Elvis at the Harley-Davidson Museum
The streets may be covered in icy slush, but for a sounds-of-summer, engine-roaring motorcycle fix, the Harley-Davidson Museum is there for you. This month, the museum presents a special display devoted to Elvis Presley, who was himself a devotee of motorcycles from this Milwaukee manufacturer.
The Elvis display is a compact tribute to a few moments in the career of The King. Presley sprang onto the American music scene in 1956 with “Heartbreak Hotel,” his first No. 1 hit. He recorded the song in Nashville, and while crooning about being “down at the end of lonely street,” he also had his mind on riding there. Within days of recording “Heartbreak Hotel,” he bought a 1956 Harley-Davidson KH, which the youthful Presley was featured riding on that year’s May cover of The Enthusiast: a magazine for motorcyclists. The magazine described him as the “hottest singing style on wax,” and the rest of the country was certainly catching on. According to Harley-Davidson Motor Co. Archives Manager Bill Jackson, Elvis and his friend, Fleming Horne, would go on late-night rides, as during daylight hours he was beginning to attract the legendary hordes of admiring girls. This would have made for some tricky motorcycle riding, to be sure. This 1956 bike was later given to Horne and eventually purchased by the museum. It’s quite a nifty piece of machinery, but what really brings a visitor closer to piercing the Elvis mystique is the display of paperwork for this bike — sales slip, insurance papers, all signed by Elvis of course, but not “Elvis The King;” they’re signed by Elvis, the self-employed vocalist, as he described his occupation.
The photos reflect an intensity on the part of Presley, an earnestness as though weighing this make-or-break moment in his career. Fricke explains the significance of the images: “The photos were produced for a display at Graceland shown last year to celebrate the 40th anniversary of the “Comeback Special” and release of the DVD. Graceland was kind enough to ship them up to us. Frames and all are as displayed at Graceland. Because they so aptly portray the nature of the TV special, I like the candid production shots — the one with the production slate (stating “Take 6”) and the one in which Elvis is checking his makeup.”
The insertion of Elvis as a vignette in the Harley-Davidson story makes sense. Elvis and Harley have been ensconced in the imagination as iconic success stories that exemplify the independence and innovation that underlies the American cultural identity. There is an allusion to survival as well: that Elvis needed to have a “come back” at all and succeeded in spades plays to our enjoyment of the underdog story — against the odds, the hero wins big. The Harley-Davidson story shares this narrative of humble beginnings, big dreams, near collapse and the triumphant comeback that blossoms into an apotheosis of Americana.
The Elvis display remains up through Jan. 31, but is only a tiny sliver of what is on view. For the Harley aficionado, this museum is an obvious must-see. But, non-riders, total novices and even those who have trouble distinguishing a Softail from a scooter can get into the fascinating, fun experience of this museum.
The Harley-Davidson story is at the core of the many rooms and displays throughout the multi-story museum, and it’s told extraordinarily well on many levels. Wall text and labels are clear and informative, but most compelling are the museum’s extensive collection of motorcycles, accessories and artifacts from all eras, set off by the use of sound, light and multimedia elements in inventive arrangements. The origins of the company are described in words, pictures and installations: the scale of the 10-by-15-foot shop it was founded in is illustrated by a lighted floor and an early bike to give a tangible experience of the cramped quarters these big dreams were born in. Artifacts such as the handwritten minutes from the first shareholders’ meeting — all four of them, each with a last name of either Harley or Davidson — bring home the humble beginnings of a company that has been nurtured into an international family.
Even after Elvis leaves the building, there will be plenty to see and do, but right now, The King is the icing on the cake.
400 W. Canal St., Milwaukee
Adult (18-64): $16
Child (5-17): $10
Under 5: Free
Military/Students (with valid ID): $12
Senior (65+): $12
Daily, 10 a.m.-6 p.m.
Thursdays, 10 a.m.-8 p.m.