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Always on Our Minds

We Can’t Help Loving Elvis

We may have lost the man dubbed the King of Pop this past year, but any music purist will tell you there’s only one real King. And ladies and gentlemen, Elvis is back in the building. In honor of what would have been Elvis Presley’s 75th birthday on Jan. 8, the Smithsonian’s National Portrait Gallery has opened “One Life: Echoes of Elvis,— a tribute to the pervasive pop icon.

Don’t expect to see a full retrospective replete with images of the singer’s tragic spiral into self-destruction and his fabled 1977 death on a toilet. The exhibit is a decidedly lighthearted piecing together of images from the King’s better years, exhibit curator Warren Perry said.

“Obviously you can get really mean-spirited, and there’s a lot of satire out there,— he said. “For Elvis’ 75th birthday, we wanted to do something that was a tribute.—

Elvis sat for only one portrait painter — Ralph Wolfe Cowan, whose other subjects fittingly include actual royalty and heads of state. Cowan’s striking depiction of the blue-jeans-clad singer as a young man first greets museumgoers in the “One Life— gallery.

It’s a single-room exhibit, but definitely worth a look. Most of the pieces come from the Smithsonian collection. Folk artist Howard Finster’s quirky representations of Elvis as a soldier and as a baby, however, are on loan from Atlanta’s High Museum of Art.

William Eggleston’s masterful photographs of Graceland, second only to the White House as the most visited private residence in the U.S., are another highlight. And, of course, there’s a painting of the famous pink Cadillac.

But the most noticeable piece is a 3-foot glazed ceramic bust titled “Elvis as Julius Caesar.— Funk Art sculptor Robert Arneson eulogized the King in 1978 with this irreverent figure reminiscent of Roman monuments. (Don’t forget to take a peek at the back of the bust.)

Another favorite is the original work that won Mark Stutzman the 1992 U.S. Postal Service contest to design a commemorative stamp. It went on to become the most popular stamp of all time, with a printing of more than 500 million.

Display cases show a few Elvis-themed books, like “Elvis’ Favorite Recipes— (peanut butter and banana) and “Where’s Elvis?— (think “Where’s Waldo?—), plus some Elvis memorabilia such as a lunchbox, beer stein and doll … ahem, action figure.

And scrapbookers can marvel at the “Book of E,— a collection of press clippings obsessively compiled by an anonymous fan.

“The people who call themselves Elvis fans, these people have a loving affection for Elvis. It’s conversational,— Perry said. “I think this is indicative of where that’s coming from.—

The exhibit runs through Aug. 22.

On Jan. 23, the Portrait Gallery will host an all-day Elvis celebration, including tribute concerts, a costume contest and a screening of George Sidney’s 1964 film “Viva Las Vegas.—

But in case all this Elvis celebration leaves you wanting more, the Newseum is opening “Elvis! His Groundbreaking, Hip-Shaking, Newsmaking Story— on March 12. Attendees can relive the King’s top headline-making moments.

Then swing back to the Portrait Gallery on March 26, when noted Elvis scholars will discuss his life as part of the E.P. Richardson symposium.

Still want more King? The gallery opens “Elvis at 21: Photographs by Alfred Wertheimer,— a collection of candid photographs of the singer before he became a mega-star, on Oct. 30.

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