would define his career and life, and allowed him to go from public housing to purchasing a mansion. This house, like so many other homes of famous individuals, has only been given significance from the public because of Elvis’ stay there. But Elvis was only there for a short time. There have been ten different owners and residents of the house since it was built by Howard Handwerker, its first owner, circa 1952. Since then the house has hosted and been a neighbor to countless famous individuals, their families, and their friends. And even though Elvis is only part of the house’s story, he did not leave it for good.

 

In 1998, Mike Freeman and Cindy Hazen bought the house and restored it to what it looked like in the 1950’s. They gave house tours by appointment, hosted both famous visitors and avid Elvis fans, and used it as their personal home. It was the beginning of the return to the King. In 2006, they sold it to Nashville record executive Mike Curb and his wife Linda, who continued the restoration process.

The Curbs gifted it to Rhodes College as part of the college’s chapter of the Mike Curb Institute for Music, which uses the house as a laboratory where students do creative work, research and preserve Memphis music, and film a live house concert web series called An Evening at Elvis’.

March 1956 Realtor card.

Where Elvis Became Elvis: the Story of 1034 Audubon Drive tells the history of this house and its neighborhood from when it was built circa 1952 until the present — approximately 64 years worth of stories, memories, and changes. It is a story of ordinary people, in a very singular place, to whom remarkable things happened. Of fame and familiarity.

The Handwerkers: 1034 Audubon’s First Family, 1953 to 1954

 

1034 Audubon Drive was probably built in late 1952 by its first owner, Howard T. Handwerker, who also designed it. According to his son, Dan Handwerker, because Howard worked for a wood company called Welch Plywood, the house received the best of materials. The house was a small, one-story, ranch style house made of cedar wood on the outside and pecan paneling, mahogany, and oak on the inside — it even had wood shingles. During 1953 and 1954, it was home to Howard and his wife Ruth, their oldest son Dan, daughters Jeanne, Carol, and Elaine, as well as the children’s grandmother and great grandmother. 1034 Audubon Drive was Elaine’s first home.

 

Howard Handwerker worked for Welch Plywood and later various other businesses involving wood, construction, and building design. He also designed moldings for various buildings in Memphis, including the National Bank of Commerce, and when Elvis bought Graceland in 1957, Handwerker even designed the moulding for one of its fireplaces. Ruth Handwerker loved to read and play games, and also volunteered with the Madonna Circle, a Catholic women’s charity organization. She and Howard married and then moved in with her mother and grandmother after World War II, who continued to live with them for the rest of their lives. Ruth’s mother, Ruth Spillane Walker, was called Granny by the kids. Ruth’s grandmother, Margaret Spillane, was known as Grandma. While their time on Audubon was spent quilting, cooking, and caring for their grandchildren, in their earlier days, these old matriarchs were successful career women: Granny was second in command at the Memphis General Depot; Grandma was the President of the Railway Women’s Auxiliary.

 

The eldest child was Daniel (Dan), born in 1942, the only son, followed by daughters Jeanne in 1944, Carol in 1950, and Elaine in 1954. Twenty years after Dan was born, Nancy Handwerker would join the family. She was the only child not to live on Audubon. The house was vacant in 1955 because Howard filed for bankruptcy. The house was given over to the control of his employer, to whom he owed the most money, Jim Welch of Welch Plywood. So the Handwerkers moved, but stayed in touch with a handful of Audubon Drive friends, mostly the ones with whom the children continued to attend school. Dan still visited the neighborhood once the house was again occupied. In 1956, the house was sold by Welch Plywood to Elvis Presley.

1034 Audubon Drive. Circa 1954, Handwerkers family.

Handwerker, Howard, Polk W. Agee (Architect), and P.W. Jr. “Residence of Howard Handwerker.” William W. Bond Jr. & Polk W. Agee Jr. Associates. Collection of Dan Handwerker. April 3, 1952.

The year is 1954, and 1034 Audubon Drive is a one-story, green, ranch-style house that sits back from the edge of the road. There is one tree in the front yard and no fencing. The driveway runs up on the left side of the house to the concrete-floored carport: a covered breezeway with a tool shed and closet. It also functions as an outdoor playroom for the Handwerker children when it rains. A concrete walkway — called a “gong walk” — leads from the driveway to the front entrance, a door with a porch covering overhanging it. I walk up the driveway to the front door and go inside. Inside I can see down the short hallway to the living room entrance. The inside of the house is full of earth tones — browns and tans — which is what Howard and Ruth prefer.

The image on the left is of most of the Handwerker family in front of their redwood screened-in porch. The adults in this photo from left to right are Margaret Spillane (Ruth’s maternal grandmother), Howard Handwerker, and Ruth Handwerker. The children are Jeanne Handwerker Brink, Dan Handwerker, and Carol Handwerker. Courtesy of Jeanne Handwerker Brink.

A Tour of 1034 Audubon Drive: circa 1954

 

The following is a first person tour of 1034 Audubon Drive according to the original building plans by Howard T. Handwerker, the builder and original owner, as well as information shared with me by various members of the Handwerker family. A copy of the plans were graciously given to me by Howard’s son Dan Handwerker. The copy of the floor plan is presented below.

Handwerker, Howard, Polk W. Agee (Architect), and P.W. Jr. Residence of Howard Handwerker.William W. Bond Jr. & Polk W. Agee Jr. Associates. Collection of Dan Handwerker. April 3, 1952.

The walls are largely made of pecan and mahogany wood paneling, and I get the feeling that the house is very dark and very small — but I know it isn’t really small at all. I turn right and find a mini office built-in to the wall with shelves, a magazine stand (which Howard had made especially for the house), and a telephone. I see Jeanne sitting there talking on the phone. I see little Carol run down the hallway, turn, and ram her head into the office corner. She has a crease down the middle of her forehead from where it busts open, and it never completely heals.

Leaving Jeanne and the rest of the family to tend to Carol, I peek into the narrow tiled bathroom and see that to the right is the front bedroom where Howard and Ruth sleep, along with Carol and baby Elaine. A bright room with pink floral wallpaper, it has two closets and three windows looking out onto the front and side yards. Exiting this bedroom, I walk back to the main hall and head down to the right. All of the bedrooms are on the right, or south, side of the house, including the front bedroom I just left. The next one is a bedroom with three windows facing south and one closet. This is Jeanne’s room, and next to it is Dan’s room, similarly laid out.

At the end of the hall is the largest bedroom with a large walk-in closet and master bath. There are two windows facing south and two facing east into the backyard. This is Granny and Grandma’s room. Ruth picked out green floral wallpaper for this bedroom, and the Presleys will keep it when they move in, as they will with most of the house’s original wallpaper. Leaving the bedroom and turning to the right, I enter the the living room. The living room is on the east side of the house and faces the backyard. The ceiling is vaulted, an unusual feature for houses built in the 1950’s. The living room flows into the dining room, and both rooms have a door leading to the screened-in porch, which I will look into later. Two large windows open onto the porch on either side of these two doors, one in the living room, and one in the dining room. The wall between the dining room and the living room houses the brick fireplace.

1034 Audubon Drive March-April 1956.

Dan walks up to me and tells me that his father, Howard, is particularly fond of the windows throughout the house, which provide strong airflow through the house. But Dan leans in and tells me that he is also fond of the windows: he often climbs out of them to play neighborhood-wide games of hide-and-seek with his friends. I walk from the living room to the dining room and into the kitchen. I can see that the kitchen is divided by a wall into two parts — this side is a laundry room with a corner booth area on the left, where the children eat their breakfast before going off to school. It is separated from the cooking area of the kitchen by the dividing wall, on the other side of which are the stove, refrigerator, cabinets, and more.

 

The floor here is linoleum whereas in the rest of the house the floors are made of oak. I walk through the kitchen and turn left into the front den on the west side of the house. Like the living room, the den has a vaulted ceiling, as well as four windows facing west toward the front yard and the street. There is a bar to my left, and a green leather couch that still smells of smoke from when Howard accidentally set it on fire. He’s a smoker. I walk out the front door and around through the carport into the screened-in porch. It’s slanted so that the room narrows on the south side of the house.

 

The porch is built into the house, but the back wall that faces east is all screened windows. The porch is made of redwood, and has a door that leads to the backyard.

The Neighborhood in the 1950’s

 

The area where Audubon Drive was built used to be farmland until the late 1940’s. Further down the street, even in the fifties, was more undeveloped, unsold farmland. During World War II, the edge of Memphis was around Park Avenue (off of which Audubon Drive would run) and Highland Street. In the late forties, a man by the name of Robert Snowden and his business partner started to develop the area, which was in East Memphis, selling lots instead of houses. Audubon Drive became the new edge of the city. Even in the beginning, Audubon Drive was an upper-middle class, predominantly white community. It was a desirable street because during this period it was not yet part of a subdivision, Most of the residents came from well-to-do Memphis families whose parents had big beautiful homes in Midtown, much larger than their children’s houses on Audubon Drive.

 

​After living through the trials of World War II and a small national recession in 1948, the new residents of Audubon Drive boomed into the wealth and prosperity of America in the 1950’s, filling their homes with a multitude of babies. Dan Handwerker says there were sixty-four children on the street in the fifties; Peggy Jemison Bodine says there were one hundred, a number which could include children who came after the fifties or after the Handwerker’s left and lost touch with the neighborhood. Regardless, there were plenty of kids! There was a cohort of every age group — from baby girls like Dan Handwerker’s sister born in 1954 to boys in their early teens like Dan and Bill Metz.

 

Many of the neighbors who are still alive today were much younger than Dan and Bill, even up to a decade younger. The area south of the street was not developed at the time, but north of it was with Park Avenue, Audubon Park, and beyond that the main city corridor of Poplar Avenue. To the east of the street were the Butler estate and the Dixon family property, and to the west was the Kennedy Veterans Hospital for World War II veterans, so the residents of Audubon Drive knew there  would be no new neighbors on the other side of the fence. And it was a long street: Trip Farnsworth, who grew up at 1142, refers to the north and south ends of the street as Upper and Lower Audubon, respectively. Most of the former neighbors remember it as a happy time, full of playmates. One of the Haizlip girls, who lived across the street from the Metz family, told Bill she most vividly remembered the bike rides.

 

​After dinner, ten or more kids would parade the street on their bicycles until it got dark. Each family had its own signal — bells, cowbells, whistles — to summon the kids from their play for meals or bedtime. The front yards were open, flowing into each other. What a group of former neighbors remember as a highlight of the neighborhood were “the night games.” These were big games played in the Doggrell’s front yard at 1000 Audubon Drive. Peggy Jemison Bodine remembers Mrs. Doggrell as being “about the only mother who would let her grass get trampled.” According to Bill Metz, other front yards were also trampled: the Metz’s yard at 1024, the two yards in between (the McRae’s and the Mayfield’s) and the Doggrell’s yard formed the playing field for the neighborhood boys. There were so many of them around the same age (roughly thirteen and fourteen year old boys) that they could form a whole football team.

1034 Audubon drive Memphis, Tn. March-April, 1956.
1034 Audubon Drive neighbor across the street.

This is the group Elvis and his buddies would play with after the boys got home from school in 1956. Elvis was quarterback, and Bill remembers handing off the ball to him. But the children found many other spaces to play besides their front yards. The Dixon property, which now houses an art museum and gardens, is on the east side of Audubon Drive, and north of what was the Butler estate. The Audubon kids made it their business to get into trouble there. Meg Jemison Bartlett and some friends on the street made up a phony charity so that they could go see the inside of the Dixon house and their yard. They asked for donations, and later felt so terrible that they left some money on the doorstep. Christine Mayer Todd remembers running through the Dixon house and yard with a group of kids, but Mr. Dixon was not amused and shot at them with a BB gun. Dan Handwerker remembers swimming with some neighborhood boys in the Dixon’s pool — until Mr. Dixon ran down the hill brandishing his cane.

 

​Dan and Bill agree that there was a social division between the old Memphis families and the new Memphis families, the latter of which the Metz family belonged to since they were not native Memphians. Even though they all got along and played together, there was “just a difference” between the kids who went to MUS (Memphis University School) and Hutchison (MUS’s sister school), both some of the oldest and most elite schools in the city, and those who went elsewhere. Dan and Bill went elsewhere — to Christian Brothers High School, a Catholic school. There was a group of girls who went to St. Mary’s, including Christine Mayer Todd and Meg Jemison Bartlett, with a neighborhood carpool to take them there. Trip Farnsworth also remembers a carpool for the MUS boys. Additionally, there were children who attended Presbyterian Day School, St. Anne’s, and surely more besides. Granted, all of the mentioned schools are elite private schools, and on a completely different level from Humes High School, where Elvis and his friends who visited him at 1034 graduated from.

1034 Audubon Drive floor plan 1956.

According to Christine Mayer Todd, except for her mother’s house, every house was a two-parent home. She also believes that most homes had two cars, which would have made the various carpools possible. Every parent had either the implicit or directly expressed authority to discipline any child on the street, whether it was his or her own child or not, in any way that seemed appropriate. Also, each home had help — an African American woman who was the maid and babysitter. The presence of the help added to the feeling of security on the street: all of the doors were open and welcoming. The children formed bonds with them as they would with the mothers on the street. These women also took the kids on adventures and trips — such as going to the Park to fish. Vera was the Jemison’s maid, and took them to the fair wearing a deer cap, so that the children would see her easier.

Once she even took some kids, including Christine Mayer Todd and Meg Jemison Bartlett, to see Jimi Hendrix at the Coliseum when they were in Middle School! Because of all of these adventures and also the general activity of the street, Meg says, “it was like waking up to camp every day.” The fact that all of the homes had help is indicative of the residents’ social status. Another indication of this is that some neighbors, in fact, ran some the largest cotton and agriculture industries in the region.

One of the many socially prominent families on the street was the Willey’s, at 970 Audubon Drive. Howard W. Willey, Jr. was in the cotton business, as was Frank Doggrell, Sr., who lived at 1000.

 

Indeed, Mr. Doggrell’s nickname was “Big Dog.” Bill Metz  writes the following on the intensity of this type of cotton trader: “Many of these guys were high stakes players. During my interviews with folks, one of his [Frank Doggrell’s] sons remembered that during a setback for Frank Sr., one of his friends called and said check your mail box. He did and found $10,000 in cash, to help the family along.” Another high stakes player in the neighborhood was Landon V. “Jimmie” Butler. The Butler estate was south of the Dixon’s property, and backed up to Audubon Drive and 1034.  The family was essentially part of the neighborhood, and their boys Lanny and Sid, who attended MUS, played with the rest of the Audubon kids, who would hop the fence and frolic in the woods on their friends’ property. The story varies from person to person about how Landon Butler was involved in the cotton industry. According to Bill Metz, Mr. Butler was a “famous/infamous cotton trader who spent some time in prison for selling cotton that didn’t exist.” According to Dan Handwerker,  Mr. Butler was put in prison twice, both times because he falsified “soybean warehouse receipts to use as collateral to try and corner the soybean market.” Since that time, the estate was sold off and became home to the Holiday Inn/Hampton Inn Headquarters and later Wright Medical Technologies.

 

​Another handful of residents were prominent not only in business but also in the Memphis social scene, as evidenced by some of their involvement in the Cotton Carnival. The Cotton Carnival was, and is, a social event that acts as a coming-out for young girls and their escorts, that was called, “The Nation’s Party in the Land of Cotton.” There is a King of the Carnival, and a Queen, one of the girls coming out that year. The king, queen, and the “court” parade around the city for a week, attending luncheons, events, and parties that last almost all night, going from one country club to the next. Several court members and royalties resided on Audubon Drive. For instance, the Pidgeon family, which lived at 938 Audubon Drive, yet another family prominent in the Memphis social scene, had some connection to the Carnival. Mrs. Pidgeon was once the Queen. Banners would go up in front of their house during the Carnival week each summer. This sort of a neighborhood is what the Presley’s moved into in 1956 — it was a different world.

Ellis Auditorium North Hall, Memphis Tn., May 15, 1956.
July 4, 1956. Russwood Park, Memphis.

From left to right: May 15, 1956. The crown prince of rock-and-roll signs autographs for the ─ twenty-second-annual ─ Cotton Carnival royalty at Ellis Auditorium. Courtesy Robert Dye / July 4, 1956. Russwood Park, Memphis. Elvis is entering the stadium escorted by the local police and fire department, but also by the Shore Police of the Navy. This was Elvis' first charitable benefit show, with proceeds going to The Cynthia Milk Fund and the Variety Club’s Home for Convalescent Children. Courtesy Alfred Wertheimer

Interestingly, on May 15, 1956, the court of the Cotton Carnival attended a performance at Ellis Auditorium, that included Hank Snow, the Jordanaires, and Elvis Presley. This concert and the Russwood Park performance on July 4 of the same summer were chances for Elvis to show his true self to his hometown. In an interview with Bob Johnson from the Press-Scimitar, he said, “I want the folks back home to think right of me. Just because I managed to do a little something, I don’t want anyone back home to think I got the big head.”

 

My grandmother, Jane Wiggins Lord, was invited to be a part of the Cotton Carnival court that year, a “Lady of the Realm.” She was twenty-one, the same age as Elvis. Jane is originally from the Mississippi Delta, at the time living in Parchman, Mississippi and attending the W (Mississippi University for Women). She remembers sitting on stage with the court, about ten feet from Elvis. She says those watching were not used to seeing someone move around like that while singing. A couple of girls from Tupelo, old classmates of Elvis’ from his hometown, and who went to college with Jane at the W, had previously told Jane that he was just a tacky country boy. He wouldn’t amount to anything. They likely were of a much higher social class in Tupelo than Elvis and his parents were. So Jane didn’t think much of the performance, other than how unusual he was. One Memphis boy in the court went up to him afterwards and shook his hand. Jane wishes she and the rest of them had been smart enough to follow suit. It is interesting to note that, theoretically, the people Elvis performed for at the Cotton Carnival in May of 1956 were his own neighbors — or at least, they were of the same social class as the members of the court. His performance took place four days after moving into 1034, and he probably would not have felt welcome at any of their festivities. Although not all of the residents, or even most of the residents, on Audubon Drive were involved in the Cotton Carnival, significantly, a neighbor was still the hired performer for this upper class social event.

A view of Audubon Drive from the front of 1034 looking northwest. Courtesy of Jeanne Handwerker Brink

Charles (Charlie) and Margaret (Peggy) Metz, built the house at 1024 Audubon Drive in 1951.

They would become Elvis’ only true next-door neighbors, since a vacant lot sat on the other side of 1034. Their son Bill was twelve when his lifelong friend and former neighbor Dan Handwerker told him that a singer was moving in next-door. Bill asked if Dan knew much about him. Dan thought he had a song out called “Heartbreak Hotel.” This was "minutes before Rock 'n' Roll."

1034 Audubon Drive late June, early July. 1956.

A view of Audubon Drive from the front of 1034 looking northwest. Courtesy of Jeanne Handwerker Brink.

The Presleys: Elvis as a Neighbor, 1956-1957

1034 Audubon Drive was Elvis Presley’s first purchased home in Memphis. He lived in six other places before that, including stays in Memphis’ public housing projects, but he and his parents had never owned a house for themselves, and certainly never lived anywhere as nice as 1034. This one story ranch house was a huge step for them. In January, 1956, Elvis turned twenty-one and recorded “Heartbreak Hotel” for RCA Victor, the new record company he had signed with in 1955. The record was a huge success and the royalties of this song enabled him to buy 1034 for $40,000 cash. He bought it for his parents, Vernon and Gladys, and his grandmother Minnie Mae, in a new neighborhood that was then the edge of the city — the suburbs. The Presleys moved in on May 11, 1956. Even though Elvis lived at 1034 for only a short period of time, this house is where Elvis became Elvis. It was the biggest year of his life, a year that saw him become a national celebrity.

 

A large percentage of what most people think about as early Elvis happened while he lived in this house. He recorded “Hound Dog;” he bought his mother the iconic pink Cadillac; he wore the famous gold lamé suit for the first time (trying it on for the first time in front of 1034’s living room fireplace). The Million Dollar Quartet Recording Session happened in December of 1956, when Elvis, Jerry Lee Lewis, Carl Perkins, and Johnny Cash all had a jam session at Sun Studios in Memphis, an incredibly historic moment in music history. He started his Hollywood career, acting in his first three movies. He became a millionaire and had ten Top 10 songs on the charts. Between January, 1956, and January, 1957, he appeared on national television eleven times, five of which occurred while he was living at 1034. Three of those five appearances were on The Ed Sullivan Show. After his appearance on that show, his fame exploded. He was Elvis.

Audubon Drive 1956.

This incredible fame allowed the Presleys to not only buy 1034, but also to make a few modifications and improvements. While they didn’t redecorate too much because it was so new, they did make a few changes. Elvis had a pool built out back, with a pool house that doubled as a two-car garage on the other side. He left enough space in the yard for his mother’s garden. They painted the wood paneled hallways, making them feel much larger than they felt before, and after a while they hung up some musically patterned wallpaper. Gladys bought some musical figurines for the living room wall and set up what Elvis called “a museum of me.” Although his portrait and high school diploma were displayed, among other things, one neighbor remembers his records being stacked against a wall.

 

The Presleys removed the screened-in porch, expanding it by about fifteen feet and closing it in to be the large back room it is today, with a red carpet and an added turquoise tiled bathroom. The ceiling tiles Elvis put up in this room are the same tiles found in Sun Studio,  where he got his big break. Perhaps he planned to record music in this room. Indeed, over Christmas of 1956, Elvis recorded songs he played in the house on his new tape recorder. It is not certain which room he used for these recordings, although I think that it would’ve been in the  middle living room, based on photographs of Elvis at a piano and a house organ near the fireplace. Most of these recordings are lost, but there is a surviving recording of Elvis singing “When The Saints Go Marching In,” with his friends Red West and Arthur Hooten providing accompanying vocals. They belt out the song like they’re going to glory right then and there. They sing in a wide range, with call-and-response, harmonies, and an upbeat tempo. Elvis’ piano playing is bouncy and vigorous, and their voices act as instruments as in a vocal quartet, ending the song with a ridiculously drawn out last note and laughter. The recording also includes half an hour of Elvis playing pool and watching television.

1034 Audubon Drive newly installed pool. A Wertheimer. July 4, 1956.

Elvis probably added the pool right when they bought the house, since it was essentially if not totally complete by the time of photographer Al Wertheimer’s visit to 1034 on July 4, 1956. Initially, Elvis slept in the front bedroom, a pink, flowery room left over from Ruth Handwerker’s decorating, but eventually had to switch with his parents and move to the back  master bedroom on account of the fangirls beating on his windows.

 

Most likely Minnie Mae slept in the next bedroom over, what used to be Jeanne Handwerker’s room, and Dan Handwerker’s room became the site of Elvis’ pool table.

Even though Elvis was at this point an “accessible” celebrity, and even though the Presleys were now affluent and real homeowners, they all were “fish out of water.” Although they now had more money than anyone else on the street, they were originally from rural Mississippi and had lived in the Memphis housing projects — they came up poor. They were out of place in this neighborhood of upper-middle class professionals. It wasn’t that the neighbors disliked them — contrary to what other people have written on the subject, the neighbors did like them. The Presleys are repeatedly described by their former neighbors as nice, likable people. Gladys, Elvis’ mother, visited with her neighbors, calling back and forth with Mrs. Jemison, getting coffee with Mrs. Mayer, and showing her neighbors her garden. Once she visited Mildred Mayer across the street and told her how she could not believe that she had just spent money on curtains — indeed before Elvis became Elvis she could hardly spend money on anything as luxurious as curtains for her house: “Ain’t Sears high?”

 

​They seemed especially involved with the Audubon children. Gladys let some of the neighborhood kids swim in the pool after feeding them peanut butter sandwiches. Elvis brought his buddies to play touch football with the neighborhood boys in the front yards on his side of the street. He would pause in his play to sign autographs for the fans watching nearby. Elvis gave the kids motorcycle rides and teddy bears out of his bedroom. Once he carried an unconscious boy home to his mother after a brick fell on his head. But for all of that, the Presleys were peculiar. Gladys grew a vegetable garden in the backyard — corn, tomatoes, purple hull peas — and hung her laundry on a line. Elvis rode a horse down the street. Now loaded with money and the ability to do almost whatever he wanted, Elvis began to live the extravagant and curious lifestyle he would later become famous for. It was not a wild, riotous time full of large house parties by any means. They were still on their own fairly quiet people. But here in 1034 he grew his collection of motor vehicles — Cadillacs, a motorcycle, a three-wheeled German Messerschmitt car. One time a helicopter even landed in the vacant lot next to 1034 to pick him up.

September 20, 1956. Memphis, 1034 Audubon Drive. Tricycle Messerschmitt.
1956 July 4th 1956 Eldorado Biarritz convertible by A Wertheim

At night, Elvis and his friends would shoot light bulbs over the pool in place of clay pigeons. They had two dogs and a pet monkey. Once Elvis walked directly across the street to ask Mildred Mayer what kind of saplings she had just planted. The birch trees looked so nice, he had been wanting to plant some trees in his front yard himself, and would she mind if he bought the same kind? “Sure, Elvis, you can do what you want.” The next day cranes came in with full size trees for the Presley’s front yard.

 

​The neighborhood, needless to say, was shocked at the sudden appearance of the Presley’s forest. Gladys tried to be neighborly, but really she, Vernon, and Minnie Mae just waited for Elvis to come home. When he did come home, Elvis tried to be one of the people on the street, but it just wasn’t possible. Once, the Jemisons tried to have the Presleys over for dinner at 1054, and they told Bill Metz some years later: “It was just not a success.”

 

​The one issue — and it was a big one — was that the fans constantly swarmed this street. Cars were bumper to bumper. The fans, not to mention the neighbors, could hardly find parking. There were all of these neighborhood kids running around, and eventually police would have to escort those children across the street to play with their friends. The neighbors turned on their sprinklers to keep the fans off their front yards. The fans lined up at 1034 for autographs, sometimes motorcycle rides, or if they were a lucky group of girls, Elvis would bestow a kiss upon each one before going inside for dinner. Girls were picking grass blades from the front yard as souvenirs.

Audubon Drive July 4, 1956. A Wertheimer
1034 Audubon Drive July, 1956. LOOK magazine.

After a while it got so bad that a group of fathers got together and offered to buy Elvis’ house from him. Elvis got mad and said something along the lines of, no but I’ll buy all of yours. He was the only one without a mortgage and ironically he had more money than any of them. But it got so bad for Elvis’ own privacy, especially after his appearances on The Ed Sullivan Show, that he built a brick and iron wall around 1034’s front yard with a gate closing off their driveway, stationing relatives as security guards. However, the wall could not completely alleviate the problem and the need for privacy grew even greater, so the Presleys moved into Graceland in May of 1957, thirteen months after they had moved onto Audubon Drive.

September '56. 1034 Audubon Drive.
Graceland April 22, 1957. Newly installed wrought iron gates.

And when Elvis moved, he moved. Although sometimes people drove by the house afterwards, just to see it, the neighborhood went back to how it had been before he and all of his fans came. The former neighbors generally agreed that they talked about it much more long after Elvis moved away. It was considerably more notable to them when they were traveling or living elsewhere, that they could reply to someone’s exclamation at their being from Elvis’ hometown of Memphis, Tennessee with the words, “Yes, we knew him, and he lived on our street!” But the street itself remained the same type of neighborhood for the next sixty years.

1034 Audubon present time.

Audubon TODAY

The home went through a series of owners before Mike Curb purchased it in 2006, in conjunction with the establishment of the Mike Curb Institute for Music at Rhodes College. Since then, the house has been restored to its original 1956 look. This includes photographs Al Wertheimer took of Elvis when he lived in this house, original light fixtures and a signed section of wallpaper.

 

Mike Curb's request? That the students "do something great with the house." And they did. Through The Audubon Sessions, the Mike Curb Institute hopes to utilize the space by encouraging a new generation to explore their own creativity and passion.

www.audubonsessions.org

KJ Consulting

Hoffsjef Løvenskiolds vei 27A

0382 Oslo, Norway

erik@theelvisfiles.com

© 2020 Robert van Beek

The Elvis Files magazine

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