On June 30, 1956, the day following a rehearsal in New York for the Steve Allen Show (which would be filmed on July 1), Elvis took the train to Richmond, Virginia from New York. He would be performing two shows at a giant theatre in Richmond called The Mosque Theatre, along with a couple of other acts. Following the show, they would go back to the train station and board the train for New York again. It was a busy 24 hours, but then, every 24 hours was busy for the young man from Memphis in the groundbreaking year of 1956. He was traveling with one of his cousins, a pretty rough character (and another cousin would join them in Richmond – more on that later), as well as a photographer, Alfred Wertheimer, who had been following Elvis around for a couple of days in New York taking pictures and then decided to tag along to Richmond. Wertheimer had been hired earlier in the year by RCA to take some pictures of Elvis during one of his appearances on the Dorsey Brothers Stage Show. Wertheimer didn’t really know who Elvis was at that point (a lot of people didn’t: the South sure knew, but Elvis was still mainly a regional phenomenon, although his songs were already dominating national charts. But nobody had seen him yet. 1956 would be the year all that changed.) Wertheimer was not familiar with Elvis’ music, and didn’t really care about rock and roll, but he found Elvis to be a fascinating and available subject. Wertheimer was not into posed shots. He was after a documentary realism, whatever the subject, and he found Elvis – a self-conscious young man, always aware of his appearance – to be one of the most available subjects he had ever shot. Elvis presented himself to Wertheimer’s intrusive camera without fear, without reticence. He just allowed Wertheimer to follow him around, accepted that he was interesting enough to BE followed around, and just kept behaving naturally, doing what he would do normally, as though the camera wasn’t there. (This is why Elvis was a naturally gifted actor. He accepted the presence of the camera as normal. He relaxed when it was pointed at him, as opposed to tensing up – which is the experience of 99% of normal people when being looked at. Elvis never doubted that he was interesting enough to be looked at.)
Wertheimer’s photographs of Elvis are rightly famous, even more so because by the end of that year, 1956, the publicity machine, engineered mainly by Colonel Parker, clamped down around the young star, refusing access to reporters outside of highly engineered publicity shots and press conferences. And this lasted until the end of Elvis’ life. So we never “got” Elvis, in a casual way, from 1957 until 1977. That’s a long time to stay holed up in your fame, but that was Elvis’ journey. Just before the clamp-down occurred, is the miracle of Wertheimer’s couple of weeks, all told, spend with Elvis. We see Elvis working (Wertheimer was present in New York when Elvis recorded “Hound Dog”, a groundbreaking recording session), we see him in rehearsal for the Steve Allen Show, we see him brushing his teeth and shaving in the hotel room, bare-chested with pimples all over his back, we see him shopping for shirts, we see him reading comic books on the train, we see him passed out fully clothed (now that’s comfort: falling asleep in front of a photographer? Can you imagine any other young rising star allowing that? That’s a testament to Wertheimer’s personality as well), we see him trying to dance with his embarrassed high school sweetheart, riding his motorcycle, horsing around in the pool with his cousins, we see him at home with his parents, kissing his mother while holding a freshly ironed pair of underwear that she just handed him (intimacy!! embarrassing! But – and this is key – Elvis is not embarrassed).
In some respects, the photos are haunting. Because it seems like that Elvis “disappeared”. He was so young, so fresh, so available. Except for his songs, his movies, and his live performances, we really got so little of Elvis, all told. There are no 10-page interviews with him in Rolling Stone. He didn’t do the talk show circuit in the 70s. He never sat down with reporters. So Wertheimer’s shots stand alone. It shows Elvis on the cusp of all of that.
Peter Guralnick, in his introduction to his second volume of Elvis’ biography, says that the years from 1958 until 1977 were all about “the disappearance” of Elvis Presley, a sentiment I disagree with entirely. He did not disappear. He was always there. It’s just we didn’t get to see him anymore, unless we went to the movies, or, in the 70s, saw him in concert. But that Elvis kept doing his thing, for God’s sake, he was living his life privately, riding his motorcycle, brushing his teeth, falling asleep, horsing around in the pool … he was always doing that. I know Guralnick means “disappeared” on another level, but I disagree with THAT level as well. How you can say that someone who put out the two gospel albums he did in the 60s, albums that still shock and awe the audience decades later, albums that are STILL going platinum many times over as we speak, disappeared is a mystery to me. How you can feel he disappeared when you consider his record-breaking appearances in Vegas (year after year after year), his record-breaking sell-out shows at Madison Square Garden, the albums from the 70s, especially Promised Land which is a phenomenal album … the continued innovation in his music, the continued personal aspect of it … Disappeared, Guralnick? Forgive me, I love your books, but what the hell are you talking about? Yes, he was no longer the jiggling sexpot on the Milton Berle Show, but he was 21 when he made that appearance. A 33-year-old man is not the same as a 21-year-old man. Why would he stay the same? If Elvis’ music had stayed the same, he would have become a novelty nostalgia act in a matter of 4 or 5 years, which is what happened to many of his strictly rock ‘n roll peers. That attitude towards artists drives me crazy. It doesn’t take into account how an artist develops. “How dare Elvis devote his later years to ballads when I personally don’t like them?”
The nerve of that Elvis guy to follow his own path.
However, in terms of access, it is true that Elvis Presley disappeared in the later months of 1956, and never really reappeared again, except for the press conferences which were stage-managed within an inch of their lives. There’s a reason why Elvis fans always go back to 1956, squinting at the pictures, re-reading the interviews, because there Elvis appears: unvarnished. He’s not slick yet. Well, he was never slick, although watching him handle the press conferences in the early 70s shows a master manipulator (in the best sense). But in 1956, there is a purity to him. He’s 21, which means he’s certainly classified as an adult, and Elvis was certainly living an adult life, filled with obligations and responsibility. He was a brand-new home owner. He had an entourage. He had serious girlfriends, and he was having sex with girls who were not his girlfriends. (He may have been an innovator, musically, but he was straight-up a 1950s kind of guy.) He was booked for months in advance. He had to show up, be on top of his game, be polite to everyone, and be professional. He did all of those things. But he also was a playful kid, and you can see it in Wertheimer’s pictures.
Laughing so hard tears are in his eyes, messing around with a giant panda on the train, and devouring comic books in spare moments. In 1960, upon his return to Hollywood, he started dating a teenage girl who was the daughter of someone at RCA. She was in high school. He’d have her over to his house. They would drink milk shakes, listen to music, make out, and then he would have someone drive her home. This went on for a year. He never forced himself on her. It didn’t even seem to occur to him. She said, years later, “He was a very young 25. He loved to play hide-and-seek.” #1, this cracks me up. #2, I totally want to play hide-and-seek with Elvis Presley, and #3, it’s totally bizarre and yet also understandable. Being treated like a young Valentino actually was stressful for him (what if he didn’t measure up?), so hanging out with girls who didn’t put those demands on him relaxed him. There are stories similar to this one up until almost the very end of Elvis’ life. Some beauty queen would be ushered into his suite in Vegas, only to find a lonely man who wanted to watch Dr. Strangelove with her and say the Lord’s Prayer and talk about deep issues and his dead twin. So I can see it, and you can see it in those Wertheimer photos. Strapping blossoming man, yet with the sensiibility of a 15-year-old boy. It makes him fascinating to watch, he is essentially unprotected, like a child, and Wertheimer is so good that he captured all of it.
So on June 30, 1956, in between the rehearsal in New York for the Steve Allen Show and the actual filming of the Steve Allen Show (where Elvis would be forced to don a tuxedo and sing “Hound Dog” to an actual basset hound), Elvis headed to Richmond for two shows at the Mosque Theatre. He had played there a couple of times the year before, in the big group jamborees that he often traveled with. In 1955, it was reported by a local paper that Presley was afforded “greatest ovation ever accorded a hillbilly performer here.” He had also played there early in the year of 1956, right after his first appearance on the Dorsey Brothers Stage Show (his first television appearance), and then again a month later, before returning in June. The Mosque was well traveled ground to Elvis. The Mosque Theatre is a giant yellow-brick building with Islamic decorations (hence, the name), minarets, and intricate tiling imported from Tunisia and Spain. It seated 4,600 people and had the largest proscenium arch stage on the East Coast. The Mosque Theater is still there, on Laurel Street, facing Monroe Park. It has been re-named The Landmark Theatre and is still a working theatre hosting national tours of Broadway shows (it was The Lion King when I was there).
I love it when things don’t change. So that would be Elvis’ gig. He had two shows on June 30, one at 5 and one at 8 p.m. The marquee in front listed only his name: Elvis Presley 5 pm and 8 pm, although there were many other acts on the bill, musicians, and magicians, and jugglers and who knows what else. But he was the main draw.
They had booked a room at the palatial Jefferson Hotel, even though they would not be staying overnight and would head back to New York right after the second show. But they needed a place to stash their stuff, and to get ready for the show. The Jefferson Hotel takes up an entire block, in between Franklin and Main. It is only a couple of blocks from the Jefferson to the Mosque.
Elvis got off the train at Broad Street Station, and got into a cab with his cousin, who was carrying Elvis’ show-suits in dry cleaning bags. Wertheimer took a separate cab and beat Elvis to the Jefferson Hotel, capturing him exiting the cab at the crub.
Elvis and his cousin went to have breakfast in the hotel dining room. Wertheimer skulked on the outskirts, capturing Elvis charming the waitress to such a degree that by the end of the meal, he had his arm around her as she stood next to the table. Elvis was a picky eater. He ate his mother’s food. He liked eggs cooked so hard they would bounce on the floor. He liked his bacon black. He had to give careful (always polite) instructions to waitstaff whenever he ate out. The breakfast came out, and it was just how Elvis liked it.
After breakfast, Elvis and his cousin went into the little lunch counter in the corner of the lobby and browsed through comic books and movie magazines. Dead serious.
Then they went upstairs to their room on the fourth floor. They freshened up. Wertheimer left them alone and went over to the Mosque Theatre, scoping out the backstage area in order to be prepared for what was to come. Looking for good shots, good angles. He then returned to the Jefferson Hotel, entering on the Main Street entrance, as before. To the right of the entrance, was a little luncheonette, and Elvis was sitting at the counter with a girl. Wertheimer had no idea who she was. It was around 3 or 4 in the afternoon, and this girl was dressed up for a night on the town. Strappy black dress, plastic heels, and a purse encrusted with fake pearls. She and Elvis were sitting at the counter, as though they had known each other all their lives.
For decades, this woman was known as Elvis’ “date for the day”, or “the mystery girl”, or, most often, “the Kiss” because she is the girl in the famous photo that is now my banner, touching tongues with Elvis in the stairwell backstage at the Mosque Theatre later that day. For decades, no one knew who she was (except her, of course). Wertheimer never got her name. Over the years, women have come forward claiming that they were that girl, but their claims were always disproven. For one thing, if you notice in the photo in my banner, it appears that she is Elvis’ same height or thereabouts. So the girls who came forward always said they were 5’10”, 5’11”. Elvis was six feet tall. Wertheimer, however, knew that the girl had been standing on the stairs above Elvis, which made her reach his height, when in actuality she was only 4’11”. A tiny little thing. So any tall gal who came forward would be shot down by Wertheimer. “No, that couldn’t have been you.” The woman would say, “But I kissed Elvis!” And Wertheimer said he responded, “I have no doubt that you did, but not on that day.”
In 2011, the mystery was revealed. You can read all about it here. The woman was Barbara Gray, known as “Bobbi”, who was also a friend of Pat Boone’s and had dated other people in show business. Turns out, when Elvis had played in Charleston, SC two days before, Bobbi, a little bit drunk, had called Elvis’ hotel room on a dare. They had never met. They talked for about half an hour, and made plans to meet in Richmond a couple days later. During the month of June, Elvis had run into June Juanico (a girl he had taken out a couple of times the year before); she would become an important girlfriend in the later summer of 1956 and for the rest of the year into 1957. During the month of June, Elvis and June were inseparable, and even flew to Houston to buy his Cadillac Eldorado (which was ivory, but he eventually had it painted purple – more on that car here). June was only in Memphis for a couple of weeks (she was from Biloxi), and Elvis promised that when he had some time off in July he would come find her. He did. But in the interim, Elvis continued with his plans to meet up with girl who had called him in his room in Charleston. He had no idea what she looked like. He sent his cousin to Charleston to pick her up, in that newly-bought ivory Cadillac Eldorado, and transported her back to Richmond, where she was supposed to be staying with her Aunt for the night. But the whole point of the trip was to meet up with Elvis. Elvis had told his cousin to bring her to the Jefferson to meet up with them there.
The photos taken of Elvis and his “mystery date”, because she hung out with them the whole day, are fascinating, hysterical, and illuminating. The two sit at the lunch counter. Elvis’ transistor radio sits in front of him. He eats some chilli. He drinks some water. He goes over his script for the Steve Allen Show, and she looks on. She looks like a pretty cool character. Not gaga, not an innocent young thing. She looks laid back and self-possessed, in her attention-getting cocktail-hour outfit.
You can really see, from all the different angles, how Wertheimer was probably climbing over the damn counter and crouching down behind it. They are incredible shots. A couple of times, Elvis starts hugging the mystery girl, and, to loosen her up, would lean in to her ear, as though he was going to whisper something sweet, and then shout “AHHHHHHH” at the top of his lungs.
Imagine if you were a woman-of-the-world, and you assumed that the sexy young guy would be coming on like some smooth Lothario, and this is the behavior you encountered. One of the girls he dated around this time said about him, “He was retarded.” She meant that as a compliment. Sort of.
After lunch at the counter, it was time to check out of the Jefferson Hotel and head over to the Mosque Theatre a couple blocks away. It was clear that the mystery girl was along for the ride.
They all piled into a cab, Wertheimer in the front with the driver, and Elvis, the girl, and his cousin in the back. Cousin Gene glowers out the window, as Elvis messes around with his date, pretending to strangle her. These were his courting techniques.
The Mosque Theatre, as mentioned, is enormous, with a cavernous backstage. There was a hubbub of activity, in preparation for the show. While there was a full bill, the theatre was surrounded by screaming fans who only wanted to see Elvis. Elvis and the Jordanaires holed themselves up in a bathroom and tried to rehearse but the screaming outside was so loud they couldn’t hear themselves. Amazingly, Elvis peeked his head out of the bathroom window and politely asked the screaming crowd if they could keep it down, at least for a little while, so they could rehearse. Can you imagine? And the crowd obeyed.
The band, the Jordanaires, Elvis, and the mystery girl hung out in the backstage area. As Barbara Gray told Matt Lauer when she appeared on the Today Show last year, Elvis hadn’t seemed that hot on her trail until she said that she would be traveling to Philadelphia that night to meet up with her boyfriend. Then he was all over her. Competition! Wertheimer again caught Elvis in mating-dance mode. This was how Elvis treated his date. This is middle-school stuff.
I’m sorry. This cracks me up.
Eventually, the love-birds disappeared, and Wertheimer realized it after the fact. Wait, where did they go? He started investigating, and finally came across them, holed up in a stairwell. No more middle-school stuff. Elvis was moving on for the kill. Wertheimer was first stuck photographing them directly into the light, which definitely gave some nice effects, creating a silhouette of the embracing flirting figures. But he knew he wanted to be on the other side of them, to capture the light falling directly on them. (I’m such a girl: I look at these pictures and wonder and worry about her purse which is nowhere to be seen: where is it? Did she leave it backstage somewhere?)
He wasn’t sure how to do that without disturbing them. They were so engrossed in one another. But Wertheimer was determined. He approached them, and took a couple of shots looking down on them.
Neither of them paid any attention to him at all, so he said “Excuse me”, and moved right past them down into the stairwell, where he continued to shoot (the photo in my banner was from that angle). There are a ton of pictures of the two of them kissing, resisting kissing, laughing, Elvis pretty much insistent. He. Will. Kiss. Her.
They are breathtaking photos. Intimate, creepily so, funny, charming, and truly capture a moment in time. Not only in Elvis’ life, but in a particular time in this country’s social and sexual development. All of that is in these photos. Some things are eternal, like boys wanting to kiss girls, and girls wanting to be kissed. The game we all play during that first approach, and the FUN of it all, pre-sexual revolution, pre-everyone getting all pissed off about these things. But also the tension of it all. Strict gender roles, good girl/bad girl divide (which, of course, unfortunately, is still with us), and the spectre of pregnancy hanging over any potentially sexual transaction. Elvis lived in fear of getting some girl pregnant, and therefore usually stuck with messing-around as opposed to intercourse. And, you know, only one kind of girl walked around with condoms in her purse in that day and age. All of that would explode in a matter of years, causing the “psychic jail-break” that Lester Bangs calls the 60s and that he attributes entirely to Elvis. Elvis helped rupture the society, by providing a vast endless space for his female audience to writhe in sexual heat, admitting their sexual heat, choosing who they liked, regardless of disapproval of parents/preachers/teachers/op-ed columnists. Ironically, despite the amount of women in Elvis’ life, he really wasn’t a radical, or progressive, or anything like that. The kinkiest thing you hear about Elvis is that he liked to watch two women together, which seems pretty standard to me. He liked innocent girls, but that also doesn’t seem too unusual, and actually understandable seen in the context of Elvis’ insecurity. He didn’t want to be with someone who could compare him sexually to someone else. He was a control-freak. He was jealous. He was eccentric, at the same time that he was quite conservative. A blend that was far more common in the days of pre-sexual revolution. He was old-school. Sexist. But mainly kind. You know, a mannerly 50s sexpot. There were millions like him. I wrote about the whole “girl/sex thing” here.
After the kissing backstage, apparently Elvis chased her across the stage. But then it was time to get down to work.
Wertheimer experimented with how he filmed Elvis while in action. He allowed for blur, he allowed for movement that would blur. He didn’t over-expose. And so the photos he has of Elvis caught in action on that cavernous stage at the Mosque still have an immediacy to them. You can feel his movement. He took photos from backstage (one of my favorite photos ever taken of Elvis, the one of him from the side, on his knee at the footlights), and also from the orchestra pit.
In between shows, all of the acts milled around backstage. A reporter was following Elvis around. Elvis was shy, always, and gravitated towards instruments no matter where he was. Usher him into a crowded party, and if there was a piano, he would go and sit down at it. He would rather get everyone going on a sing-along than stand around and chat. So Wertheimer captured that going on backstage. First, one of the musicians had been playing an accordion. Elvis, fascinated, picked it up and started messing around with it. Then he befriended a little girl, about 6 or 7 years old, and the two of them sat down at the drum set. Elvis was surrounded by publicity people, reporters, photographers, other musicians, and he preferred to chat with a small child, and mess around with the drums, sticking the drum sticks up his nose to make her laugh.
While awkward, Elvis knew how to survive. He could survive stressful situations. He knew how to comfort himself, he knew how to self-soothe, even if that meant he seemed antisocial or immature. He did what he needed to do. I admire that. It made him cautious, yes, which would be a trap later in life as he became more and more isolated, his path more and more inhibited – but imagine him at 21. He is about to become the biggest star in the world. He had better have some good coping skills. He does.
After the second show, Elvis and his cousins got into a cab again and boarded the train to go back to New York. According to Barbara Gray, she went on the train with them (she was, after all, headed to Philadelphia to see her boyfriend). And she and Elvis messed around in his private compartment a little bit, before parting ways. Wertheimer does not remember her on the train, but there aren’t any photos of that nighttime train ride, so maybe he fell asleep. He was on-duty again the next morning, photographing Elvis as he did the (what would soon be) notorious Steve Allen Show, and then, the next day, recording “Hound Dog” in New York before heading back to Memphis (and Wertheimer tagged along then as well).
The show in Richmond, Virginia in 1956 was a dime a dozen. Elvis did hundreds of shows just like it all around the South, the Southeast, the Southwest, and had been doing so since 1955. This was his life. Roll into town, go to a hotel for a shower and shave, go do a show, and get back on the train to the next stop. More often than not, Elvis would get impatient during the train rides and get off before the stop, and either rent a car or buy one to drive the rest of the way.
But what makes the Richmond show unique is that Wertheimer documented every second of Elvis’ stay in that fair city. We catch Elvis on the cusp, on the cusp of fame at an unprecedented level. Elvis had imagined it himself, I have no doubt. Elvis didn’t want to play honky-tonks for the rest of his life. He wanted to go up, and out, he wanted to be eternal. And he would be, and 1956 was the year when it all exploded for him. Wertheimer was there, to capture him at a time (so brief) that Elvis was still anonymous enough that he could have breakfast in a hotel dining room without being mobbed, he could still sit at a public lunch counter and be undisturbed, he could ride a train and be anonymous. That would end in literally 2 months for him, once he appeared on the Ed Sullivan Show for the first time. By the end of 1956, Elvis was world-famous.
Wertheimer’s photos are special for many reasons. Special because of the access Elvis granted, special because of Wertheimer’s gift in photography, and special because of the glimpse they give into Elvis’ private world just before the wave broke. We would never get such glimpses again.
I went to Richmond to walk around looking for all of these locations, which all still exist. I wanted to try and see if I could step back into the photos. My inspiration was twofold. First of all, this series of posts, which I fell in love with. Additionally, all of these photos (or many of them) are now an exhibit called “Elvis at 21” which is in the process of traveling about the country, and the world. “Elvis at 21” had landed in Richmond at the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts, and so it had a special import for the people of Richmond, since their city was so prominently featured in many of the most famous photos in the exhibit.
So I wanted to basically go find the train station, the Mosque Theatre, and the Jefferson Hotel and stroll around in Elvis’ footsteps. I did that. I’ll write more about it later.
And I also wanted to go to the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts and see the exhibit.
Some of the photos were 4 or 5 feet tall, and the rooms of the exhibit were cavernous. It was a stunning exhibit, and the explanatory text from Wertheimer’s book of the same name (“Elvis at 21”) gave great context for some of the things we were looking at. (Although, naturally, I knew it all anyway). It was an emotional exhibit. He’s so young. And also the images were blown up to enormous proportions, and so you really get the Mythical Aspect of some of these images. Like “The Kiss”, of course, but the others as well.
There was the famous one of Elvis on the motorcycle in his front yard, which is hard to believe it’s not posed. But it wasn’t. Elvis couldn’t get the motorcycle started, and fans had gathered all around him on the lawn at Audobon Drive, and his mother hovered, and his high school girlfriend hovered, and Elvis had been all set to make an awesome Marlon Brando exit in his motorcycle cap, but he couldn’t get the damn thing started.
Crazy famous photo, crazy mythic image. A perfect blend of private, public, unselfconsciousness and complete awareness of the impression he wants to make. A star.
And Wertheimer, basically lying on the ground beneath the motorcycle, caught it all.
Seeing this photo as big as an entire wall was really really something.