Westgate welcomes back Elvis in form of exhibit

From 1969 to 1976, Elvis Presley performed an astounding run of sold-out shows in the building that is now the Westgate, 3000 Paradise Road. In December 1976, he left the building for the last time, but on April 23 of this year, Elvis returned in the form of an exhibition that celebrates his life, achievements and music.

For tour guide Mary Elizabeth Mancuso, the return was a long-awaited dream.

“Elvis ran through my own family,” Mancuso said. “When I found out the exhibit was coming here, my best friend said, ‘I can’t wait to take you there,’ and I said, ‘Take me? Hell, I’m going to work there.’ I got hired on the first day, and I’ve worked at the exhibit as many days as I could since.”

The exhibition is one of three currently run by Elvis Presley Enterprises: There is the original one at Graceland, Presley’s former home in Memphis, Tenn.; The O2 Exhibition in London; and the Las Vegas exhibition, officially called “Graceland Presents ELVIS: The Exhibition — The Show — The Experience.”

“There are 1.5 million artifacts in the collection,” said Angie Marchese, director of archives at Elvis Presley Enterprises. “Only about a tenth of it is on display.”

The walk-through exhibition takes visitors through many of the significant points in Presley’s life, starting at the shotgun shack he was raised in. The display includes pictures, costumes, videos, artifacts and documents, including letters to and from his parents and from his fans.

It also includes some surprising pieces, such as Presley’s mother’s Social Security card.

“The exhibition was pulled together in about seven weeks,” Marchese said. “The exhibition started with deciding on the storyline we wanted to tell and then going through the collection and figuring out which items would tell that story best.”

The show was designed to appeal not only to the die-hard fans who wanted to relive the magic but also to people who might have only a passing familiarity with Presley and his music.

“It’s very Vegas-centric because of the location,” Marchese said. “On top of the shows in the early ’70s, Las Vegas was important to Elvis because it was where he would go on weekends to get out of L.A. when he was making movies.”

The exhibition includes several costumes from shows Presley performed the Las Vegas Hilton and before that The International. In addition to the spectacular spangled jumpsuits, one of his early Vegas costumes that was a belted tunic is on display. The tunic required a lot of adjusting on stage and helped him to decide to switch to the jumpsuits. There is also a suit dating from before the building was built and Presley was doing interviews for the upcoming shows.

One of the more unusual documents is a contract for his Las Vegas shows. The details were worked out following one of his concerts and were written on the tablecloth that was on the table where the deal was hashed out.

Mancuso is delighted to be leading tours through the exhibition.

“There is nothing better than this job. There couldn’t be,” she said. “You get to meet people from all over the world who are enamored with Elvis and all aspects of his life. You get to meet people who shook his hand.”

Mancuso was only 6 when Presley died, but she was familiar with him from his music and the way the death affected her mother. Her connection with the collection runs back to the early days of Graceland as a tourist destination.

“I was one of the fortunate ones who got to go to Graceland when it first opened, when I was just a little girl,” she said. “When you walked down into the trophy room, the displays just had black stanchions around them. You could reach out and almost touch them.”

The exhibition is housed in part of the space formerly occupied by Star Trek: The Experience, and Mancuso’s job brings her back into the space she used to work in as a showgirl, posing at slot tournaments and similar events.

“People used to love to take pictures of the 6-foot-5 Klingon standing next to the 6-foot-5 showgirl,” Mancuso said.

Unlike The O2 Exhibition in London, which is slated to close in January 2016, the Vegas exhibition is set to be here for the long run. Marchese said plans are in place to rotate the collection every six months or so to keep it fresh and reward repeat visits.

Mancuso hopes it keeps its human guides and doesn’t switch to prerecorded messages as some museums have.

“Elvis was about that Southern hospitality and that Southern charm,” Mancuso said. “He was about getting to know each individual person that came into his space, his room.”

The exhibition is open from 10 a.m. to 10 p.m. daily. Tickets are $25.95. Visit tinyurl.com/eplv2015.

— To reach East Valley View reporter F. Andrew Taylor, email ataylor@viewnews.com or call 702-380-4532.

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