Arts & Culture News

Inside Elvis at 21, the Fort Worth History Museum's Glimpse at Young, Skinny Elvis

From the nebula stage, a potential star can become a relatively small Red Giant, or a brightly burning Supergiant. Though the life cycle of a Red Giant may be lower lit and last longer than a Supergiant, its intrigue cannot compare to the terribly powerful ending of the Supergiant, the Supernova, where the star explodes and then vanishes into the eternal abyss of a black hole.

At The Fort Worth Museum of Science and History, one of our brightest and vividly memorable superstars is examined in his nebular infancy, the short time period before his global explosion: Elvis at 21, a black and white photo essay of The King mere months before he took his crown.

At 26, Alfred Wertheimer was commissioned by RCA Records to shoot a few promotional photographs of Elvis Presley, a newly signed baby-faced performer from Tupelo, Mississippi. In 1956 the southern singer came into RCA with a bag full of gospel-styled Rock n' Roll songs, an unavoidably beautiful smile, and an enchanting persona. It was left to Wertheimer to get close to the performer and capture his essence both on and off the stage, and Alfred went above the call of duty.

What unfolds in the museum is a series photos from the months of June through July of 1956, when Elvis recorded his first album for RCA. The album would later go on to have number one hits on both the "A" and "B" sides, the first and only time that has ever happened in American music. The songs were "Hound Dog" and "Don't Be Cruel." Although he had previously recorded "Blue Suede Shoes" for another record company, it was his first album with RCA that launched Elvis into superstardom.

"Elvis at 21" treats the audience to candid pictures of The King. We've all seen photos or videos of The King on stage, but only a few of us have witnessed the softer, more private side of Elvis. The photos lining the wall depict the singer at his most vulnerable. Do not equate vulnerability with weakness or distress, because what we see in these shots are a pensive, hard working, and flirtatious 21-year-old Presley enjoying what little silence in life he has left.

The Wertheimer photos are accompanied by a looping video of Elvis on stage with his guitar, serenading the audience as they walk through the dramatically lit exhibit. Next to the photos are descriptive quotes from Wertheimer that give further insight into the singer's private life and personal passions. A few intriguing details about that private life that are revealed here:

- He admired James Dean, Marlon Brando and their rebel personas. This led him to try his hand at acting, and buy a motorcycle.

- He bought his clothes from Lansky Brothers in Memphis, a store that sold primarily to African-Americans.

- He loved his fans, and would always make time for them. In one photo, a young woman is brought dressed up in all white. He hold her hands, stokes eye contact and intimacy, before whispering something into her ear. He walks away, and the woman breaks down into sadness. What was said can only be speculated upon.

Elvis at 21 is a beautifully told story about a small window in time before a young Elvis became synonymous with celebrity -- a moment where the young and still innocent Elvis could hop off a public bus in the balmy Memphis afternoon without fanfare, where the child King could sit shirtless in his living room and still get his record critiqued by elder family members.

We witness a star in control of his fame and his career as he navigates alone through the streets, stairwells, restaurants and hotels of New York City, and Memphis, Tennessee. Although there are photographs of Elvis performing, the real draw to the exhibit is the display of The King in his private chambers.

Elvis at 21 only takes around 45 minutes to complete, but for those that want more, a documentary called "Beyond 21" plays on a loop at the end. The exhibit is on display until September 2, and ticket information can be found by calling the museum at 817-255-9300, or visiting their website at

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Matthew Lawson
Contact: Matthew Lawson