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Elvis Rocks Washington

Two exhibits mark the king's 75th birthday

The exhibit at the Newseum features clothing worn by Elvis, which is on loan from Graceland.
The exhibit at the Newseum features clothing worn by Elvis, which is on loan from Graceland.

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It has been more than 30 summers since Elvis Presley died. The singer would have been 75 in January and Washington is honoring him with, not one, but two different exhibits.   

Well-known face

Like his name and his music, his face - decades later - is still familiar.

"It is perhaps possible that Elvis is one of the most recognized human beings in all of history," says Warren Perry, curator of the exhibit "Echoes of Elvis" at the National Portrait Gallery.

The singer's face has appeared on everything from lunch boxes to postage stamps. Both are included in the exhibit.

The 1993 U.S. stamp featuring Elvis "is the greatest selling stamp in the history of the U.S. Postal Service," Perry says.  It sold 500 million copies. The original portrait by Mark Stutzman is among the works on display.  

Lasting legacy

All but one of the works were created after Elvis' death on August 16, 1977.  

"He is a constant source of inspiration, not only in visual art, but in cinema. We see Elvis referenced in movie after movie." Perry says. "Elvis is practically his own genre in fiction now, and there is a limitless supply of Elvis biographies available on the market."

Elvis at Three by Howard Finster, 1990
Elvis at Three by Howard Finster, 1990

But the focus here is on visual art. There are painted wooden cut-outs of Elvis as a soldier and a three-year-old boy with angel's wings by visionary artist Howard Finster.  

"After Elvis' death, Finster viewed Elvis as an emissary of God if you will," Perry says. "Since Elvis's death, people have taken Elvis and put him into a lot of motifs:  Elvis as a soldier, Elvis as a patriot, Elvis as a boy who loved his mom."

A lithograph by Tennessee artist Red Grooms shows Elvis in a gold lame suit, playing guitar with Graceland and one of his Cadillac automobiles behind him.

And a golden ceramic bust by Robert Arneson compares Elvis to Caesar. There is a small, brown "rock" on Elvis' shoulder stamped with the word "king."

This ceramic bust by Robert Arneson features a rock on Elvis' shoulder, a reference to the entertainer's status as the ''King of Rock'.
This ceramic bust by Robert Arneson features a rock on Elvis' shoulder, a reference to the entertainer's status as the ''King of Rock'.

"'King of Rock' is the implication," Perry says.   

There have certainly been mean-spirited portraits of Elvis since his death, but there are none in "Echoes of Elvis."  

"'What we have tried to do here at the National Portrait Gallery is pay tribute to Elvis on the occasion of his 75th birthday, with the more fun spirited, the encomium, like works of art."

Through a news lens

At the Newseum, TV broadcasts and newspaper headlines are at the core of the exhibit called, "Elvis! His Groundbreaking, Hip-Shaking, Newsmaking Story."  

"We look at this exhibit through how the news media played a role in Elvis's career," says Patty Ruhl, a writer who worked on the exhibit.

There are news headlines and reviews of performances. Rhul says the critics didn't always rave. Following his 1956 appearance on American television, "They called Elvis talent-free.  The New York Times said that he was vulgar. They said his movements belonged in a bordello."

And they weren't big fans of his movies, either she says. Elvis made 30 feature films. The exhibit includes some of the costumes he wore, and the famous, caped and bejeweled white suit he wore for his 1972 "Aloha from Hawaii" concert.

It "was the first concert broadcast live to more than 40 countries," Ruhl says. She notes that 1.5 billion people watched it on television. "That is more people than watched Neil Armstrong walk on the moon."

Many of the objects are on loan from Graceland, Elvis's mansion. They document both his personal and professional life.  There is the uniform he wore as a soldier. Elvis was drafted into the army in 1957 and served for two years. During that time, he met his wife Priscilla.

The exhibit includes an empty champagne bottle from their Las Vegas wedding signed "Mr. and Mrs. Elvis Presley" and baby clothes worn by Lisa Marie, their only child.

This photo, of Elvis meeting with President Nixon, is the most requested photo in the Library of Congress archives.
This photo, of Elvis meeting with President Nixon, is the most requested photo in the Library of Congress archives.

Presidential meeting

A velvet jacket worn by Elvis in 1970 is on display. He wore it in a photo taken with President Richard Nixon. It is the most requested photo from the National Archives.

"He walked up to the Nixon White House and said he wanted to meet with the president and a stunned guard actually got him in to meet with President Nixon," Ruhl says. "He wanted to be enlisted in the war on drugs."

Following the visit, Elvis received a badge from the U.S. Department of Justice Bureau of Narcotics with his name on it. Ironically, Elvis died of an overdose of prescription drugs.

And more than 30 years after his death, people of all ages are still interested in the King of Rock.  

"We were afraid that perhaps he would only appeal to a certain generation, the baby boomers who grew up with Elvis and loved his music so," says Ruhl. "But we are seeing young people come to the exhibit."

Some, she says, even listen to his music on their iPods.

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