I’ll bet not many ElvisBlog readers have heard of John Berkey. He was a successful artist who died a few weeks ago, and he had a connection to Elvis. Berkey painted the older Elvis picture that lost in the voting for the famous Elvis stamp.
There was no mention of his passing on Elvis.com or ElvisNews.com, my main sources for Elvis news. However, it was mentioned on Star Wars.com, for several reasons. George Lucas commissioned John Berkey to work on pre-production designs during the planning stages for the Star Wars movie. Berkey also painted the cover of the 1976 novelization of the movie, and he painted a poster depicting a dogfight over the Death Star. The poster became a bonus insert in the original Star Wars soundtrack LP.
I wouldn’t have known about John Berkey’s passing if not for one of my blogger buddies, Tygrrius, who hosts www.thefilmfrontier.com. Ty is a science fiction movie fan and also an Elvis fan. He and I did a little e-mailing back-and-forth about the news, and Ty mentioned that he voted for the older Elvis picture in the stamp competition sixteen years ago. I voted for the younger Elvis, so we had a lively discussion.
In case there are some readers who are too young to remember the voting for the Elvis stamp, here is some history. It took years of public campaigning before the US Postal Service decided Elvis was a proper choice for a commemorative stamp. Members of Congress even debated the worthiness of Elvis as a stamp subject.
But, once the Postal Service embraced the idea, they decided to go big time with it. The poster below announced there would be an election to decide which Elvis picture the public wanted to be on the stamp. The poster was prominently placed in every post office in the country, as well as in the April 13, 1992, issue of People magazine. The Postal Service showed surprising cleverness with the line “Decide Which Elvis is King.”
In order to vote, you had to go to the post office and get an official postcard-sized ballot. The postal employees were not overly accommodating to Elvis fans trying to accumulate quantities of these as collectibles, but I was still able to get ten. I mailed in seven and kept the other three with my stash of Elvis goodies. You couldn’t fill the ballot out right there at the post office and give it back. Oh no, you had to mail it in, requiring you to buy a stamp for each one. Somebody at the Postal Service probably got a bonus for coming up with that profitable idea. A total of 1.2 million ballots were mailed in, so you can do the math.
The two choices were marked “A” and “B” but everyone called them “Young Elvis” and “Old Elvis.” “Young Elvis” was painted by Mark Stutzman, who depicted Elvis as he looked in a still shot from the 1956 movie Love Me Tender. Stutzman’s images of Elvis and three other early rockers were used in the set of Legends of American Music stamps a year later. “Old Elvis” was painted by John Berkey, who drew Elvis very similar to a shot from the Aloha From Hawaii TV special. Over the years, a total of 16 Berkey drawings appeared on U.S. stamps.
Elvis was only 38 in the Aloha shot, so “Old Elvis” was not really fair. However, some folks were even meaner and called it the “Fat Elvis.” That was totally outrageous, because Elvis trained and dieted for months before that show, and he was in terrific shape.
I voted for “Young Elvis” without the slightest hesitation in making my decision. I was 14 in 1956 when Elvis burst on the scene and changed everything. He made a huge impression on me that year, so, in my mind, the “Young Elvis” just had to be on the stamp. Fortunately, “Young Elvis” won over three-quarters of the vote. I would have been crushed if it had been any other way.
As I said earlier, my friend Ty at The Film Frontier website told me he voted for the “Old Elvis.” Well, Ty was only 17 when the voting was conducted. He had never experienced the excitement of the young Elvis. In fact, his introduction to Elvis came as a child when his mom played her favorite Elvis music from the 1968 to 1977 period over and over.
Even as a teenager, Ty was so adamant in favoring the mature Elvis stamp picture, that he wrote this letter to his local newspaper:
“It is time to clear up a common misperception about Elvis Presley. The news media have been referring to the 70s Elvis postage stamp picture as the “porky” or the “older and wider” Elvis. People who make these comments clearly have never given the 70s stamp picture more than a passing glance, for it is obvious that the Elvis shown is no more overweight than the one pictured in the 50s version.”
Ty sent me an August 1992 AP newspaper article that showed John Berkey was also upset over criticism that began even before his design was unveiled:
“I understand what happened, the negative feelings. But I painted the King. That other guy is a prince. As a matter of fact, he weighed 160 pounds and he was 38 years old, at the time. That’s not fat and that’s not old.”
To this day, Ty still favors the mature Elvis stamp picture. He sent me a clip from a 1994 newspaper with a quote by a nine-year old girl:
“(In the 50s stamp), he’s just holding a microphone here. I like him (in the 70s stamp) because he’s singing.”
Ty also believes that if Elvis had voted, he would have wanted to be memorialized with the stamp picture showing him singing . Maybe so.
Ty and I both agree that the Postal Service was correct in selecting the two best finalists for the voting. They commissioned eight artists to develop potential designs for the Elvis stamp, and 60 were submitted. Here are some that did not make the cut.
Although my friend strongly preferred the 70s Elvis drawing, he did make a concession in a recent e-mail:
“I will concede that his biggest contribution in the historical sense obviously occurred in the 1950s. In that sense, the right stamp probably won.”
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