The Elvis Hallway

Elvis walking out of the Richmond Train Station, June 30, 1956. Photographer: Alfred Wertheimer

In Elvis at 21: New York to Memphis, photographer Alfred Wertheimer recounts his time spent with Elvis Presley over the course of a couple of weeks. He had been assigned to go follow the young rising rock star around. He had no idea who Elvis was, and was not in any way a fan. But the photos that Wertheimer ended up taking are some of the most famous photographs of Elvis in existence (the banner on my site being only one example). Access such as Wertheimer was given would be unheard of in a matter of months. These are the most intimate personal revealing photos of Elvis ever taken. (You can see many of them here.)

Wertheimer immediately realized that his “subject” was open to the camera in a way that was vulnerable and captivating. Elvis let Wertheimer follow him around. They first met in March of 1956, when Elvis was in New York, appearing on the Dorsey Brothers’ Stage Show. He stayed at the Warwick Hotel. Wertheimer followed Elvis around. Elvis went clothes shopping (what a surprise). He ate at a diner and flirted up the waitress to such a degree that there are photos of Elvis with his arm around her, as she stands by the table taking his order. Elvis is not protected. He sees no reason to put on a pose for the camera. He seemed to take it in stride. He fell asleep in Wertheimer’s presence, for example. He let Wertheimer take pictures of him shaving, brushing his teeth. Elvis was a busy boy in the spring of 1956. He traveled by train (because his mother requested him not to fly, and Elvis also had a very scary experience on a flight when the plane ran out of fuel and had to make an emergency landing, which pretty much frightened him of flying for all time). He had just bought the house on Audobon Drive in Memphis, and his parents, grandmother, and a couple of cousins moved in. He traveled to and from New York by train. Wertheimer was with him the whole way. Elvis is aware of the camera, and yet relaxed and comfortable. He presents himself nakedly to the camera. That was one of the things that Wertheimer thought was so extraordinary about him, and why Elvis made such a good subject. One of the best.

On June 29th, 1956, Elvis traveled to New York for a rehearsal for the Steve Allen Show (which would eventually become notorious, because Steve Allen put Elvis in a tuxedo and made him sing “Houng Dog” to an actual hound dog. Elvis said later, years later, that it was the worst moment of his career.) Rehearsal over, Elvis got back on the train (he was with his cousin) and traveled down to Richmond, Virginia, where he was playing a show at the Mosque Theatre.

The day after the show, he’d get back on the train, go back up to New York, to appear on the Steve Allen Show.

Elvis was in Richmond for 24 hours. He got off at the train station. He checked into his hotel. Suddenly, a girl is hanging out with him. Where did she come from? Had he called ahead to set up a date with her, or …. Wertheimer never got her name. She is just “the girl”. The girl who hung out with Elvis all day. Well, now we know the story, and now we know who that mystery girl (the one in the banner) is. So. She hung out with Elvis for the day. They ate lunch. They went to the Mosque Theatre. The two of them flirted and kissed in the stairwell. Elvis did his show. Signed autographs. Then headed back to New York. Trip over.

Wertheimer documented it all.

The Wertheimer photographs have been traveling the world in an exhibit called “Elvis at 21: Photographs by Alfred Wertheimer”. The exhibit is now in Richmond, at the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts. Elvis toured many cities. He was nonstop on-the-go from late 1954 until 1957. He played every little and big town in the South, Southwest, Southeast, and even up north. But nowhere, in no other town, is there as MUCH documentation as this one random show in Richmond in 1956. And apparently, Barbara Gray, the woman in the banner photo, was there as a special guest when the exhibit opened in Richmond. So it’s all come full circle.

The Richmond photos coming home to Richmond.

I want to point you in the direction of a fascinating series of blog-posts called “In Search of Elvis in Richmond”. The launching-off point is the photo at the top of this post: Elvis leaving the train station. You can see that there is already a natural wiggle to his walk, just in that sauntering photo. And he is carrying a little radio in his hand, which was playing music. An early version of a boom-box.

But that photo posed some questions and this writer set out to try to answer them. Great investigative stuff here. Lots of fun.

Part 1

Part 2

Part 3

Part 4

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7 Responses to The Elvis Hallway

  1. Kent says:

    What fun storytelling! It says so much about time.

  2. sheila says:

    The overlay of the two pictures!

    It’s one of my favorite things here in New York – which is so quick to tear down vestiges of its old self – I love to find remnants of that old New York – signage, barber shop poles, ghost signs on the sides of buildings … You really can see the old New York, but you really have to look for it.

    Excellent detective work on the part of this writer. I too love the sense of Time here.

  3. sheila says:

    And Kent – one of my impressions about Los Angeles, one of the reasons I find it so charming (charming?? Yes! Charming!) is how the signage often feels like it came from the 40s, or 50s – the tall signs on tops of hotels, soaring into the air – the old-fashioned lettering …

    We just flat out do not see stuff like that in NYC anymore.

    Thank God, the Paramount sign is still there!

  4. Nondisposable Johnny says:

    Man, Elvis has had more than a few “biographers” who didn’t take near as much care or show half as much imagination…The juxtaposition photo raised the hair on my neck (can only imagine what it did for the author!)

    Incidentally Sheila, in case you missed my reply to another post the Hayride book is:

    Louisiana Hayride Years (an as told to Bill Sloan by Horace Logan)…I hope to get around to it in the next month or two. I’ll give you a book report if I do.

  5. sheila says:

    NJ – yes, I saw it and responded! I love Anna K although found the whole section on farming in Odessa REALLY difficult to get through. I wanted to get back to St. Petersburg – but what a great book.

  6. Nondisposable Johnny says:

    Ah well, I know there will always be sticky wickets in Tolstoy but I don’t mind sticking it out…I know it will be worth it!

  7. sheila says:

    Definitely worth it! As I struggled thru that section, I remember thinking to myself, “This better be worth it, Leo!!!!” And it was.

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