Conventional wisdom maintains that Vegas-era Elvis had seen better days. But even in a culture that glorifies rock artists who die prematurely, lately it’s been Heartbreak Hotel for posthumous Elvis—or, at the very least, Elvis’ legacy in Las Vegas.
It’s true. Elvis-impersonator shows, once Vegas lounge staples, have become few and far between. Of the numerous Strip-based Cirque du Soleil productions, it was the Elvis-themed one (Viva Elvis) that failed. That wasn’t even the first local homage that shuttered, as the Elvis-a-Rama Museum closed in 2006 after only seven years of operation—though its last owner, Elvis Presley Enterprises (then CKX), did so in the hope of opening a better Elvis attraction.
It’s not you, Elvis—it’s us, or so says UNLV professor and Nevada historian Michael Green, who sees the King more as a Vegas marketing tool than a Vegas icon. “I think more people outside Las Vegas associate him with the area than Las Vegans do. That doesn’t mean we don’t, but where do we find Elvis?” Essentially, tourist spots, co-starring in a couple of showroom productions and photo ops. Green also blames the constantly updating Strip, a generational divide and an aging fanbase, and the tendency to link the declines of both the superstar and Las Vegas in the mid-to-late 1970s.
But Elvis has re-entered the building. As part of Elvis’ 80th birthday celebration, EPE has finally opened Elvis: The Exhibition - The Show - The Experience at the Westgate, a symbolic location to say the least. The property, formerly the International and then the Las Vegas Hilton, features a venue—now called the Elvis Presley Theater—that once hosted 636 performances by the King during Vegas’ most famous solo-performer residency, and will now host the limited-engagement Elvis Experience and future Elvis-centric shows.
The new live components are joined by, of course, Elvis Presley’s Graceland Wedding Chapel and Elvis: The Exhibition, EPE’s first permanent North American memorabilia display outside of his Graceland mansion in Memphis. The latter’s curation, a 250-item sample of a 2-million-plus archived collection to be periodically refreshed, is particularly impressive. It not only shows his Southern-gentleman and cultural-revolutionary sides in equal parts, but reminds us of his connection to Las Vegas, specifically in the giant room devoted to the International/Hilton residency. Hopefully the attraction strengthens that connection as well.
During my recent Experience tour, I was struck by the age-diverse showing in the former Star Trek: The Experience space. Millennials had also re-entered the building. If Westgate’s kitsch-light, history-embracing additions amount to any sort of Elvis comeback, it’s the King’s overdue and proper return to his (second) home.