When the King Played Virginia

A famous rock music photo was snapped in Richmond in 1956. Here’s how it happened.

“French Kiss” is one of those indelible images that, once seen, is hard to shake. It’s so private that one feels the urge to look away, yet so intimate that you can’t stop gazing at it—the 35mm photograph showing two playful young lovers engulfed in the dark, touching tongues under diffuse light, lost in their world.

The black-and-white photo is all the more electric because of the young man who’s in it—a singer from Memphis named Elvis Presley, who at the time the picture was snapped was on the verge of conquering the world and defining an era. The young girl’s identity remains a mystery.

The picture was taken in Richmond at the Mosque Theater on June 30, 1956. It’s been compared over the years to stills from Italian neorealist cinema, and invited up as the sexier American counterpart to The Kiss—Robert Doisneau’s revered (and posed) photograph of smooching Paris lovers. Actress Diane Keaton is one of many who have maintained that “French Kiss”—its unofficial title—is the sexiest picture ever taken.

The man behind the shot, Alfred Wertheimer, humbly agreed. “I’ve been accused of being the granddaddy of rock ’n’ roll photography,” the lensman said in a 2007 interview with Virginia Living (he passed away in 2014). “But I didn’t know that’s what I was. I was a journalist. I approached these subjects no different than I would if they were politicians.”

As revealed in the gorgeous, oversized book, Elvis at 21: New York to Memphis, published in 2006, Al Wertheimer was given unprecedented access to the future “King of Rock ’n’ Roll” at a seminal time in the singer’s career—and in popular music history. Steeped in a documentary style of photo-realism, open to anything, the photographer took full advantage of the situation. Wertheimer’s archive of nearly 4,000 Elvis shots—from the erotic “French Kiss” to photos taken at home with his parents and on his motorcycle—capture a legendary performer at the peak of vitality, with his feet up, hips in motion and his tongue sticking out.

Wertheimer often wondered what he’d be doing today if he hadn’t accepted a routine freelance assignment from RCA Records 51 years ago. “Elvis has affected my life in a very massive way,” he said in a 2007 interview with Virginia Living. “For the better and also, maybe, for the worse. Because my life has been very focused on his life.” His Presley portfolio—which includes images from that memorable stop in Richmond—has graced countless books, calendars, posters and magazine covers over the years, and the images have hung in museums around the world (most recently at D.C.’s Govinda Gallery).

“The wonder of Wertheimer’s work is that virtually every shot of Presley seemed as informal as a home movie,” critic Robert Hilburn wrote in the L.A. Times, “whether the 21-year-old was reading a Betty and Veronica comic book, combing his hair in front of a mirror or French-kissing his date backstage.”

At that time, the photographer said, “The two of us needed each other. I needed a good subject, and he needed a good reporter, an image capturer.”

The media realized the importance of Wertheimer’s work when Presley passed away nearly 40 years ago. “I didn’t get a call about an Elvis Presley photograph for 19 years. The day he died, the phone rang and it was LIFE magazine. Then an agent called. And the phone hasn’t stopped ringing since.”

He owes it all to Colonel Tom Parker, Elvis’ controlling manager. “Later, anybody who wanted to get close to his boy, [Parker] would demand $10,000 from him for the shoot. But when I photographed Elvis, he didn’t have the power yet to do that. He was thankful for the publicity. The Colonel, because he was so restrictive, he made the collection more valuable than it should have been. Because, you see, nobody else got that close.”

The first time that Elvis Presley performed in Virginia, at the Norfolk Arena on May 15, 1955, they didn’t even know how to spell his name. At that time, “Elvis Pressley” was just one more performer on a packed marquee, on stage for maybe 15 minutes on the bottom half of a Country Jamboree tour. Sharing the same stage with Hank Snow, Maybelle Carter and other country music veterans, Presley was an untested newcomer with unusually long hair who recorded for the small Sun Records label.

But he had a certain something that people, especially women, were starting to notice. “A real sex boy as far as the teenage girls are concerned,” wrote the Orlando Sentinel about a Presley performance a few nights before Norfolk.

At the Mosque Theater in Richmond on May 16, Elvis attracted attention of a different kind. In the crowd were two officials from RCA Records, a major label—a promotion man named Chick Crumpacker and RCA’s regional representative, Brad McCuen. As biographer Peter Guralnick recounts in Last Train to Memphis: The Rise of Elvis Presley, the duo ran headfirst into 20-year-old Presley’s potent onstage synthesis of rhythm and blues and hillbilly music—a form of music becoming known as rock ’n’ roll.

“We were astounded by the reaction,” Crumpacker told Guralnick, “both among the Richmonders and in ourselves.” Elvis had been scoring hits on Richmond’s regional Country & Western charts since his rendering of Bill Monroe’s “Blue Moon of Kentucky” was released the year before. “Lo and behold, out comes this guy whose picture we had seen in the trade papers,” Crumpacker remembered, “and he was something else. All the mannerisms were more or less in place … I don’t remember exactly what he sang, but there were frequent belches into the mike, and the clincher came when he took his chewing gum out and tossed it into the audience. This, of course, was shocking, it was wild—but what really got the listeners was his energy and the way he sang his songs.”

At the Jefferson Hotel the next day, the reps had breakfast with the singer and his new manager, Colonel Parker. “We liked him immensely, from the start,” Crumpacker said of Presley, who was as polite and deferential offstage as he was a force of nature in the spotlight. The promotion man purchased all four of Elvis’ Sun platters to send along with highest recommendations to his boss at RCA’s Country & Western department, Steve Sholes.

A few months later, Elvis Presley—RCA recording star—would score a million-selling debut single, “Heartbreak Hotel,” and no one would ever misspell his name on a marquee again.

Interesting things seemed to happen to Elvis when he performed in Virginia, from the beginning of his career to the sad and erratic end. As the singer’s status grew from rising star to national phenom in 1955 and 1956, Virginia was a consistent and enthusiastic market for him—he appeared at the American Legion Auditorium in Roanoke, the Danville Fairgrounds, the Paramount Theater in Newport News, Norfolk’s Monticello Auditorium; he was at the WRVA Theater to take part in three performances of Richmond’s Old Dominion Barn Dance, and with the Hank Snow Jamboree at a special show for Philip Morris employees at the Mosque.

Elvis’ final Virginia appearance, until his 1970s comeback, was at Richmond’s Mosque on June 30, 1956, days before he would enter a Nashville studio to record “Hound Dog” and “Don’t Be Cruel.” Accompanying Elvis was Alfred Wertheimer. “He really felt that he was going to become famous,” the photographer said. “No one else was quite sure.”

When Wertheimer first got the assignment to shoot Presley, he was a struggling freelancer, not long out of the army and classes at Cooper Union. He shared a studio on Third Avenue in New York with several other photographers. One of them was a friend whose assignments included RCA Records and LIFE magazine. “He would drop anything he was doing [to shoot for LIFE],” Wertheimer said.

The friend introduced Wertheimer to Anne Fulchino, who was setting up a new publicity department at RCA. “I showed her my portfolio and she liked my style,” he said. “Plus, I was willing to work for what she had in her budget, which was cheap, cheap, cheap.”

On March 12, 1956, Fulchino called Wertheimer and asked him what he was doing in five days. “We’d like you to cover Elvis Presley.”

“Elvis who?” he responded.

When he first met the singer, at Studio 50 in New York during a television rehearsal, the photographer encountered “a young man with his feet up on the table, argyle socks showing, leaning back, yawning. He was talking to a ring salesman. He got a ring delivered that he had bought two weeks earlier.”

Fulchino made the introduction. “Al Wertheimer here is going to take some photographs of you, is that all right?”

“Elvis basically grunted and said, ‘Sure why not?’” Wertheimer said. “He’s concerned with his ring, not some photographer. The ring was a horseshoe with diamonds … that became his good luck ring. If you go to Graceland, they sell replicas of the same good luck horseshoe ring.” He laughed. “You too can own one for $100.”

Few words were spoken at first, so Wertheimer just started clicking. “I was basically shy in those days and, frankly, I found Elvis to be shy also. Except when he was onstage, where he was explosive. But behind the scenes he was a quiet guy,” he said. “Most of the time he didn’t mingle with the other entertainers. But whenever he could, he would wander outside, past the stage show, where they’d be four or five young girls waiting to meet him. He always liked to talk to young girls.”

Elvis left the studio after rehearsal, and the photographer followed the performer to his hotel. In the room, said Wertheimer, “There was a package on the couch … an envelope with fan letters inside. He sat on the couch and started opening them one at a time and started to read them.”

Elvis was completely oblivious to his camera. “He was laser-focused on what he was doing. He put his feet up on the couch … kicked his shoes off … he eventually tips over on his fan mail. He’s falling asleep on me! And I wonder, ‘What do I do now? Do I take pictures of a sleeping Elvis?’ This is not what Anne Fulchino wants. RCA wants him at the microphone.’ But it’s what I wanted.”

Later, he boldly asked Presley if he could join him in the bathroom to take pictures of him combing his hair—“that hair had to be just right”—and brushing his teeth. Elvis said, “Sure.”

Wertheimer’s fly-on-the-wall approach paid off big-time when he joined Elvis in Virginia three months later. His lens first captures Elvis listening to his ‘boom box’—an RCA transistor radio—in the Richmond train station. There’s a comical series of photos in the dining room of the Jefferson Hotel, with titles like Bacon and Eggs with French Fries, that document Elvis’ indecision about what to order and a friendly flirting session with the waitress.

Elvis—or, more likely, the Colonel—liked Richmond. This was the singer’s fifth appearance in more than a year at the Mosque, now called the Altria Theater. Referred to as “Richmond’s most bizarre building,” this ornate replica of a Muslim temple opened in October 1927, boasting a 5,000-seat auditorium adorned with Saracenic decorations and imported ornamental tile.  

When Wertheimer saw the singer before the start of the first of two shows at the Mosque, “this girl appears. The mystery girl. The everywoman. She’s there in all of her high heels. She was in the coffeehouse of the Jefferson with him, around 4:30.” He believed that the same woman had been in the lobby when Elvis checked in earlier in the day. As Wertheimer once said of the shorthaired, shapely beauty in an essay, “She wasn’t interested in a quick lettuce and tomato. She was dressed for Saturday night.”

Wertheimer began snapping away as the couple cooed at the counter. “He had a bowl of soup, which he wasn’t seriously eating, and he was showing her the script to The Steve Allen Show that he was about to appear in. She seemed rather impressed by all of that.” He remembers Elvis reassuring his companion, “‘Oh, he’s the photographer, that’s okay,’… as if to say it’s only natural to have a photographer on a date. He set the script aside and finished his [soup], and he turned his full attention to her, talking about how nice her hair was and how pretty her earrings were. He was sweet and natural.”

Soon, road manager Junior Smith signaled time to go. “We got to the backstage of the Mosque theater,” Wertheimer said, “and there were a whole bunch of girls in proper dresses—no blue jeans in the crowd. And everyone wanted to be photographed with Elvis.” He noticed Colonel Tom Parker keeping a close eye over ticket sales and opening up bundles of programs for the vendors in the lobby.

Wertheimer remembers Elvis rehearsing with his back-up singing group, the Jordanaires. “But the girls outside the Mosque were screaming so loudly that they couldn’t hear themselves sing. So Elvis went to the window and told them to tone it down. ‘We’re trying to rehearse in here.’ And it worked, they got quiet.”

When Presley had appeared at the theater three months earlier, it was as part of a multi-artist caravan. This time, he was the headline act—the star. On the support bill was a magician, a song-and-dance team, square dancers and a pair of musical comedians—all designed to fill time. “Elvis’ job was to come in the last 20 minutes of this hour-and-a-half show and close it down,” the photographer recalls. “There would be a lot of filler.”

Wertheimer stopped to take photos of the Jordanaires and briefly lost sight of the star. “Elvis disappeared on me. I’m saying, ‘Al, you aren’t here to photograph the other musicians. Where is he?’ Now I’m hunting for Elvis.

“So I’m going down the fire stairs backstage … and at the end of this long corridor, there were these two figures in silhouette. And I can just make them out. It’s Elvis and the girl.

“There is one small window behind them and then a 50-watt light bulb above their heads. That’s it—I call it available darkness. Because if you used a flash or used any kind of supplemental light, it would have killed the scene, the mood. With all of my practice of available light photography, this was going to be my moment.”

At first, the photographer’s concern was this: “If I start interfering in Elvis’ private life, he might get angry and ask me to leave, and that’s the end of my story. I didn’t want that to happen. On the other hand, I was there to do the story. And that [dalliance] was part of the story.”

Wertheimer did his “yoga breathing” and squeezed off a couple of frames. “Then I realized, ‘Al, you’re not close enough. You’ve got to get closer.’ I’m about 10 feet away at this point. So I see this railing and I decide to go Hollywood. And I climb up on the railing and I figure that Elvis is going to see me and he’s either going to object or not. But he doesn’t see anything except the girl. And by golly, he was going to get that kiss if it killed him … or her.”

Wertheimer climbed up the railing and began shooting over the girl’s shoulder and into Elvis’ face. “But, of course, photographers are never satisfied with their position. They always want a better vantage point. I see this landing on the other side of them, about two or three steps down. So I decide to become the building maintenance man—I say, ‘Excuse me sir, excuse me, coming through.’ They just don’t pay any attention to me. I come through and get settled to where I want to be.

“That’s when she says, ‘Elvis, I betcha can’t kiss me.’ And she sticks out her tongue, and I’m ready for her, snapping away. Elvis says, ‘Betcha I can.’ He’s playing her game. Then he comes in a little too hard and bends her nose. I didn’t see that until the film was developed but there’s a sequence of photographs where Elvis is leaning on this rigid figure. There’s this bent nose shot, which I love.”

Then, the moment. “He backs off, and comes in for a perfect landing, tongue to tongue.”

The touch lasted for maybe half-a-second, Wertheimer said. He remembers putting his camera away, confident he’d captured something special. “I can’t do any better than that, I thought. Leave the lovebirds alone.” He joined Elvis’ band members on the other side of the stage. “All of a sudden, I heard a chorus of voices from the audience: ‘We want Elvis, we want Elvis.’ Apparently, the crowd of girls—most of them were girls—were tired of the filler and wanted the real thing. That’s when Elvis appeared. He finally got his kiss. Now he’s ready to do the performance.”

In all of the hubbub, Wertheimer lost sight of the girl. “She definitely stayed around for the rest of the show,” he said. But then she disappeared. Years ago, a lady claiming to be “the everywoman” threatened to sue the photographer for back royalties, but her claim was quickly disproved. “There [was] a rumor that the girl worked for an Atlanta record company and came up for the day to meet Elvis,” Wertheimer said, but it was never substantiated. Even when that unforgettable kiss she shared with Elvis was popularized on posters and featured in magazines around the world, the mystery girl never surfaced to tell her story. All we have of her is captured on Wertheimer’s negative.

t that early point in his career, the 21-year-old Elvis had something to prove.  And Wertheimer, no fan of rock ’n’ roll, was amazed at what he saw on stage—and in the crowd—at the Mosque performance. “Elvis let it all hang out. He permitted the girls to see his vulnerability, and they loved that. They would clutch each other, and he brought tears of joy to their eyes. I had never seen that before. It was like a religious experience for them, and a sexual one.”

After the first show, there was an hour to kill, and a reporter came up to ask questions. Wertheimer resumed shooting. “[Elvis] was sitting at the drums and he tapped away with the drumsticks as the theater was emptied out. A young girl, maybe 8 years old, one of the musicians’ daughters, happened to be there [and] was sitting next to him.” As we see from Wertheimer’s pictures, the girl is in her fancy dress and banging away on the drums while the reporter tries to get quotes from an amused Presley. “When that was finished, he asked the little girl if she wanted to learn how to play the piano. ‘Oh, I’d like that,’ she said. So he takes her down to the orchestra pit where the piano is. And Elvis leans back on his piano stool and he starts banging away with his feet while she played chopsticks. The two of them were making music together.”

After the second show, the star disappeared in the wings. “Somebody said, ‘Elvis has left the building.’ The crowd didn’t believe them. ‘We want Elvis!’ they shouted. The musicians played another number and Elvis didn’t appear. Finally, the music stopped and they started packing up their instruments.”

Where was Elvis? “He was in a police paddy wagon, hiding.” Wertheimer soon joined him, and he and Elvis drove with sirens blaring to the Richmond train station, the photographer’s camera clicking all the way.

The Elvis Legends: Two Rhinestone-Quality Tales

The Elvis Door | April 9, 1972

Elvis’ first appearance in Virginia in 16 years was at the Hampton Coliseum. A record-breaking crowd of 21,600 attended Elvis’ two shows at the venue—he would return in 1974 and 1976. The consensus at the time: He still had it.

“He bounded on stage in a red bell-bottom suit, complete with cape and white shoes that have apparently replaced his by-now-famous white outfit worn at Vegas.’’ The Virginian-Pilot wrote, “Still possessed with a good deal of boyish mischievousness, he substituted ad lib lyrics that often set his orchestra members into gales of laughter in mid-performance.”

Elvis may have left something behind at the arena, too—a special entrance. According to legend, the King felt that the walk from his limo was too long, and he demanded that the Coliseum build him a special entrance that led from outside the venue almost directly to the dressing room so he could enter and exit the show in a flash. The “Elvis Door” has since become something of an inside show biz legend for Elvis-centric performers who play the venue; Tom Petty is but one rocker who has had his photograph taken in front of the door in homage.

Like most urban legends, there is a grain of truth to the “Elvis Door” story. But not much more than that. According to Andy Greenwell, the man who ran the Coliseum for the City of Hampton from 1975 to 1994, a special door was indeed constructed prior to one of Presley’s visits. “But they didn’t do it just for Elvis … there were different people that wanted a private entrance to the star’s dressing room.” Greenwell says that, in the early days of the Coliseum (which opened in 1969), such additions were common. “It was a modification. There were a couple others that they did, too, around the same time.”

But you can still find traces of the King there. His “Return to Sender” Fan Club sponsored a special plaque inside the hall to commemorate the concerts, listing the dates of each of the concerts he gave at the Coliseum.

At Elvis’ final appearance, for two shows in 1976, Greenwell says, Colonel Tom Parker came in advance to prepare—“but he wasn’t here the night of the show”—and that Elvis was transported to and from the gig in an unmarked police car, not a limo. “Everybody wanted to see him and meet him. They thought he was going to be in the hotel near the Coliseum. Actually, he had a big house trailer and it was put on the grounds of the Newport News airport. They just put everything he wanted right in there, and that’s where he stayed—a trailer.”

The Catfish Incident | July 20, 1975

Many music historians point to the infamous “catfish” incident at a Norfolk Scope concert as arguably the lowest point in Elvis’ career. By the mid-1970s, the King was in physical decline. In concert, he slurred his words and displayed eccentric, sometimes hostile behavior. Fans began to see the devastating effects of the aging singer’s longtime drug use.

For this tour, Elvis had a retinue of background singers in his band, including Kathy Westmoreland, who had sung with Elvis for six years, and a trio known as the Sweet Inspirations. Elvis and Westmoreland had had a long, burning romantic affair that went sour, and the King began to replace his witty stage patter with snide asides about his background singer. “She’ll take affection from anyone, anytime, anyplace,” he told one audience.

When the acional, Elvis it came to Norfolk for two shows on July 20, 1975, he had a meltdown. During one point in the evening performance, according to United Press, he informed the audience that “he smelled green peppers and onions and that his backup singers, the Sweet Inspirations, had probably been eating catfish.”

Presley biographer Peter Guralnick: “Neither Kathy nor the Sweets knew exactly what he meant by the ‘catfish’ remark; none of them thought it was racial—they just knew it was hostile, and there was an ugly undertone not just to that comment but to his whole demeanor.”

When Estelle Brown, one of the Sweet Inspirations, hung her head, Elvis lashed out at her, and the rest of the band, saying, “If you don’t look up, I’m going to kick your ass.” Brown walked offstage as Elvis reportedly “glowered” at the rest of the singers. “Sorry for any embarrassment I might have caused. But if you can’t take the heat, get off the pot,” the King thundered as a restless murmur was heard from the crowd. Eventually, Sylvia Shemwell of the Inspirations walked off, and so did Kathy Westmoreland.

In a concert review, a reporter for the Virginian-Pilot wrote, “The tension among the fans was noticeable. Reports on Elvis’ health have been rampant in the past year. Stories that he would never work again because of excessive weight gain have also been printed.’’

In Greensboro the next day, Elvis apologized to the band for his outburst. The Sweet Inspirations performed, but Westmoreland left the tour. The only explanation Elvis ever gave for the bizarre “Catfish Incident” was, “I thought it was funny.”

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Star Gazing and Laser Nights

Virginia Living Museum

Star Gazing and Laser Nights

Virginia Living Museum

Star Gazing and Laser Nights

Virginia Living Museum