From 1956 to 2012: Follow Elvis’ journey through Richmond

Despite his enduring popularity, Elvis Presley is rarely given his due as an artist. Though this has improved considerably over the last ten to twenty years, the general public still tends to latch on to things like wacky souvenirs, bad impersonators, and “alive” hoaxes.

My favorite Elvis writer of late has been Sheila O’Malley of the Sheila Variations blog. With a fresh voice, she presents new perspectives on Elvis the artist. Rarely fluff pieces like you might see on other blogs (including this one), Sheila’s posts tend to be demanding reads. Invest the time and there are always insightful payoffs.

I discovered the Sheila Variations not through Elvis but through baseball. A few years ago, I was writing a post about baseball movies for The Film Frontier – my now-extinct pop culture blog. One of my favorites is Field Of Dreams, adapted from W.P. Kinsella’s Shoeless Joe. While researching the film, I came across Sheila’s blog and a number of extremely helpful posts.

When I find a new blog I love, I tend to search it for other topics of interest. Though it was only one post, I was delighted to find a reference to Elvis there as well. The 2005 post promised of more to come, eventually. “I’ll know when I’m ready,” she said at the time.

I bookmarked the blog and checked it every now and then. Always finding something to enjoy while patiently waiting for the topic of Elvis to return. It took over six years for Sheila to know she was ready to write about Elvis, but when she was, the resulting series of Elvis Essays that began last August 16 and continue to this day have been nothing short of astounding. I’m hoping that she will eventually compile her observations into a book, a documentary, a multi-media experience, or all of the above.

I was quite happy, therefore, when Sheila last month posted a short preview of a future Elvis post centered around Richmond, Virginia. Inspired by the excellent “In Search Of Elvis In Richmond, VA” posts on the Smithsonian’s Elvis At Twenty One blog, Sheila took a road trip from New Jersey to visit some of Richmond’s Elvis sites in person – as well as take in the Elvis At 21 exhibition at the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts. This turned out not to result in just one post, but four.

The Sheila Variations: The Richmond Saga

Part I June 30, 1956: Elvis Presley in Richmond, Virginia – Moment By Moment

Part II The Jefferson Hotel

Part III The Mosque and The Monuments

Part IV The Train Station, the Water Tower, and “Elvis at 21″ at VMFA

Sometimes, I’ll read something and think, “I wish I had written that.” This is definitely one of those times. Maybe it takes a visitor to capture a city best, though.
The Sheila Variations
My favorite random moments:

  • “I showed the really nice guy at the front desk the things I wanted to see. […] I asked him if it was ‘walkable’. He said, ‘Oh, no. It’s about two miles.’ Just one of the many cultural differences between living in NYC and living somewhere else which is more of a car culture.” (from Richmond Snapshots)
  • “Peter Guralnick, in his introduction to his second volume of Elvis’ biography, says that the years from 1958 until 1977 were all about ‘the disappearance’ of Elvis Presley, a sentiment I disagree with entirely. He did not disappear. He was always there. It’s just we didn’t get to see him anymore, unless we went to the movies, or, in the 70s, saw him in concert. […] I know Guralnick means “disappeared” on another level, but I disagree with THAT level as well. How you can say that someone who put out the two gospel albums he did in the 60s […] disappeared is a mystery to me. How you can feel he disappeared when you consider his record-breaking appearances in Vegas [and] at Madison Square Garden, the albums from the 70s, especially Promised Land […] the continued innovation in his music, the continued personal aspect of it […] The nerve of that Elvis guy to follow his own path.” (from Part I) [This segment, which should be read in context in its entirety in the original post for full effect, literally left me wanting to cheer. –Troy]
  • “The Jefferson Hotel certainly isn’t hurting for customers, but they do say on their website: ‘Stay where Elvis stayed!'” (from Part II)
  • “New York often doesn’t honor its history, architecturally anyway. I never even saw the original Penn Station, but it is like a wound in my soul to think of what was torn down. […] But there the Mosque stands, now called The Landmark, with a giant Lion King banner, and the ghosts of Duke Ellington and Ethel Barrymore and Frank Sinatra and Elvis Presley literally shimmering in the foreground.” (from Part III)
  • “What would Elvis at 21, strolling down that hallway, have thought if he knew that one day an entire exhibit devoted to his time in Richmond would be on display at the Museum there? It’s all so strange. And beautiful. And perfect. Elvis couldn’t know, he couldn’t predict. He could just believe in himself, and keep launching himself out there into the spotlight. That is what he did.” (from Part IV)

* * *

Today was the final day of the Elvis At 21 exhibition here in Richmond. Though I regret not being able to make it out to see photographer Alfred Wertheimer when he visited the museum for an Elvis panel discussion in January, I did at least have the opportunity to take in the exhibition one more time a couple weekends back.

For our return visit, my wife and I brought along my Mom, who became an Elvis fan in 1956. It was nice to walk through the exhibit without having to worry about writing a review this time. We followed the museum visit up by watching Elvis ’56 and my Mom’s all-time favorite: Aloha From Hawaii. As I noted on twitter at the time, it was a perfect day.

Elvis At 21 is not over, though. The tour continues at the Dwight D. Eisenhower Presidential Library and Museum in Abilene, Kansas, starting April 7 (more info here).

From an art museum to a Presidential library . . . maybe Elvis really is starting to get his due.

11 thoughts on “From 1956 to 2012: Follow Elvis’ journey through Richmond

    • I definitely appreciate the kind of in-depth analysis that Sheila delivers, whether about Elvis or other topics.

      As for The Mystery Train, I think there’s still some steam left in the engine. We’ll see how far that goes. Thanks, patricia!

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  1. Pingback: Richmond Redux | The Sheila Variations

  2. The “guy” relationship to Elvis is always interesting. Mock Elvis in front of my nephews sem-pro softball team (made up of guys in their twenties and thirties) and you’d risk getting beaten to a pulp. But I’m a little over fifty myself and I’ve been having the kind of conversation you record above for thirty years off and on. Things have definitely gotten better, but the level of ignorance remains astonishing. This is a great site. Really glad Sheila sent me over.

    (On a related note I just started a blog at http://theroundplaceinthemiddle.com and one of the regular features will be “stupid things people say about Elvis.”…I’m guessing I shouldn’t run out for a year or two anyway.)

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    • Thanks for commenting, Johnny, and welcome aboard the train! That’s interesting about your nephew’s softball team. I guess they are slightly younger than me (I’m mid-30s), as my experience has been closer to yours – at least in “real life.” Out here in webland, it’s a whole different story. Definitely a lot easier to find other Elvis fans here.

      What a great idea to have a recurring “Stupid things people say about Elvis” feature on your blog! That could be an entire blog in and of itself.

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      • Of course it might help that my nephew’s softball team are all from Memphis…but I can say that I was at one of their national tournaments several years ago and one of the teams warmed up before games by getting together and singing a (very nice) acapella version of “Devil In Disguise.” They even had choreography worked out…And they were from New Jersey. So I guess you never know where you’ll find the truly enlightened!

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        • Glad to hear about Memphians supporting Elvis. I think they get a bad reputation among Elvis fans sometimes.

          Elvis does pop up in the most unexpected places. It’s a good thing I’m such a fan or I’d probably be tired of him. ;)

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  3. Troy – Your support has meant so much. I really really appreciate it. It took me a while (6 years??) to gather my forces to get the courage to actually write about the guy. It took me that long because I knew it would take over my life once I committed to it. That first post on August 6, 2011, was akin to clearing the deck. I knew once I opened that floodgate, I would have no free time for years. Writing about Elvis, with devotion, has brought so many good things to my life – so many great fans – it has been so wonderful to share the love of this man with others. Despite his enormous fame, I have felt strangely alone in my feelings about him – but that all changed once I started writing about him. So, thank you, And next time I come to Richmond, let’s get together.

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    • Fantastic work, Sheila. I laugh now when I think back on those times when I was hoping you’d write a post or two about Elvis! Definitely well worth the wait.

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  4. … hello sheila I feel like I just found another true elvis fan…much to share on that subject both superficially and inherent…your sister gave me this wonderful contact blog info of sorts….they frequent a well know pie shop in the hills and me and the good ol boys git to know everyone there… I go by the name of matt and methodically Sage for a lead in a ne feature film re;Elvis…nice to meet you…I grew up in the biz…

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