There are over 23,000 works of art in the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts, spanning some 5,000 years. There is so much to see there, in fact, that it cannot be adequately covered in a single day.
Yesterday, though, my mission was to explore only 56 of those works, all created just over 55 years ago. In VMFA time, 55 years is but a second.
The traveling Elvis At 21: Photographs by Alfred Wertheimer exhibition covers March 17, 1956, and June 30 through July 4, 1956, in the life of Elvis Presley. The images capture the young singer on the brink of fame, in the midst of a nation on the brink of change.
By March 17, “Heartbreak Hotel” is at number 15 and still rising on Billboard‘s sales chart. That evening, Elvis is to make his fifth of six appearances on Jackie Gleason’s Stage Show – a CBS variety program hosted by Tommy and Jimmy Dorsey. Initially hired by RCA to take publicity photos, Alfred Wertheimer is along with Elvis in New York City.
Entering The Warwick shows Elvis in a moment of freedom between rehearsals and the actual show. On the sidewalk, he is alone, unrecognized, unbothered – making it one of the exhibition’s most striking photographs.
Later, in his hotel room, Elvis reads fan mail and then rips it to shreds, according to one of the exhibition notes accompanying the photos. Wertheimer asks him why. “I’m not going to carry them with me. I’ve read them and seen what’s in them. It’s nobody else’s business,” Elvis tells him.
With Scotty Moore, Bill Black, and DJ Fontana behind him, he performs “Blue Suede Shoes” and “Heartbreak Hotel” on television that night. Though Wertheimer’s images are stills, there is no doubt that Elvis is very much in motion. In Jump, his feet are not even touching the ground.
He has made a final appearance on Stage Show and appeared twice on The Milton Berle Show. The second Berle appearance has proven controversial, due to his exaggerated hip movements on “Hound Dog” – a song only recently added to his stage act. In that brief time, he has also given over 85 concerts in tours criss-crossing the country (including two other shows at the Mosque on March 22). He has even cut a new record, “I Want You, I Need You, I Love You.” “Heartbreak Hotel” has now sold a million copies and hit number one. After a series of screen tests in Hollywood, he has been signed to a multi-movie deal. Production has not yet begun on his first film. Elvis does not plan to sing in his movies.
Most Elvis fans have seen Wertheimer’s images at least a dozen times over. It is striking, though, to see them within the context of an art museum. Who in 1956 would have ever believed Elvis would end up here? The prints vary in size, are framed in black, and fill two small halls. The exhibition is crowded with people, but there is plenty of time to examine each picture. Visitors talk softly to each other. In the background, though, I can hear that unmistakable voice:
“Welll, since my baby left me…well, I found a new place to dwell…well, it’s down at the end of Lonely Street…”
It’s true that I have seen these pictures before, but there is always something new. For instance, until this exhibition pointed it out, I never noticed in the image Elvis Leaving Richmond Train Station (AKA Elvis Did Have A Pelvis) that he is actually carrying and playing a portable radio as he walks out of Richmond’s Broad Street Station (now the Science Museum of Virginia).
Several other Richmond images are included, including two at the Jefferson Hotel and six backstage at the Mosque. Of the Richmond images presented, one stands out among the rest. It is Elvis on stage in the magnificent Kneeling At The Mosque – used as the (unfortunately colorized) cover for the Close Up boxed set, among other projects.
After the welcome detour to Richmond, it is back to New York, this time for the Steve Allen Show. Wertheimer captures rehearsals for Elvis’ July 1 appearance.
“I went to the Steve Allen Show,” Elvis recalled in 1969. “They were going to tame me down, so they told me to stand still. They had me dressed in a tuxedo and singing to a dog on a stool.”
Much worse than singing to a dog, though, Elvis is also forced to perform with Allen in a “Range Round-up” skit. Andy Griffith and Imogene Coco also appear during the nearly unwatchable Western parody. “Allen signified his own importance by wearing the biggest white hat,” states Wertheimer in a note accompanying one of the rehearsal photos.
Allen’s attempts to embarrass Elvis and put the singer in his place, of course, have the opposite effects. The legend of Elvis only grows.
The next day, July 2, he records 31 grueling takes of “Hound Dog” and 28 more of “Don’t Be Cruel” at RCA’s New York studio. The single would prove to be one of his most popular. Included in the exhibition is RCA Victor Studio I, a shot of Elvis rehearsing “Hound Dog” with his band and the Jordanaires. It is literally history in the making.
Elvis Screams is a Wertheimer photo that has always jumped out at me. I’m pretty sure the first time I saw it was back in the 1980s on the old Cinemax documentary Elvis ’56. The shot goes by quickly, as part of a montage. At the time, I thought the documentary producers had made a glaring error.
To me, the photo looks for all the world like an image of Elvis singing in the 1970-1973 era. It is not often that a 1956 image of Elvis can be confused with one from 1973, yet the only mistake was, of course, mine. According to Wertheimer, the image captures the moment that Elvis accepted take 31 of “Hound Dog.” I still find it fascinating, because my eyes still see the “Aloha” Elvis in this image, despite what my brain tells me.
Another series of images are striking. Elvis returns to Memphis after the “Hound Dog” recording session and departs the train on July 4. He walks alone through a field and then down a sidewalk. No bodyguards, no hanger-ons, no fans. Just Elvis.
The impression is not completely “normal,” however, He has just left the train from a multiple-day trip. He holds only his acetates of “Hound Dog,” “Don’t Be Cruel,” and “Any Way You Want Me” from the recording session. No bags or other luggage in sight.
Next, we see Elvis with his father (Vernon looks positively annoyed with Wertheimer, with a “back off” look) and then with his mother. He has just moved them into a new home. Not Graceland, which is still a year away.
One of the largest images in the exhibition, Elvis plays the rebel on his Harley in No Gas In The Tank – an image which inspired one of my favorite album covers, Return of the Rocker. Surely, there is a best-selling poster to be made here.
Finally, the photo exhibition concludes with images of Elvis on stage that same night at Russwood Park in Memphis. The image that stands out most to me from the entire exhibition, perhaps because it is one I do not recall seeing before, is Elvis Onstage: Russwood. As far as the eye can see are fans. Scotty Moore is picking away on guitar, and Elvis is turning around with a look of intense joy back at the crowd behind them. You can hear the screams. You can hear the music.
“He would listen respectfully backstage to criticism from agents that wanted him to contain his movements on stage. But once Elvis got on stage, he always did it his way. He really did it his way,” states Wertheimer. His text narrative throughout the exhibition is interesting, for it reveals what the photographer thought of his subject and those around him.
It could be argued that Wertheimer spent more time with and was allowed greater access to Elvis than any other “outsider.” For all of their spectacular moments, for instance, the 1970s documentaries That’s The Way It Is and Elvis On Tour are but illusions in terms of revelations about Elvis beyond his music.
Here, in 1956, Wertheimer is able to capture everything with his lens. No one would ever get this close to the real man again. That is what makes the Elvis At 21 collection and Wertheimer’s many other Elvis photographs significant.
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Feeling almost like an afterthought, though at least providing an appropriate soundtrack that can be heard throughout the experience, there is a little television and bench in the exit alcove at the end of the exhibition. The short video, licensed by Jackie Gleason Enterprises for Elvis At 21, features three complete performances of Elvis on Stage Show:
- “I Got A Woman” (January 28, 1956)
- “Blue Suede Shoes” (February 11, 1956)
- “Heartbreak Hotel” (February 11, 1956)
The audio and video of the performances breathe additional life into the Wertheimer photos just witnessed.
Elvis At 21 is a simple exhibition, and that is all that is required. The works and the subject stand alone. The short video, though, leads me to wonder about the possibilities of future Elvis exhibitions benefitting from complete audio-visual integration.
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I am an American, so I must admit that I looked forward to seeing what Elvis items would be available in VMFA’s gift shop almost as much as I did seeing the exhibition itself.
As we all know, Elvis merchandise can range from the sublime to the chintzy. Fortunately, most of what VMFA had to offer was closer to the former category. No Elvis potato heads, thankfully. I picked up Elvis 1956: Photographs by Alfred Wertheimer (2009), a terrific hardcover that presents all of the photos and information from the exhibition.
I also splurged on Elvis At 21: New York To Memphis by Alfred Wertheimer (2006), a massive, coffee-table sized volume that explores even more of his photographs.
Jerry Hopkins’ consolidated Elvis biography and Sonny West’s Still Taking Care Of Business were available there as well, as were some lesser titles. Anachronistic considering the theme of the exhibition, the omnipresent aviator-style Elvis sunglasses that he wore in the 1970s were also available – in both gold and silver plastic, of course. There was even a stuffed “Steve Allen” style hound dog. For this occasion, I stuck with the Wertheimer books.
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For anyone who is ever near Richmond, Virginia, I can always recommend the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts. If you are an Elvis fan, though, then you really should try to make it out while this exhibition is still there. Elvis At 21 will be available through March 18, 2012. Museum admission is always free, while tickets for the exhibition are $8 for adults and $6 for seniors, students, and youths. There is no charge for museum members.