Tour Prince’s former compound in Chanhassen, Minnesota.
By Hope S. Philbrick
Every Minnesotan has a Prince story.
Mine is this: When I was in high school, the dad who lived next door was a private music teacher. Prince was one of his former students. One evening, a limousine pulled in front of that family’s house, they climbed in and the car drove off. We later learned that Prince had sent the car over to transport our neighbors to his concert. (Because of this, I think of Prince as a guy who appreciated his teachers, was thoughtful and generous, and never forgot his roots.)
I lived in Minnesota for two decades, and during those years Prince became a star. Purple Rain was filmed in the Twin Cities and ultimately launched Prince into superstardom. Within what felt like a short span of time he went from a guy who played at local clubs to a musical guest on SNL to an Academy Award winner.
His music dominated the Twin Cities’ airwaves. Average Minnesotans seemed equally proud and perplexed. That Prince stood in the spotlight as our state’s most visible talent was at once wondrous and odd. In the ‘80s and ‘90s, less than two percent of the state’s population was any kind of minority. Prince was a Minnesotan and yet unlike most Minnesotans, much as he was human yet possessed superhuman talent.
In my 20s I knew people who would hang outside his compound, Paisley Park, in hopes of getting invited inside to party. It worked for some. I never tried: I’m not the sort who’s inclined to stand in the snow until 2 a.m. hoping something might happen.
Though he dominated the pop culture of my teen and young adult years, I didn’t realize how big a celebrity Prince truly was until I moved to Georgia. At a company holiday party the DJ started to play 1999 and my intoxicated Southern coworkers leapt onto the dance floor screaming his name. He wasn’t just hot in Minnesota.
Prince was the hottest thing about Minnesota.
Doves Cry & Guitars Gently Weep…
On April 14, 2016, Prince performed two concerts in Atlanta. On April 21 he was found dead inside an elevator at his home. Though he was performing where we now live, my husband and I hadn’t attended the concert, thinking we’d catch him next time he came to Atlanta. Don’t count on tomorrow.
Prince was counting on more tomorrows than he got. He did not leave a will. That is mind-bogglingly irresponsible, and hard to understand since he had a fortune with no clear heir. (Grownups, at the very least, sign your 401k beneficiary forms!) Without a will, just about any and everybody with verifiable ties to him is vying to get their hands on his wealth and claim to know what he would have wanted as his legacy.
I don’t have the behind-the-scenes scoop of how it happened, but I do know that shortly after Prince died, the folks at Elvis Presley Enterprises (EPE)—the group that runs Graceland, The Guest House at Graceland (which still ranks as the sexiest hotel I’ve ever stayed at), and all Elvis-related products and ventures—stepped up to help transform Paisley Park into what it is now: a memorial/museum/tourist attraction. During the grand opening for The Guest House at Graceland, at one point I wound up sitting in a car with one of the PR guys to head over to Graceland for a quick private tour. During our chat on the ride over, I learned that he’d just returned from Minnesota where he’d been helping get the Paisley Park property ready to open. (EPE worked fast in order to preserve Paisley Park as Prince had left it; as one example, a hat rests on top of a piano where he’d tossed it before leaving for Atlanta.) It made sense and felt right that of course these EPE folks would be involved; they know how to balance public curiosity and a celebrity’s legacy.
Both megastars tragically died before the world was ready to say goodbye; the biggest difference between the Elvis and Prince situation boils down to one crucial individual: Priscilla Presley. There is no one person in a logical position to step up and preserve Prince’s legacy—in addition to who gets what and how much, it seems safe to assume that part of what his siblings argue about is how Prince should be presented and remembered. As I watched Priscilla cut the ribbon to The Guest House at Graceland, I was struck by the strangeness of her role. She divorced the guy, but has managed quite gracefully to ensure that the father of her daughter is remembered as the handsome, talented powerhouse she fell in love with and not the fat druggie who died on his toilet. Kudos to her.
There is no Priscilla for Prince, at least not yet. He has two ex-wives, no children. Given EPE’s direct experience protecting, honoring and ushering the legacy of a musical icon, the organization seems best prepared to stand up for Prince. Some writers have expressed concern that EPE’s involvement seems greedy and corporate; it doesn’t strike me that way at all.
Controversy & Emancipation…
“Enigmatic in his music and life, Prince leaves enduring mystery in death,” reported the Star Tribune. “He cherished his privacy. He always kept us from seeing what he didn’t want us to see, what he didn’t want us to know, what he didn’t want us to hear.”
That’s true to some extent, but also not. Prince routinely opened Paisley Park to friends, colleagues, and even fans who waited outside in hopes to be invited in. He made his battle with Warner Bros. public. As explained by Rolling Stone, “In 1993, Prince was fed up with his label, Warner Bros. They wanted him to release fewer CDs so he wouldn’t flood the market and they could better promote him. He couldn’t get out of his contract, but he could change his name to an unpronounceable symbol, largely to mess with them. Journalists started to call him ‘the artist formerly known as Prince,’ but in 2000 he went back to Prince when his Warner contract expired.”
Before he died, Prince was in the process of opening Paisley Park to the public. “He had already sketched some plans for turning his Paisley Park Studios in Chanhassen into a museum, something he’d planned to do when he was still alive. His staff had already worked on some displays,” reported the Star Tribune and confirmed tour guides at Paisley Park.
Getting inside to tour, then, doesn’t feel like you’re getting away with some creepy snooping.
Diamonds & Pearls…
Paisley Park is securely protected: A valid ticket must be shown to the gatekeeper even to pull into the parking lot. Book your tour in advance online. Four tour options are currently available: a 70-minute General tour ($46/person), 100-minute VIP tour ($111.75/person), 3-hour Ultimate tour ($171.75/person), and an After Dark nightclub experience ($69.25/person add-on to General tour available on select Saturdays only).
I experienced the VIP tour a few days after the second anniversary of Prince’s death. Each VIP tour lasts a half-hour longer than the general admission tour because it includes access to some additional rooms and studio areas, plus a photo opportunity and the chance to play ping pong in Studio B. On Thursdays the VIP experience also includes the opportunity to record live vocals over a short segment of a Prince song in the Studio B control room (where Prince recorded several hits including songs from Sign O’ The Times, Graffiti Bridge and Emancipation). Note that the photo and/or audio will be saved onto a USB drive for you to keep; the USB drive is sold prior to the tour for an additional $10 (+ tax).
Chanhassen is a southwestern suburb of the Twin Cities metro area. Paisley Park felt like it was out in the middle of nowhere when it was built; even as progress and sprawl have come to the area it still feels a bit remote, though it’s not a bad drive whether you happen to be staying in Shoreview (north of St. Paul) or at the Mall of America in Bloomington (near the MSP airport).
Paisley Park is not the sort of house you’d drive by, point at and think, “Oooo! Lovely! A dream house!” Graceland’s exterior is more appealing to the eye. Paisley Park looks like a big white warehouse with glass pyramids on top. After it was built (January 1986-September 1987), I distinctly remember my dad saying, “It’s strange looking. He’s crazy; he’ll never be able to sell that place.” It’s more than a house: It’s a 65,000 square foot compound that served as Prince’s private home and production complex. Prince’s idea was to create a place where he could do everything under one roof (convenient and smart considering Minnesota’s winter climate), so there are four recording studios inside plus film production space, a nightclub with a restaurant (which is the area that lucky fans who’d waited outside would get to see if and when invited inside), a meditation room, basketball court, offices, dance floor, and more. “Every bit of Paisley Park is reflective of Prince,” said a tour guide. “Even the name ‘Paisley Park’, which is a metaphor for its being a multi-purpose facility.”
One of the first things you see when entering the front door is a mural of Prince’s eyes hovering above a doorway. “He wanted guests to know that they were in his home, and that he was keeping an eye on them,” a tour guide explained.
The first stop is an atrium. On sunny days it’s filled with light, thanks to those glass pyramids overhead. The spacious room is mostly white with doves painted on one wall to look like they’re soaring up through the peaked skylight (“symbolizing ‘the sky’s the limit,'” said a tour guide). Tours pause for a moment of silence in this space because Prince’s cremains are inside a mini replica of Paisley Park now mounted in a see-through case high up on the wall opposite the doves. “It’s emotional,” says the tour guide, “and that’s why we have tissue boxes throughout Paisley Park. Take one if you need it.” On this particular tour, the guide was much more emotional than anyone else in the group.
Several exhibits surround the atrium, tucked into former closets and offices; among Prince’s artifacts on display are multiple costumes. He was a man of small stature, and since the mannequins are headless it’s difficult to really gauge his height. “His driver’s license said 5’3”,” the guide said, “but he always wore 4-inch heels.”
The VIP tour offers a look at multiple pianos and guitars, awards, motorcycles and cars. There’s potpourri everywhere, the tour guide pointed out, because Prince liked it (also, so Minnesota!). You’ll see samples of his handwriting (Prince believed, “Unless you’re a genius, you should always be taking notes,” noted a tour guide), video and audio clips of his interviews and performances, and unedited footage of practice sessions. You’ll get to peek inside the kitchen where Prince reportedly made pancakes for basketball players, his meditation space, Studios A and B where he recorded most of his songs, areas where he filmed (at least parts of) Under the Cherry Moon and Graffiti Bridge, and the nightclub where he hosted lots of parties (including, the tour guide said, a spontaneous one with Madonna). The elevator where Prince’s body was discovered is even pointed out, mainly since it’s located in an impossible-to-ignore spot. After the tour you’ll have the opportunity to get inside the gift shop—only tour participants can enter the gift shop, you can’t just drive up, park, and go the gift shop (though items are also sold online)—and you can even linger after the tour to order some of Prince’s favorite foods (which include macaroni & cheese, pizza, and cookies—like most humans!) at the restaurant inside the nightclub.
Throughout the space there’s a lot of purple, lots of love symbols (as the graphic is referred to that he used as a name during the years he was “the artist formerly known as Prince”), lots of pianos and guitars, and oodles of images of Prince. “I’ll point out what was added,” said the tour guide, noting that only minor changes were made between the time Prince died and today. A few images of Prince were confirmed additions, meaning that (given the sheer total volume of them) the guy displayed a whole lot of pictures of himself around at least the ground floor of his place.
What you won’t see are Prince’s personal living quarters. At Graceland you don’t get to go upstairs to see Elvis’ bedroom or bathroom, the official reason being that the family still sometimes uses the house and wants to keep that floor private. (I figure it’s also because nobody needs to see photos of the toilet where Elvis died flooding Instagram.)
At Graceland, you can take photos. At Paisley Park, you can’t. The photo op on the VIP tour is staged in Studio B. You are invited to stand in front of instruments and next to a picture of Prince that’s plastered onto the wall while the tour guide snaps a photo or two. That’s it, but you’re there so why not. To ensure that nobody sneaks a photo, when you check in for the tour a staff member provides a padded case for your cell phone and locks it. Before you depart Paisley Park, another staff member unlocks it. (The process works well; you retain possession of your phone the entire time.)
It feels right that tours see only the public parts of Paisley Park. It respects the way that Prince reportedly utilized and shared the property during his lifetime. Paisley Park After Dark events are held on select dates to continue the tradition of public parties Prince held at his home.
Outside Paisley Park a memorial fence holds various mementos and remembrances that fans tuck into it. Some artifacts make their way inside, the tour guide explained; though not currently on display, they’re kept for a potential future display. (Speaking of the future, I hope plans include a The Guest House at Paisley Park hotel. The design of that hotel would be awesome!)
“Prince was a self-taught musician,” said the tour guide. I know that’s not true: I lived next door to one of his music teachers. Besides which, both of Prince’s parents were musicians: His father was a pianist and songwriter, his mother was a jazz singer—it’s reasonable to think that his parents certainly taught him something, even if he went on to figure out more on his own and ultimately surpass their skills. That he was an amazing talent is not in doubt. What will become of his legacy is yet to be determined.
But thanks to EPE, the steps already taken seem to be in tune.
7801 Audubon Rd.
Chanhassen, MN 55317
– Photos courtesy EPE / Paisley Park – NPG Records
Featured products, services and/or travel arrangements may have been complimentary in part or in full; this affords the research opportunity but does not sway opinion. Thanks to EPE for hosting my tour.