We Loved Elvis True
On Dec. 21, 1970, a man known to many simply as “the King” decided to pay an impromptu visit to President Richard Nixon at the White House. The man, who had beefy sideburns, a garish belt buckle and a black velvet jacket, was none other than Elvis Presley, who suggested Nixon deputize him as a “federal agent-at-large” in the war on drugs — despite his growing addiction to prescription medications and his status as a counterculture icon. And amazingly, it took an entire year for a member of the press to report that the meeting had actually transpired.
Elvis hasn’t been back inside the Beltway since, but his velvet jacket, belt buckle, counternarcotics badge and a host of other memorabilia — some of which has never been displayed outside of his mansion, Graceland — are currently on display in a new exhibit at the Newseum called “Elvis! His Groundbreaking, Hip-Shaking, Newsmaking Story.”
The exhibit came to fruition when Chris Peck, an editor at the Commercial Appeal, a daily newspaper in Memphis, Tenn., contacted the Newseum about collaborating with Graceland.
“He thought it was a natural fit to work together,” Ken Paulson, president and chief operating officer of the Freedom Forum, Newseum and Diversity Institute, said in an interview.
The exhibit begins with a roughly six-minute, Newseum-produced video. In it, viewers witness the evolution of a 19-year-old truck driver with a hit single into one of the biggest rock stars of all time.
In addition to the video, the exhibit features a sizable array of newspaper clippings and rare photos chronicling Elvis’ rise to fame and the struggles that he eventually faced as a result.
Much of the exhibit focuses on Elvis’ relationship with the media, which ranged from amiable to frayed.
“You can actually see the full spectrum of press coverage in American journalism, which spans the length of his 23-year career,” Paulson said.
Elvis gave a younger generation its first whiff of censorship when television cameras were ordered to film him from the waist up after a network executive was inundated with more than 400,000 pan letters decrying his “hip-shaking, behind-wiggling” dance moves; in addition to “the King,” the moniker “Elvis the Pelvis” stuck during his early years, too.
“Columnist after columnist savaged him,” Paulson said. “Elvis the Pelvis’ wasn’t a cute nickname back then.”
But the sensuality and physicality that made him controversial also made him wildly popular among the youths of that generation.
Naturally, the press also provided a transfixed public with obsessive coverage of Elvis’ love life. Many casual music fans probably don’t know that “Private Presley” became infatuated with his future wife, Priscilla, when she was just 14 years old during Elvis’ stint in the Army overseas in Germany, but according to one of the exhibit’s newsreel compilations, they rather innocuously just “had to wait a little while.” Oh, how times have changed since then.
As his abuse of prescription drugs worsened and he began to visibly gain weight, tabloid newspapers like the National Enquirer incessantly ran cover stories about his declining health and performances. His untimely death instantly became front-page news all over the world — never before had an entertainer’s death dominated headlines in such a way, according to a placard at the exhibit.
When a presumed member of the paparazzi snuck into the mortuary where Elvis’ body lay to capture a picture of him in repose, which the National Enquirer ran on its front page to the tune of roughly 6 million copies sold, it became clear that a watershed moment in tabloid journalism was at hand.
His relationship with the press aside, the sheer number of exclusive items in the exhibit is impressive. Items that have never before been displayed outside of Graceland include his 1957 Harley Davidson Electra Glide motorcycle, the outfit that he wore for the opening number of his widely acclaimed 1968 Comeback Special and his Army driver’s license, among others. Items that have never been publicly displayed before include rare receipts, contracts, fan mail and even the official guest book from Elvis’ memorial service, which is signed by Priscilla Presley. Perhaps most recognizable to some people is the jumpsuit that he wore during his Aloha From Hawaii performance in 1973, which was seen by more than 40 percent of the U.S. television audience at the time.
Overall, the exhibit reminds viewers that in addition to being “the King of Rock and Roll,” Elvis was one of the major newsmakers of his time — and there are few places better suited to house such an exhibit than D.C.’s own Newseum.