If the King had lived, he would have been 80 on Thursday.
For Henrik Knudsen, this year brings another significant anniversary worth celebrating.
Twenty-five years ago, he decided to quit his job selling power tools to become Denmark’s only professional Elvis Presley fan.
“I was a sales agent for a long time and I decided I didn’t want to be that anymore. I thought, imagine if I could be a full-time Elvis fan,” he says. “I knew it was a big leap but I felt like I just had to do it. And a few years later I was.”
Even by the obsessive levels of fandom still inspired by the defining entertainer of the 20th century nearly four decades after his death, Knudsen takes his duties seriously.
He’s sitting in a diner booth in the replica of Elvis Presley’s Graceland mansion he’s built on the outskirts of his hometown of Randers in central Jutland.
“We get a lot of Norwegians stopping off. If not for the memorabilia, then for the food,” says Knudsen.
There are not, it has to be said, too many other dining options for the bequiffed Nordic trucker with a penchant for blue suede shoes, fresh off the ferry from Stavanger and hungering for a peanut butter, jam, banana and bacon sandwich — the diner’s tribute in cholesterol to its hero’s all-American appetite.
Like the ebullient Knudsen, Graceland Randers is larger than life.
From outside, the neo-classical entrance, guarded by stone lions, and green shutters are unmistakable, but it’s twice the size of the Memphis original where Elvis lived from 1957 until his death in 1977.
As well as the diner, the mansion houses Knudsen’s $1.6 million-valued collection of memorabilia — instruments and outfits, plus more idiosyncratic items such as cufflinks given to Elvis by U.S. President Richard Nixon, and a baseball glove he used while serving as a soldier in Germany.
The collection also features a photo of Denmark’s current Queen Margrethe and other Scandinavian royals meeting Elvis during a visit to Hollywood in 1960.
“That’s a great piece, because you can talk about it to Danes, who are very proud of their queen, and to Americans because they like royalty,” Knudsen says.
The shop is a treasure trove for vinyl collectors.
A casual browse uncovers exotic albums from the former Yugoslavia, India and Japan, and a Dutch rarity featuring alternate tracks by Elvis and swivel-hipped 1980s Welsh wonder Shakin’ Stevens.
‘All in good taste’
Downstairs in the museum, “Aloha from Hawaii” — Elvis’s seminal satellite broadcast from 1973 — plays on a perpetual loop, while Graceland Randers also broadcasts “Always Elvis,” a 24-7 radio station available via a smartphone app astutely summed up by one reviewer as “brilliant if you like Elvis.”
Knudsen’s personally led tours and boundless enthusiasm are a big part of the attraction.
“In 1972 I became an Elvis fan, and I was 13 when he died,” he says.
“For me it started with the music. It’s hard to explain. I listened to all kinds of music back then and still today but there is nothing that catches my interest like Elvis.”
Disappointingly for more morbid-minded Elvis obsessives, there’s no replica of the upstairs bathroom suite where he famously left the building for the final time, with the first floor instead serving as a function room.
“We realize we are on a thin line here,” explains Knudsen.
“Is it tacky? Is it cool? Is it a joke? Most people who come here get it. We think we have done this in good taste.”
Knudsen hit on the idea of building a Danish Graceland in 2006 when he saw a replica of Sun Studio during a visit to Nashville.
By then he’d been successfully staging exhibitions since 1993 and was looking for a permanent home for his expanding collection.
“I wondered how much it would be, and thought maybe five million kroner ($822,000). I contacted an architect — I knew his wife was an Elvis fan and that was why I dared even call him.
“We went to Memphis to see the real thing. And when we came home he did some drawings and said ‘It’s not five million kroner, it’s 20 million.'”
Backed by local business and civic leaders, the house opened at an eventual cost of 26 million kroner ($4.27m) in 2011 and now draws almost 120,000 visitors a year.
“There was never a business plan, but one step just led to the next,” says Knudsen.
“If someone had told me in 1972 that I would be living off Elvis I’d have said they were crazy. If you’d told me in 1990 that I’d have people working for me then I’d have said you were crazy.
“And if somebody had told me that we would build Graceland in Randers I wouldn’t have believed it.”
These days Knudsen is a major player in the Elvis industry, even without the blessing of Elvis Presley Enterprises (EPE), which licenses official products and ventures, and has been touted as a potential buyer of Elvis’s planes, which were put up for sale last year.
“I have a nice letter which Priscilla [Presley, Elvis’s ex-wife] wrote to Graceland Randers with a smiley face, but EPE don’t like us at all. I think they should be grateful that someone is putting money in their pockets.
“All the merchandise we sell is licensed, and I am bringing Danes to America on Elvis tours.”
Still, Knudsen’s devotion has delivered a birthday treat for local fans with the TCB Band, Elvis’s backing musicians during his Las Vegas years, and others who shared a stage with him set to perform in Randers on Thursday night.
“We have the TCB Band, which is the band he used from 1969 until his death. Then we have his backup singers, the Imperials, and we have his musical director, Joe Guercio.
“For them to be here in Randers, of all the places in the world, on his birthday, I think it’s pretty remarkable.”
Graceland Randers, Vej 3, 8960 Randers, Denmark; +45 86 42 96 96