‘Elvis at 21’ exhibit at Fort Worth Science Museum proves interesting even for non-fans

The year 1956 was a pretty interesting one in the history of the world. The Suez Canal erupted into a crisis between Egypt and Israel. Prince Rainier of Monaco married Grace Kelly. The U.S. Supreme Court declared Alabama bus laws illegal. Fidel Castro and his band of revolutionaries began their fight to overthrow Cuban dictator Fulgencio Batista. The Italian ocean liner Andrea Doria collided with the SS Stockholm of Sweden, killing 52 people.

And a 21-year-old singer from Memphis became The King of Rock and Roll.

Elvis Presley would go on to sell more than a billion records over the next 21 years before his death, more than anyone in record industry history. In America alone, Elvis had 150 albums and singles that were certified gold, platinum or multiplatinum. Of those, 114 songs were in the top 40, 40 were in the top 10, and 18 went all the way to No. 1.

But 1956 was the year the hysteria began.

To celebrate that, the Fort Worth Museum of Science and History is hosting a summerlong photo exhibit beginning Saturday that examines Elvis’ life during a brief period in the spring and early summer of that year, shortly after he released his first national record but before he hit the height of his popularity.

Freelance photographer Alfred Wertheimer was hired by RCA Victor to shoot promotional pictures of Elvis, and he got access to shoot on the road, backstage, in concert, in the recording studio and at the Presley home in Memphis, in the house Elvis lived in before buying Graceland.

It was the only time in Elvis’ career that a photographer was given such leeway; Tom Parker, his legendary manager, never allowed that to happen again. Just as Elvis only appeared once on TV between 1956 and 1968 — in a Welcome Home Elvis show hosted by Frank Sinatra in 1960 after Elvis served his Army hitch — the “Colonel” severely limited photographs of Elvis unless he was paid handsomely.

The exhibit consists of 56 black-and-white pictures, 40 of them large-scale, that Werheimer shot over the span of a few months, from March 17 to July 4. Elvis visited Fort Worth during this time for two concerts April 20 at what is now the Cowtown Coliseum, but Wertheimer didn’t go along on that trip.

Elvis’ first song on RCA, Heartbreak Hotel, was released in January of ’56 and immediately went to No. 1. In June, he appeared on The Milton Berle Show and caused a national sensation with his burlesque rendition of Hound Dog, a blues song first recorded by “ Big Mama” Thornton.

Elvis devised his “ dirty dancing” version after watching a group in Las Vegas, Freddie Bell and the Bellboys, perform it as comic relief in their act.

Although the two-week stint Elvis did at Las Vegas’ Frontier Hotel was a disaster in terms of audience reaction (gamblers apparently didn’t dig him the way teen girls did), the controversy his appearance on Berle’s show generated before a TV audience of 40 million catapulted him onto the front page of newspapers across America and eventually led to the unprecedented offer of $50,000 to do three Ed Sullivan shows, where the audience grew to 60 million. More than 80 percent of the TVs in the country were tuned to CBS.

Wertheimer was able to get up close to capture some touching and evocative pictures of Elvis before the spotlight on him grew to its highest intensity. One photo shows Elvis eating at a lunch counter, alone and unnoticed by the other diners.

The photos are broken into groups. The first ones were taken at New York’s Warwick Hotel and during a performance by Elvis on the Dorsey Brothers’ Stage Show, his first TV appearance. Five of the photos detail Elvis interacting with fans, entering his hotel room and lying around reading fan mail, and three photos were taken during the TV show.

The second group of photos is the most provocative, featuring Elvis kissing an anonymous young woman in a stairwell at the Jefferson Hotel in Virginia. According to Wertheimer, Elvis was always oblivious to the camera, and the four intimate portraits certainly suggest that.

The next group of photos, four in all, captures Elvis as he arrives to rehearse for his appearance on The Steve Allen Show and interacts with a prim-and-proper young fan, decked out in her Sunday-best white gloves and matching hat. Although Ed Sullivan had vowed he would never pay Elvis to appear on his show, after Allen’s show easily topped his in the ratings that night, he changed his mind.

The fourth group of photos shows Elvis on Allen’s show singing Hound Dog to a real dog and getting mobbed by fans after leaving the theater.

The next set of photos was taken the next day, when Elvis went into the recording studio to make Hound Dog and Don’t Be Cruel. He was deeply embarrassed about having to sing to a dog on Allen’s show, and he released his fury in the session, going through 31 takes of Hound Dog before he was satisfied.

Hound Dog and Don’t Be Cruel were put out as a single, the only time in music history when both the A and B sides of a record went to No. 1. Hound Dog was there for five weeks, followed by Don’t Be Cruel for six more.

Elvis then left New York City to return to Memphis by train, and the photos of the trip are remarkable. Because the train station was miles from Elvis’ home, he got them to stop in the middle of a field, disembarked and walked home alone.

The final group of pictures details Elvis at home on Audubon Drive, the house he bought for his parents with the money he made when Sun Records sold his contract to RCA in 1955. He plays his new record for his high school girlfriend, Barbara Hearn. He horses around in the half-filled “cement pond” and performs a charity concert at Russwood Park baseball stadium.

That home, by the way, is now owned by Uri Geller, the Israeli illusionist who used to wow audiences in the 1970s by bending spoons, supposedly using the power of his mind. He paid nearly $1 million for the house and plans to turn it into an Elvis museum to display his extensive memorabilia collection.

In addition to the photos, the museum exhibit features videos of Elvis on TV in 1956 and has a continuous screening of the 1972 movie Elvis on Tour. It was Elvis’ last movie before he died in 1977.

The museum also has several pieces of memorabilia from Elvis’ career on loan from Graceland.

Elvis at 21 was developed by the Smithsonian Institution Traveling Exhibition Service, the Smithsonian’s National Portrait Gallery and the Govinda Gallery. It debuted at the Grammy Museum on Jan. 8, 2010, which would have been Elvis’ 75th birthday. Fort Worth is the 13th and final stop of the national tour.