Town Topics — Princeton's Weekly Community Newspaper Since 1946.
Vol. LXV, No. 6
Wednesday, February 9, 2011
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Ali and Elvis, American Icons, Appearing at Michener Museum

A two-in-one exhibit featuring a pair of American icons is opening on February 19 at The James A. Michener Art Museum in Doylestown, Pa., where it will be on view through May 19. Elvis at 21: Photographs by Al Wertheimer features the work of a young photographer who spent several weeks with a very young Elvis when he was on the brink of superstardom. “Muhammad Ali: The Making of an Icon” includes more than 50 photographs of Ali’s personal life as well as some of the more famous episodes from his career by photographers such as Annie Leibovitz, Gordon Parks, and Art Shay.

Freelance photojournalist Alfred Wertheimer was hired by RCA Victor in 1956 to shoot promotional images of recently signed 21-year-old recording artist Elvis Presley. Wertheimer’s instincts were to “tag along” with the musician after the assignment, and the resulting images provide a glimpse of Elvis before he exploded onto the scene. Given unparalleled access, the photographer documented Elvis on the road, backstage, in concert, in the recording studio and at home in Memphis. “Colonel” Tom Parker, Elvis’ manager, restricted contact just a short time later.

“Henri Cartier-Bresson was known for photographing the decisive moment, that moment when everything falls into place,” said Wertheimer. “But I was more interested in the moments just before or just after the decisive moment.”

The photographer was there to capture a flirtatious encounter with a young woman backstage in Richmond, Virginia, and he was in the New York City recording studio on the day Elvis recorded “Don’t Be Cruel” and “Hound Dog.” He also joined Presley after the recording session as he traveled home to Memphis by train. One image shows Elvis as just part of the crowd surrounding a lunch vendor on a train platform during a brief stop on the 27-hour trip. The anonymity the King enjoyed during this stop was short-lived; the trip followed a busy few months when Elvis appeared on the television shows Stage Show, The Milton Berle Show, and The Steve Allen Show. The photographs of a concert in Russwood Park on his return to Memphis show a young man who now had to have a police escort to get through the crowd of fans between his car and the stadium.

“Elvis at 21” is accompanied by an illustrated catalog, titled Elvis 1956, available in the Museum shop. Meet the Artist: Al Wertheimer, March 1, 1 to 2:30 p.m, Ann and Herman Silverman Pavilion, $20 ($10 members). The exhibit was developed collaboratively by the Smithsonian Institution Traveling Exhibition Service, the Smithsonian’s National Portrait Gallery and the Govinda Gallery. “Elvis at 21” will travel to museums around the country through 2013.

“Muhammad Ali: The Making of an Icon” chronicles the life and times of the man who entered the American consciousness as Cassius Clay. His boxing career began in 1954 after his bicycle was stolen in his hometown, Louisville. He wanted to learn the sport in order to beat up the culprit when he found him. Although he never figured out who took the bike, 10 years later he would be the heavyweight champion of the world.

“From his early years as a fast-talking young boxer, to his courageous stance at the forefront of the anti-Vietnam War movement, to his most recent role as a respected spokesman for Parkinson’s disease, Muhammad Ali’s charismatic and often outrageous personality makes a profound impression on everyone he meets,” says curator Hava Gurevich, who will give a lecture on the exhibit, February 22 from 1 to 2 p.m, $20 ($10 members). Organized by art2art, “The Making of an Icon” illustrates the enormous changes that Ali went through—from a patriotic Olympic champion to a draft-resisting member of the Nation of Islam to a figure of racial reconciliation—as well as showing that Ali’s gregarious personality remained intact even as a super-charged political atmosphere swirled around him.

The James A. Michener Art Museum is located at 138 South Pine St., Doylestown, Pa. For more information, visit or call (215) 340-9800.

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