On the 75th anniversary of Elvis Presley’s birth, the Smithsonian Institution is showcasing the King of Rock ‘n’ Roll’s ubiquitous image through exhibits opening Friday in Washington and Los Angeles.
“One Life: Echoes of Elvis” will be on view at the National Portrait Gallery in Washington through August. The one-room exhibit is devoted to the evolution and influence of Presley’s image after his death.
“Think of all the entertainers you know, and how many of them do you know the names of their homes?” said curator Warren Perry. “Everybody needs to have a moment with Elvis.”
The exhibit features portraits, images from Graceland the mansion where Elvis lived, Elvis merchandise and a reminder that Elvis’ manager put his face on just about anything that could be marketed. The commercial images include an Elvis-imprinted lunch box, nutcracker, action figure and snow globe.
Original artwork from a 1992 Elvis stamp design competition is on view, along with the 1993 stamp with Presley’s likeness that became the most popular U.S. postal stamp of all time, with a printing of 500 million.
A gold bust of Elvis as Julius Caesar by sculptor Robert Arneson anchors another wall. A museum docent recently discovered a surprise in the sculpture that had been in storage at the Smithsonian’s Hirshhorn Museum: A small heart was carved in the back.
“The people who call themselves Elvis fans, I’m sure there are fanatics, but these people have a loving affection for Elvis,” said Perry, who is from Memphis, Tennessee, where Elvis lived after his family moved from Mississippi. “It’s conversational. It’s intimate.”
One of Perry’s favorite pieces is a scrapbook found in an abandoned Chicago warehouse with newspaper headlines and pictures carefully cut out and pasted in a thick book shortly after Presley’s death at age 42 in 1977.
“You can tell it was put together by a fan,” Perry said.
Presley sat for only one portrait painter. A painting by Ralph Wolfe Cowan, usually on display in the gallery’s entertainment section, is the exhibit’s central image. It was completed from sketches Cowan made in 1969 while creating another portrait that hangs at Graceland.
In Los Angeles, the Grammy Museum on Friday is opening the Smithsonian’s traveling exhibit, “Elvis at 21: Photographs by Alfred Wertheimer.” The photojournalist was hired to shoot promotional images of the young recording artist just before Elvis became famous. The show features 56 of Wertheimer’s images from 1956.