Jet-black dyed hair, long sideburns, frenzied performances, flashy clothes, innovative music, mediocre movies — when Elvis Presley‘s name is mentioned, these are some of the things that immediately come to mind.
But don’t forget about freedom of expression, censorship and massive media exposure.
In its exhibit Elvis! His Groundbreaking, Hip-Shaking, Newsmaking Story, the Newseum in Washington, D.C., takes an all-encompassing look at Presley’s personal life, career and overall impact on popular culture.
“If you’re an Elvis fan and have never been to Graceland, you need to come to the Newseum,” says Ken Paulson, who’s been the Newseum president since February 2009. “This is truly the best collection you’ll find outside of Graceland, and much of what we have here is on loan from Graceland.”
Paulson is quick to point out that the Newseum’s Presley exhibit, which is scheduled to open March 19, tells a different story from the one at the late entertainer’s Graceland mansion in Memphis, Tenn.
“It’s really about Elvis and his impact on America and his coverage in the news media,” Paulson explains. “Long before there was the kind of celebrity coverage there is today, Elvis was getting that level of attention. The National Enquirer was all over Elvis long before there were tabloids everywhere. When [daughter] Lisa Marie was born, when [wife] Priscilla divorced him and when he got fat, the press – particularly the tabloid press – was all over him. So in some ways he inspired a certain kind of journalism that is still with us today.
“And then you go back and look at the original newspapers and magazines covering his career, it’s really astonishing,” Paulson adds. “There was so much concern that Elvis was going to cause riots or lead young people down the path to disgrace. When you look at this footage today, it’s pretty tame.”
The Newseum exhibit will feature Presley recordings and video footage, newspapers, magazines as well as rare photos and a variety of clothing and other personal Presley items.
“One of the most amazing things to me is the federal narcotics badge that [President Richard M.] Nixon gave to Elvis, as well as the coat and belt Presley wore at the White House,” Paulson says.
The exhibit also includes a number of items that have rarely or never been shown to the public, including Lisa Marie’s footprint that was made at the hospital after her birth and scrapbooks chronicling Presley’s rise to fame that were assembled by his longtime manager, Colonel Tom Parker.
“When Priscilla and Elvis got married, they autographed a champagne bottle for Elvis’ parents, signing it Mr. and Mrs. Presley – no one’s ever seen that,” adds Paulson.
Paulson has given serious thought to scheduling special guests and events during the exhibit’s run.
“We would love to have [Presley guitarist] Scotty Moore here … [Presley biographer] Peter Guralnick would be on our short list,” he says. “So we will do programming here, and it will largely be about the music and the cultural impact.”
Elvis! His Groundbreaking, Hip-Shaking, Newsmaking Story will be on display at the Newseum through Feb. 14, 2011.
— By Chris M. Junior