THE FIRST CARICATURE of Elvis Presley appeared in July 1956 in Collier’s magazine. The drawing was by the inimitable Hirschfeld, and it was clean, simple, and effective. But it was a rather bland drawing, lacking the pizazz usually associated with his work—as if he wasn’t particularly interested in his subject. Nonetheless, Hirschfeld continued to draw Presley several times through the years.
Long known only by his last name, Hirschfeld is considered one of the most important figures in 20th-century drawing and caricature, having influenced countless artists, illustrators, and cartoonists. His caricatures are almost always drawings of pure line in black ink on the whitest of illustration board.
He was born on June 21, 1903, and on January 20, 2003, died six months shy of his 100th birthday. By that time, he had been the most famous and celebrated caricaturist in the world for several generations.
Hirschfeld himself found nothing interesting about caricatures that exaggerate and distort their subjects’ faces. In fact, he eschewed the designation of caricaturist altogether, calling himself a characterist instead.
During his eight-decade career, he gained fame by illustrating the actors, singers, and dancers of Broadway plays. His drawings normally appeared in The New York Times to herald the play’s opening. While best-known for his drawings about theater, he actually drew more for movies than for plays.
In addition to Broadway and film, Hirschfeld also drew politicians, actors, and celebrities of all stripes. He caricatured jazz musicians such as Count Basie, Duke Ellington, Ella Fitzgerald, Dizzy Gillespie, Billie Holiday, and Glenn Miller. He also drew a few rock & rollers, including the Beatles, Bob Dylan, Mick Jagger, Jerry Garcia, Bruce Springsteen. 1
Elvis in the ’50s
The first nationally published caricature of Elvis Presley appeared in the July 6, 1956, edition of Collier’s magazine. Hirschfeld’s drawing is of a fairly generic-looking Elvis: white jacket over a black shirt, head thrown back in song. 2
There are two likely inspirations for the drawing: Presley’s appearance on the Dorsey Brothers Stage Show in a light jacket and dark shirt, or the iconic photo on Presley’s first LP album, Elvis Presley. For more information, refer to “The First Published Caricature of Elvis Presley.”
Titled Blue Suede Shoes, this drawing was used for a limited edition print (300 copies) in 1999. I have placed it in 1956 as the Elvis seems to be taken from that year.
Elvis in the ’60s
This full-page ad for Frank Sinatra’s Timex-sponsored television special was published in TV Guide. Also known as “Frank Sinatra’s Welcome Home Party for Elvis Presley,” it was broadcast on May 8, 1960, from 8:30 to 9:30 PM (EST). More than 40% of the viewing audience tuned in to watch Elvis sing both sides of his first post-army single, Stuck On You and Fame And Fortune.
But first, Elvis sang a verse of the opening number, It’s Nice To Go Traveling, with other members of the cast. Presley and Sinatra did a duet in which Elvis sang Sinatra’s hit Witchcraft while Frank sang Love Me Tender, with a little harmonizing and clowning around at the end. 3
The rendition of Elvis in the drawing above resembles the Elvis-like character in the musical Bye Bye Birdie, for which Hirschfeld had already done promotional drawings (below). So, the real Elvis that would be appearing on television in May was based on the fake Elvis that had appeared at the Martin Beck Theater in a New York stage in April. 4
This drawing is of the original cast of the Broadway stage production of Bye Bye Birdie, which was based loosely on Presley’s induction into the Army in 1958. Hirschfeld’s drawing was published on April 10, 1960, in The New York Times.
The focus of Hirschfeld’s drawing is Dick van Dyke and his dancing partner Chita Rivera, even though Dick Gautier as Conrad Birdie (the Elvis-ish figure) almost dominates the image. Other cast members include Susan Watson (on the floor) and Kay Medford and Paul Lynde. 5
The drawing is of Elvis, Arthur O’Connell, Anne Helm, and kids in the Mirisch Company movie Follow That Dream. Filmed in 1961, FTD was released to theaters in April 1962. This drawing was done for the film’s distributor, United Artists, for use in advertisements.
The drawing of Elvis with an unknown sparring partner was for the Mirisch Company movie Kid Galahad. Filmed in 1961, KG was released to theaters in August 1962. This drawing was done for the film’s distributor, United Artists, for use in advertisements.
The drawing of Elvis at the top was published by The New York Times on December 1, 1968, in anticipation of the broadcast of the NBC-TV special Elvis on December 3, 1968. The other drawings were done at the same time and later used by the artist to make lithographs. 6
This 1974 drawing is titled “American Popular Singer – Great American Singers” and features Elvis from the 1968 television special Elvis (above). The other singers are (counter-clockwise) Barbra Streisand, Louis Armstrong, Ella Fitzgerald, and Billie Holiday (center).
This 1988 print is titled “There’s No Business Like Show Business.” The top row is Grace Kelly, Charles Chaplin, John Wayne, Yul Brynner, and Louis Armstrong. The middle row is Elvis, Judy Garland, James Dean, Fred Astaire, Susan Hayward, John Lennon, and Marilyn Monroe. The bottom row is Vivien Leigh and Clark Gable, Ingrid Bergman and Humphrey Bogart, Natalie Wood and Henry Fonda, and Alfred Hitchcock and Steve McQueen.
This drawing features Shirley MacLaine and Luciano Pavarotti above Anthony Quinn, Jackie Mason, and Michael Jackson. The middle row is Donald Trump, Abe Hirschfeld, and Angelica Houston, Barbra Streisand. The bottom row is Marilyn Monroe, Jackie Gleason, Elvis, Jacqueline Onassis, and Carol Channing.
The last Elvis that Hirschfeld drew was the 1968 Elvis. Apparently, the jump-suited singer of the ’70s did not attract the artist’s attention.
FEATURED IMAGE: The image at the top of this page was taken from one of the prints above. I cropped the image and fiddled with the color and then darkened the whole so that the white print of the title was more readable.
POSTSCRIPTUALLY, I have planned four volumes of caricatures of Elvis in the ’50s, and two each for the ’60s and the ’70s. There are at least two artists who have done enough high-quality caricatures of Presley to merit a volume of their own, Al Hirschfeld and Alberto “Sting” Russo. Here are links to the volumes:
• The First Published Caricature of Elvis Presley
• Elvis’ Golden Caricatures Volume 1 (Rockin’ the 50s)
• Elvis’ Golden Caricatures Volume 2 (Rollin’ the 50s)
• Elvis’ Golden Caricatures Volume 3 (Rattlin’ the 50s)
• Elvis’ Golden Caricatures Volume 4 (Shaggin’ the 50s)
• Elvis’ Golden Caricatures Volume 5 (Stuck on the 60s)
• Elvis’ Golden Caricatures Volume 6 (Wild in the 60s)
• Elvis’ Golden Caricatures Volume 7 (Elvis by Hirschfeld)
• Elvis’ Golden Caricatures Volume 8 (Love Letters from the 70s)
• Elvis’ Golden Caricatures Volume 9 (Aloha from the 70)
• Elvis’ Golden Caricatures Volume 10 (Elvis by Russo)
1 His sole contribution to rock cover art was Aerosmith’s DRAW THE LINE album in 1977.
2 There may have been caricatures of Elvis that were done prior to the Hirschfeld drawing for smaller newspapers in the South and Southwest, but none have survived.
3 The genesis of the show is interesting: Ol’ Blues Eyes had badmouthed rock & roll music earlier, and had just launched his own record imprint, Reprise Records. He needed a hit show and having Elvis guaranteed that. Of course, he had to pay Elvis the extraordinary sum of $125,000 for his appearing on the show.
4 The Martin Beck Theatre was built in 1924 by vaudeville promoter Martin Beck, who managed it until his death in 1940. In 1968, the building was sold. In 2003, it was renamed the Al Hirschfeld Theatre in honor of the artist who had chronicled live theatre for seventy-five years.
5 In 1963, a movie was made of Bye Bye, Birdie with Jesse Pearson playing Conrad Birdie (the Elvis-based character) as though he were an education-deprived hick. The movie’s brightest point was Ann-Margret, who was nominated for a Golden Globe Award for Best Actress in a Motion Picture Musical or Comedy.
6 The special is also known as “Singer Presents Elvis,” the “NBC-TV Special,” and the “’68 Comeback Special.”
The Hirschfeld Spectacular Installation was exhibited from November 14 through January 2, 2014. Henri Bendel of New York worked to create a truly unique presentation of the late illustrator’s work. This special 37″ x 28″ poster was created for the event.