A photography legend, a pleading Elvis – and the teenage life they changed

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A photography legend, a pleading Elvis – and the teenage life they changed

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A photography legend, a pleading Elvis – and the teenage life they changed
Sean Kirst Feb 27, 2020 Updated Dec 17, 2020


The framed image hangs near the door of Montez Thalman’s apartment in a retirement community in Arizona. It still causes people to stop in admiration, a kind of magic that after more than 60 years has yet to lose its power.

Neighbors routinely pause to study a photograph that shows Thalman, as she is today, holding a black-and-white photo. It portrays Elvis Presley on his knees on stage at the old Buffalo Memorial Auditorium, all of his formidable energy directed at a 15-year-old whose arms stretch out toward him as he sings "Hound Dog."

The teenager is Thalman, now 77. Often, visitors ask her to share the story. In that way, she said the photo not only changed her life in the days after it was snapped, but continues to have a similar impact today.

“What it has brought to me are friendships,” Thalman said, “which at this point are still the most important things.”

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I called her after learning of the death Saturday at 89 of Robert L. Smith, a legendary photographer who spent decades with The Buffalo Evening News. He was also team photographer for the Buffalo Bills, earning renown through such images as Mike Stratton’s “hit heard ’round the world,” the devastating tackle of Keith Lincoln that helped the Bills defeat the San Diego Chargers for the 1964 championship of the old American Football League.

Yet the measure of a great daily news photographer, then and now, is also immortalizing instants of unexpected communion that spotlight or even transform everyday lives.

Certainly, that is what Smith did for this 15-year-old from Jamestown, whose name at the time was Montez Billquist.

She was a child without much self-confidence. Her mother and father had divorced, and she was being raised by a single mom in a stiff, judgmental era. Her situation, she said, caused a whiff of irrational suspicion, even contempt, from many adults. That reaction seeped into the way she saw herself: Thalman hardly believed she had larger meaning in the world.

The pivot arrived through her closest teenage friend, Ann Meurer, who asked Thalman if she wanted to see Elvis Presley – then at the peak of his snarling 1950s popularity – when he played the Aud on April 1, 1957. Meurer’s father had surprised Ann and her younger sister Pat with concert tickets, and each of them was allowed to bring a friend.

Meurer chose Thalman, who made a fast suggestion after Meurer's dad dropped them off at the show. They prided themselves on being experts at "sneaking in" to events, and Thalman had faith they could get closer than their $1.75 tickets allowed. In a far more innocent world, the two girls made their way to a ramp behind the stage. Incredibly, no one stopped them as they walked in.

They emerged in a mass of people near the dressing rooms, then watched in awe as Elvis burst through the door and headed toward the crowded hall. They followed him into an arena overwhelmed by thousands of screaming kids, and once inside the girls pressed up against the stage.

They were surrounded by photographers, police officers and stage hands. Even now, it is a story few people would believe if not for the work of one guy: Robert L. Smith.

He was 27, a young photographer who once told Mark Sommer of The Buffalo News that he was invited to the concert by a detective whose nieces were among the winners of a chance to meet Elvis.

For Smith, the lasting triumph of the night was capturing a photo known - at least in silhouette - to millions of Americans. As Sommer wrote, that shot “became the most iconic photograph of the young Elvis, reproduced on everything from posters and coffee mugs to Graceland shopping bags and Visa cards. The photo features Elvis singing, with a Gibson guitar under his right arm, left arm raised, toes bent and legs apart.”

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Smith also snapped a photo of a teenage girl with short hair, stretching forward from the crowd with a scrap of paper. She became the focus of a moment that countless teens in America only wished they could achieve.

Elvis noticed Thalman at the front of the stage. He dropped to his knees, reached out and sang only for her.

Smith was there to capture that instant. Thalman said Elvis took her hand and tried to pull her toward the stage, but a police officer knocked her arm away. What she remembers is how the screaming reached a crescendo as Elvis leaned toward her and she looked straight at his eyes, a memory that has never faded out.

Still, it was one of those stories that might have easily been laughed off once she returned to Jamestown. Sure, a kid with no money and no clout just crept into the most coveted spot in the vast hall? And she stood by the stage while almost everyone else stayed in the seats? And Elvis dropped to his knees and sang to her?

All of this, no less, on April Fool’s Day?

The following afternoon offered proof of her tale, available to anyone who turned to page 40 of the first edition of The Buffalo Evening News.

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There it was, the Smith photograph of an anguished Elvis, pleading, his full attention on Thalman.

"It's all in the image," Thalman says now.

The moment was described in detail by then-Buffalo Evening News staff writer Sylvan Fox, who covered the concert. Elvis, he wrote, “moved violently about the stage, clasped the hand of excited Montez Billquist, 15, of Jamestown, threw himself to his knees in an impassioned gesture, ended the song and dashed from the stage. He ran full stride down the ramp, into a waiting auto and was gone.”

For Thalman, the ripples never really stopped. People made such a fuss – wanting to touch the hand Elvis held – that her teenage boyfriend broke up with her, feeling he could not compete with a legend.

“Everyone knew the story,” she said. As for the photo itself, she wrote to The Buffalo Evening News, requesting a copy, and her letter was forwarded to Smith. He sent the kid a print, undoubtedly an act of generous kindness from a guy who understood this teenage girl could not afford to pay a fee.

Thalman went on to lead a life with its share of struggles. Her first marriage broke up in California and she raised three children alone, scrambling through many different jobs to feed her kids. She eventually married the Rev. Norman Thalman, a Lutheran minister who died a decade ago. Her last job was operating a small convenience store in California.

As for Robert L. Smith, she tried to call him a few years ago and offer thanks, but she could not get through. She wanted to tell him about the way his photo elevated the way she saw herself, how it made her feel as if she mattered.

“Such a simple thing,” she said, “but I’m sure he knew the impact.”

Over the years, Smith took many images of famous politicians, entertainers and athletes who passed through Buffalo, but the enduring power of what a photo could do in those postwar years – long before Facebook or Instagram offered a vast platform for sharing vivid photographic moments – is defined by the lasting gratitude of the kid from Jamestown.

Thanks to Smith, even now, she is always close to Elvis.

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Sean Kirst is a columnist with The Buffalo News.


Source
https://buffalonews.com/news/local/a-photography-legend-a-pleading-elvis-and-the-teenage-life-they-changed/article_e2007c9b-f366-52eb-9b88-5c93795b2bcd.html

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