A spark that helped ignite Elvis Presley's fame more than 50 years ago was lit by the newspaper editors and critics who hated him.
They detested his voice and thought his moves were unfit for family publications, all while teenagers went wild. It's that shocking style and clash with the media that also will make Elvis the subject of a new exhibition at the Newseum, a history museum that celebrates the First Amendment in Washington.
"Newspapers in the mid-'50s viewed themselves as arbiters of social values, and they felt they should be among the ones to speak most loudly when they saw someone threatening America's mores," said Ken Paulson, the Newseum's president and former editor of USA Today. "What's interesting is that fiercely negative coverage drove Elvis' fame. ... After the national news coverage kicked in, he was the king of rock 'n' roll."
Elvis' two years of service in the U.S. Army, though, was a turning point. Parents couldn't hate him anymore, and the news media eventually came along, too.
The exhibit opening March 19 traces Elvis' rise in the 1950s — in part a study in image management by his longtime manager, Col. Tom Parker — to his meeting with President Richard Nixon at the White House in 1970.
It will include rare objects from Presley's life, some never before displayed outside of Graceland and others never before publicly displayed anywhere.
Objects in the collection include Elvis' 1957 Harley-Davidson motorcycle that was key to his rebel image, his first Grammy Award for "How Great Thou Art" in 1968, the overcoat and gold belt Elvis wore to meet Nixon at the White House, and the Bureau of Narcotics badge the president gave Presley. He had requested to be made a "federal agent-at-large" to help fight drug use.
Many documents will be displayed for the first time, including the 1955 exclusive management contract Elvis and his parents signed, giving Parker 25 percent of his income. (Later, in the 1970s, Parker's stake rose to an unprecedented 50 percent.)
"If you're a die-hard Elvis fan, you either love Colonel or you hate Colonel," said Angie Marchese, Graceland's director of archives who helped develop the exhibit. "It's like everything that Colonel did for Elvis in the 50s, would Elvis have been as big of a pop culture phenomenon without Colonel? Probably not.
"But every relationship like that draws scrutiny."
The Newseum show on view through February 2011 is among a series of exhibits this year marking what would have been Elvis' 75th birthday. In January, the Smithsonian's National Portrait Gallery opened an exhibit of Elvis artwork. In Los Angeles, the Grammy Museum has a Smithsonian traveling exhibit of Elvis photographs by Alfred Wertheimer.
Paulson, who said he has been an Elvis fan since he was a young boy, said a partnership with Graceland was a natural fit for a look at entertainment history through the eyes of the media.
"There were many people who were more than willing to censor him or limit his expression," he said. "So Elvis truly is a symbol of freedom in America for all the right reasons."
Marchese said the images and objects give people a chance to reflect on what Elvis might be doing if he were alive.
"You'd want to think he would still be involved in music somehow, not necessarily going to Vegas and performing in jumpsuits like he was in the '70s ... his career probably would have progressed from that," she said. "He probably would have had a career rebirth in Hollywood as well."
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