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Elvis' clash with media on view at US museum

Published:Saturday | March 13, 2010 | 12:00 AM


A spark that helped ignite Elvis Presley's fame more than 50 years ago was lit by United States (US) 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 is 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 US journalism and free speech 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 US Army, though, was a turning point. Parents could not 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 long-time manager, Colonel 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 his home, 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 per cent of his income. (Later, in the 1970s, Parker's stake rose to an unprecedented 50 per cent.)

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 travelling exhibit of Elvis photographs by Alfred Wertheimer.

Paulson, who said he has been an Elvis fan since he was a young boy, pointed out out that in the end Presley managed to prevail against all obstacles.

"There were many people who were more than willing to censor him or limit his expression," Paulson said. "So Elvis truly is a symbol of freedom in America for all the right reasons."