Writer: JACQUE HILBURN-SIMMONS / Photographer: SARAH A. MILLER
GLADEWATER – Before the world deemed Elvis the King of Rock ‘n’ Roll, he was a hunk of burning love in East Texas.
He graced area stages in the early days of his career, but Gladewater claims bragging rights as the town that helped launch his career.
In the Gladewater Museum, 116 W. Pacific, there’s an entire section devoted to the iconic crooner that features vintage photos and artifacts, including a midcentury-era leather couch that saw a different side of the performer.
A life size Elvis cardboard cutout prompts plenty of conversation and selfies from fans eager to learn more about the king before he was royalty, making the museum a popular stop for super fans.
“A lot of people come in just because of Elvis,” museum director Elaine Roddy said.
“We had 37 German tourists visit last year. We served them banana and peanut butter sandwiches, which was one of his favorites.”
KING IN TRAINING
The famous couch and a wealth of information about Elvis’ early career is courtesy of radio icon Tom Perryman, who helped the young singer get a foothold in the music industry.
Perryman’s recollections appear in narrative form, alongside black-and-white photos of the charismatic performer with fans and supporters.
The Elvis section is probably the most popular display at the museum, which sees about 2,500 visitors a year.
It’s predicted even more people could sign the museum’s guest register in the months ahead, particularly as Aug. 16 – the 40-year mark of his death – approaches.
“People find it very interesting,” Ms. Roddy said of the Elvis exhibit. “We feel very fortunate to have these things.”
Gladewater apparently saw a lot of Elvis before he left the building.
During the 1950s, he performed in a variety of venues, including the former Mint Club, thanks to the efforts of Perryman, who saw something special in the young man and worked to get him in front of East Texas audiences.
Elvis apparently sang everywhere from beer joints and school stages to the backs of flatbed trucks, leaving a lasting impression on female spectators, who clamored for more.
When he was in Gladewater, he lodged at the old Res-More Motel of U.S. Highway 80 where room 104 was said to be his favorite, although it’s believed he stayed in others as well.
The museum displays a framed copy of an old motel receipt from Sept. 28, 1955, which lists Elvis and two others, W. S. Moore, presumably guitarist Scotty Moore; and bassist Bill Black, as guests.
The receipt indicates the room rented for a whopping $6 a night.
FUNDING ‘BARE NECESSITIES’
Much can be learned about Gladewater just by strolling the aisles of its museum, open 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays.
The town once had a minor league baseball team, the Gladewater Bears, affiliated with the famed Boston Red Sox franchise.
It’s said to be the town where Johnny Cash wrote his famous, “I Walk the Line.”
The museum is designed for exploration, so there are few things off limits.
Sections are devoted to education, industry, culture and inventions.
“Things aren’t roped off because it’s meant to be enjoyed,” Ms. Roddy said. “Things (donations) walk in the door. There are bits and pieces here of every family around.”
Marde Jones serves on the board of Marshall’s Texas and Pacific Museum, which celebrates history of the rail service.
She uses the Gladewater Museum from time to time as creative inspiration.
“I love coming here,” she said. “I get a lot of good ideas here. We share stuff and ideas.”
Like most museums, the attraction operates on a shoestring budget, relying on the elbow grease and talents of volunteers to make ends meet.
Frances Foshee Beavers, 95, is among its most devoted helpers. She is a former docent and resident, whose family roots run deep in the area.
“Gladewater is my town,” Ms. Beavers said. “I drive from Longview to get here.”
Volunteer Gloria Turner cleans the building, top to bottom – mopping, dusting and everything in between.
“I usually spend a whole day,” Ms. Turner said. “I like to clean and I like the interaction with the people.”
The museum recently received a welcome boost in revenue, due to the donation of roughly 800 stuffed teddy bears.
It seems longtime resident Fritzy Glenn donated her collection, which includes quantities of Boyds Bears, Gund and Ty, to be used as a fundraising tool to support operations.
“Our slogan has been, ‘Buy a bear for our bare necessities,’” Ms. Roddy, the director, teased. “It’s been doing pretty well.”
Bears have been flying off the shelves in Gladewater since the campaign started, but some outside observers wonder if the popularity is somehow connected to the Elvis effect.
As his 1957 hit suggests, he wanted to be a teddy bear.
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