New Smithsonian Traveling Exhibition Shows Elvis Before He Was 'The King of Rock ’n’ Roll'

Posted by Nichole Johnson |

Thursday, February 14, 2013

News-Capital-Arts-Culture-Elvis-Going-Home-187Capital University’s Schumacher Gallery is proud to present Elvis at 21: Photographs by Alfred Wertheimer, opening Monday, March 4, and running through Saturday, April 27. A public reception will take place on Friday, March 8, from 5 to 7:30 pm. 

Freelance photojournalist Alfred Wertheimer was hired by RCA Victor in 1956 to shoot promotional images of a recently signed 21-year-old recording artist named Elvis Presley.   


Wertheimer’s instincts to “tag along” with the artist after the assignment and the resulting images provide us today with a look at Elvis before he exploded onto the scene and became one of the most exciting performers of his time. Elvis at 21: Photographs by Alfred Wertheimer, a Smithsonian traveling exhibition, presents 56 of these striking images. 


Developed collaboratively by the Smithsonian Institution Traveling Exhibition Service (SITES), the Smithsonian’s National Portrait Gallery and the Govinda Gallery, Elvis at 21 will be on view at Capital University’s Schumacher Gallery and then will travel to museums around the country through 2013. The exhibition is sponsored nationally by HISTORY. 


Wertheimer had unparalleled access and documented Elvis on the road, backstage, in concert, in the recording studio and at home in Memphis, Tenn. “Colonel” Tom Parker, Elvis’ manager, restricted contact just a short time later. The photographs document a remarkable time when Elvis could sit alone at a drugstore lunch counter.  

“Henri Cartier-Bresson was known for photographing the decisive moment, that moment when everything falls into place,” said Wertheimer. “But I was more interested in the moments just before or just after the decisive moment.”

Wertheimer was up close to capture a flirtatious encounter with a young woman backstage in Richmond, Va. He was in the New York City recording studio on the historic day Elvis recorded Don’t Be Cruel and Hound Dog. Both songs hit No. 1 on the charts, the first and only time a single record would achieve this distinction.

News-Kneeling-At-The-Mosque-187Wertheimer also joined Elvis after the recording session as he traveled home to Memphis by train. One image shows Elvis as just part of the crowd surrounding a lunch vendor on a train platform during a brief stop on the 27-hour trip. The anonymity he had during this stop was short-lived; the trip followed a busy few months when Elvis appeared on the television shows Stage Show, The Milton Berle Show and The Steve Allen Show. The photographs of a concert in Russwood Park on his return to Memphis show a young man who now had to have a police escort to get through the crowd of fans between his car and the stadium. 


The Schumacher Gallery's Permanent Collections offer a wonderfully diverse selection of more than 2500 works for study and enjoyment. These collections encompass 2000 years of cultural history. Since the Gallery's inception in 1964, hundreds of donors have provided objects of art, funds, and services to create this important cultural legacy.

SITES has been sharing the wealth of Smithsonian collections and research programs with millions of people outside Washington, D.C., for more than 55 years. SITES connects Americans to their shared cultural heritage through a wide range of exhibitions about art, science and history, which are shown wherever people live, work and play. 

HISTORY is a leading destination for revealing, award-winning, original non-fiction series and event-driven specials that connect history with viewers. Programming covers a diverse variety of historical genres ranging from military history to contemporary history, technology to natural history, as well as science, archaeology and pop culture.

Located in Washington, D.C., the Govinda Gallery exhibits one of the largest collections of music photography in the world. Over 30 years, the gallery has organized more than 200 exhibitions of many of the nation’s leading artists. It has featured Wertheimer’s work in several exhibitions, including his first major one-person exhibition in 1997. Visit online at

News-Capital-Arts-Culture-Elvis-Washroom-No-Towels-187The Smithsonian’s National Portrait Gallery tells the stories of America through the individuals who have shaped its culture. Through the visual arts, performing arts and new media, the Portrait Gallery portrays poets and presidents, visionaries and villains, actors and activists who speak American history. The museum’s collection of nearly 20,000 works ranges from paintings and sculpture to photographs and drawings. Visit online at and



On train, New York to Memphis 
Elvis on the Southern Railroad between Chattanooga and Memphis, Tenn., July 4, 1956 

Onstage, The Mosque, Richmond 
Elvis, on his knee in front of the foot lights, sings to his 3,000 mostly teenage female fans, who were delighted by his presence and his music. He left them in tears of joy.
Mosque Theater, Richmond, Va., June 30, 1956
Washroom, No Towels
Nearing Memphis after a 27 hour long trip, Elvis freshens upon the train only to find after washing his hands there are no more paper towels. Not making a big fuss, he shakes his hands dry. Southern Railroad, July 4, 1956

Located in the Columbus, Ohio, neighborhood of Bexley, Capital University is a private, four-year undergraduate institution and graduate school. Capital prepares students for meaningful lives and purposeful careers through a relevant liberal arts core curriculum and deep professional programs. Influenced by its Lutheran heritage, Capital places great emphasis on the free and open exchange of ideas, seeking out diverse perspectives, active participation in society, leadership and service. With a focus on rigor and experiential learning, the University capitalizes on its size, location, and heritage to develop the whole person, both inside and outside the classroom.  



Contact: Nichole Johnson
614-236-6945 (office)
614-440-9158 (cell) 

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