On the cover of Last Train to Memphis, the first volume of Peter Guralnick’s definitive two-part biography of Elvis Presley, is a photo of a young Elvis on a train, listening to a 45 of his double-sided hit, Don’t Be Cruel/Hound Dog. The photo was taken by Alfred Wertheimer, who was hired by RCA Victor in 1956 to shoot promotional images of the newly signed Elvis.
Wertheimer’s photos went beyond the often-canned nature of promotional photos, as the photographer caught an unguarded Elvis flirting with waitresses, kissing women backstage, trying to seduce girlfriends by playing his new record, performing on The Steve Allen Show or in simple moments of repose, where the King’s charisma comes through whether he’s looking pensive or sporting his famous sneer.
Wertheimer’s photos will be featured in an exhibit, “Elvis at 21: Photographs by Alfred Wertheimer, opening Saturday (May 25) and running through Sept. 2 at the Fort Worth Museum of Science and History. The exhibit is a collaboration among the Smithsonian Institution Traveling Exhibition Service, the Smithsonian’s National Portrait Gallery, and the Govinda Gallery. (Look for a video preview later this week on DFW.com,)
Chris Murray, the exhibit’s co-creator, said he recently had a chance to tour the exhibit with Priscilla Presley, who was married to Elvis from 1967 to 1973 but had known him for eight years before they got married.
“About half-way through, I could tell that Priscilla was absorbed in the exhibit,” Murray said before a media tour of the exhibit began Wednesday morning. “I said to Priscilla ... ‘This’ -- meaning what you’re about to see -- ‘is the man you fell in love with, isn’t it?’ She was wearing these beautiful high-fashion sunglasses, [and] she took them off and she looked at me and said, ‘Chris, this is the man I fell in love with.’ And I knew we’d hit pay dirt.”
By the time Priscilla met Elvis, though, he was a big star; Wertheimer captured some of the last times when the King could go places without drawing a crowd (in one of the more striking images, Elvis dines alone at a lunch counter in a segregated restaurant) but also photographed him just as he was experiencing the first flashes of stardom.
The exhibit is accompanied by some Elvis memorabilia, as well as an “Elvis in Fort Worth” room with information about the seven times Elvis performed in the city, and a wall on which people can post notes about their Elvis memories.
Several Elvis-related events will occur while the exhibit is in Fort Worth, including a “Conversations With the Experts” series featuring such speakers as Charles Stone, Elvis’ 1970s tour producer; Elvis tribute artist Kraig Parker (whom Stone manages); Benito Huerta, director and curator for the Gallery at UTA, who will speak about Elvis’ connection to the rise of the art of velvet painting; and others.
Cultural historian Amy Henderson will give a June 9 talk titled “Flashpoint of Fame: Elvis, Messenger of Change,” about Elvis’ effect on pop culture in the 1950s and beyond. The museum will also hold a candlelight vigil on Aug. 16, the 36th anniversary of Elvis’ death.