Life at Audubon Drive
By Robert van Beek
Helene was a teenager in the 1950’s who made sure she was at the record store when a new Presley recording went on sale. “One day”, as Helene recalls in a fan magazine, “there was a photo of Elvis standing at the road, next to his mailbox, and the number on the box was clearly visible”. She knew from previous articles in which street Elvis lived, but now she had his actual address! She wrote to the Chamber of Commerce in Memphis and requested a copy of the Memphis telephone directory. She then went through the entire directory, page by page, until she found the name of the person living next door to Elvis. Helene wrote that person a letter, asking for something (anything!) from Elvis’ yard. Later she received a reply from a kind man, who was amazed she had taken the time to track down Elvis’ neighbour and write him a letter. The envelope contained some grass clippings from Elvis’ lawn.
During his time at Audubon Drive, Elvis was an easy-going and very laid-back individual. He was someone you could talk to, or even hang around with. In a matter of a few years, the walls of Graceland would shut him completely off from the public eye.
The most up-close and personal pictures taken during Elvis’ lifetime, were shot at 1034 Audubon Drive, on the Southeast side of downtown Memphis. While living at this address, Elvis defined the 50’s. His influence changed popular music and youth-culture. More professional photographs were taken during Elvis’ one-year stay at Audubon, than in over twenty years at Graceland. Most of these remarkable images capture Elvis in rather ordinary, semi-unposed family situations, from sipping soft drinks on the patio, to wrestling friends in a half-filled pool.
Many of the groundbreaking events in Presley’s early career occurred while living at Audubon, between March 1956 and March 1957. Still lightyears away from the mind numbing B-grade movies of the sixties and the repetitive and unaspiring seasons at the Hilton Hotel in the seventies, the events that transpired during Presley’s occupancy of nr. 1034 included his first RCA gold record single, his first gold record album, his first TV appearances, and the premiere of his first movie.
1034 Audubon Drive was (and still is) a one-story house with concrete foundation and a two-car attached garage. It was located in a quiet residential neighborhood and has four bedrooms, a den, playroom and two bathrooms. The house was a postwar suburban home that could have been built anywhere in the USA. The afternoon sun highlighted this typical American house: pastel green board-and-batten siding, slate-grey tiled roof, red brick trim, white windows decorated with black shutters, and a black ranch style front door.
Shortly after moving in, and by the time Heartbreak Hotel had become the most popular song in the nation, Elvis fans started mobbing the house, so a brick and metal fence was installed. Local police were frequently called to deal with the hords of fans that would line the street and neighbors said they couldn’t cross the street without a police escort for most of the 13 months Elvis resided in this once so quiet neighborhood.
In March 1956, Elvis found a new home for himself and his parents in the attractive California Redwood ranch-style house at Audubon Drive. Elvis purchased the house, with .54 acres of property, for $29.500 from the Welsh Plywood Corporation with a $500 down-payment. The new Presley home was not far from their previous residence at 1414 Getwell.
According to the document we see to the left, dated March 5, 1956:
“Received of Elvis Presley, Vernon Presley and wife Gladys Presley, parties of First part, the sum of Five Hundred ($500.00) Dollars by check. As earnest money and in part payment for the purchase of the following described real estate, situated in the City of Memphis, County of Shelby, and State of Tennessee, to-wit: for property known as: 1034 Audubon Drive, Memphis, Tenn. Attic fan, electric dish washer, garbage disposal, plumbing and heating system to be in good working condition. House to be free of termites. House is to be given a thorough cleaning and floors cleaned and waxed and shined before purchasers move in.”
The house was built by the Handwerker family and completed in either late 1953 or early 1954. Howard Handwerker was employed by the Plywood Corporation and experienced in home construction. He designed the house with special features: Redwood wall paneling, pocket doors that slide into the walls, and red oak floors. The Presleys became the second owners of 1034 Audubon Drive.
April was an extremely busy month for Elvis and he only spent two days with his parents on Audubon Drive. Next to appearing on The Milton Berle Show for the first time and touring throughout Texas, Elvis’ first ever Vegas engagement opened on April 23rd.
In the midst of this busy month, a proud Elvis found time to bring home his very first gold record for the sale of over 1 million copies of Heartbreak Hotel on April 14. In the photo to the right, from the 14th, next to Elvis’ parents, we can also spot Elvis’ friend and Memphis DJ, Dewey Phillips.
The photo below, taken shortly before the fence was installed, gives us a perfect view of the house.
May was another month filled with hectic touring and Elvis was in Memphis for a combined total of only 6 days. In late May, he had a new ‘French type’ pool table installed in the den which he became fascinated with during one of his visits to the Variety Club. Since the club closed too early for his liking, Elvis decided to buy one of these pool tables.
In between these tours, Elvis stayed at Audubon for about a week and a half. While in Memphis, Elvis added a new Cadillac to his collection and he also made an appearance on the teenshow Wink Martindale’s Dance Party.
Also this month, Elvis had a giant pool installed in the backyard. This pool was reported to be the largest residential pool in the city of Memphis at the time.
During 1956, photographer Alfred Wertheimer was assigned by RCA Victor to take publicity shots of Elvis. Wertheimer not only photographed Elvis on stage but was allowed to capture very intimate moments such as Elvis kissing his mother while she hands him a clean pair of underwear.
The photos we see here were taken at the backyard pool when the water level was only about knee deep. According to the photographer, Vernon could not start the pool pump so in order to put some water into the massive pool he rigged a garden hose from the kitchen sink, through the house into the pool.
Wertheimer remembers: “From the brick patio, I saw the three-foot-high fence of the carport contain more than thirty people. They were watching Elvis, who was jumping up and down in the midst of another group on the far side of the yard. He couldn’t start the motorcycle. A chubby friend straddled the front wheel of the Harley to keep it steady, holding on to the handlebars and pressing his belly into the headlight, Elvis jumped on the starter again. No luck. He kept trying until his shirt stuck to his back.”
With regard to his intimate photos of Elvis, Wertheimer later said: “We would never get that close to him again.”
Monumental highlights this month (even though for different reasons) were Elvis’ uncomfortable appearance on The Steve Allen Show and his recordings of Hound Dog and Don’t Be Cruel.
Following a frantic tour of Florida in the first half of August, Elvis left for Hollywood on the 16th to start work on his first movie. During this month, Elvis only spent a couple of days at home, and he would not be in Memphis for another 5 weeks.
An article in LIFE magazine, published in August 1956, showed pictures of teenage girls picking through the grass for souvenirs in Elvis’ front yard. Other girls were photographed with their ears pressed to Elvis’ bedroom wall. This commotion became so intense that Elvis would move his bedroom to the back of the house soon after he returned home from Hollywood.
Career highlights this month included Elvis’ first appearance on The Ed Sullivan Show and his two widely publicized Homecoming Shows in Tupelo on September 26.
This month, Elvis’ neighbors, made it known they were no longer going to suffer silently through the havoc wreaked by the idolators of this “embarrassment to the community” and they brought a public nuisance suit against Elvis for the constant blocking of their street and for disturbing the almighty peace. However, the judge ruled against Elvis’ tormented neighbours because, according to the judge, the behaviour of his fans, was not Elvis’ responsability.
Meanwhile, Elvis performed on The Ed Sullivan Show for a second time, and a 40 foot cardboard Elvis was unveiled on Times Square in New York to promote the upcoming premiere of Love Me Tender.
Elvis spent most of November relaxing in Memphis and vacationing in Las Vegas. On November 1st, he paid a visit to the Assigned Risk Insurance Co. on Madison Avenue to have his Continental Mark II insured. While in town, Elvis bought himself a new Harley. The new insurance form said that Elvis now owned 6 vehicles: 2 Harley Davidsons, a 1956 Lincoln Continental Mark II, a 1956 Cadillac Eldorado, a Messerschmitt car, and a 1950 Chevrolet one-ton Truck.
On the 15th, the premiere of Love Me Tender in New York caused a huge media sensation thanks to clever management, and by this time the Elvis Presley Enterprises merchandise train was taking the country by storm. Presley mania was reaching new heights!
December was another relatively quiet month for Presley. Except for a contractual obligation to appear on the Louisiana Hayride one more time (December 15), Elvis spent the entire month in Memphis. Hal Kanter, the director and co-writer of Elvis’ upcoming new movie, Loving You, visited Elvis on Audubon Drive on the 12th of December. Kanter also witnessed the reaction of Elvis’ audience on the 15th, plus he got to meet Tom Parker. Both of these experiences would end up in the script of the movie.
One of the most interesting, and certainly the most legendary, recording session in rock ‘n’ roll history took place on December 4 when Elvis, Carl Perkins, Jerry Lee Lewis and Johnny Cash met at Sun Studios and jammed their way through a session that would become known as The Million Dollar Quartet.
Also this month, Elvis had a huge den added to the back of the house. It had mahogany paneling veneer with fruit-wood and a full carpet of a rosy shade. The east-wall, mostly glass, faced the swimming pool and there was a motion picture projector and plenty of seats to comfort Elvis’ friends and family.
Dorothy (Dottie) Harmony, a Las Vegas showgirl whom Elvis had met during his appearances in Vegas earlier that year, flew in from Hollywood to celebrate Christmas with the Presley family. Since she spent as much as two weeks with the Presleys, soon pictures of “Elvis and his new found love” started appearing in the newspapers. But even though she indeed spent two weeks in Elvis’ bedroom, Elvis himself slept in a room down the hall. Dottie recalls that he read the bible with her every night and he even tried to convince her to give up smoking and drinking. The photos of Elvis and Dottie were (not surprisingly) arranged by Tom Parker for publicity reasons.
January / February 1957
Elvis spent his 22nd birthday at home with his parents and friends. By this time, it became increasingly obvious that it would take more than the two strands of barbed wire on the top of the fence installed by the Presleys to keep the world at bay. Gladys complained to one of the neighbors that she could not sleep well with the constant ringing of the doorbell and the knocking on the windows. According to one neighbor, the rural bred Gladys didn’t care for the pool in the backyard. Instead she was proud of her vegetable garden, which was to the right of the pool. Eventually, the ‘attention’ of the fans and photographers became too much and rumors started circulating that Elvis Presley was looking to buy a large farm well out of the city.
This property already carried the name Graceland when the Presleys swapped their old home (by now worth $55.000) and some cash ($10.000, while mortgaging the remaining amount for 25 years) for Graceland. The former owner of Graceland, Ruth Brown Moore, took possession of Audubon Drive and rented it to a relative.
Even though their time at the Audubon home was brief, the Presleys had made substantial changes to the house, such as added landscaping, a new den, and a pool, all of which are still visible today.
And so our look at Life at Audubon Drive comes to an end. What a year it’s been! 1956 saw the incredible rise of Elvis Presley, and even though he would continue to break even more records in the years that followed, never again would any entertainer influence a whole generation with the same impact that Elvis had when he burst onto the scene in 1956.
The photo below is from July 1956. To the right we see the house as it appears today. Realising what went on during the phase of his career when Elvis called this house home, makes 1034 Audubon Drive a must-visit landmark for any dedicated 50’s fan.