Surrounded by memorabilia, former Graceland tour guide Jennifer Brady of Columbus holds a letter she’s kept, from Ohio fans who repeatedly visited the Memphis, Tenn., mansion while she served there in the early 1990s. At left are three Elvis commemorative stamps, hand-cancelled on the first day of issue. Columbus artist Elayne Goodman created the framed stylized postcard of Elvis and his parents, complete with halos. Photo by: Kelly Tippett
January 2, 2010 9:19:00 PM
"I want to entertain people. That''s my whole life. To my last breath," said Elvis Presley, who would have celebrated his 75th birthday Jan. 8 had he lived.
The King of Rock and Roll, born in Tupelo, has continued to entertain people for almost 33 years after his death on Aug. 16, 1977. With 600,000 visitors each year, Graceland, Presley''s home in Memphis, Tenn., is the second most-visited home in the United States, after the White House.
And while birthday celebrations are about to commence in Memphis, here in Columbus, former Graceland tour guide Jennifer Brady refuses to take down her Christmas decorations ... because Elvis wouldn''t approve.
"Elvis never took down any of his Christmas decorations until after his birthday," said the 37-year-old professional organizer in her historic downtown Columbus home.
Brady started working at Graceland when she attended Millsaps College in 1990 and continued to work there during Christmas and summer breaks until she graduated in 1994. She was there during the 10th anniversary of Graceland, the 15th anniversary of Elvis'' death and during the 1993 premiere of the Elvis stamp, which currently holds the title of most popular stamp of all time.
Not many college jobs include hanging out with celebrities, but at Graceland, Brady had a chance to meet the many musicians who came to visit while on musical tour. In addition to Lisa Marie and Priscilla Presley, Brady has given Graceland tours to Julia Child, Guns N'' Roses, Carrot Top, Jeff Franklin (the creator of Full House), Eddie Murphy and Geena Davis.
(Slash of Guns N'' Roses even asked Brady if he could have her Graceland nametag. Rules, however, prevented her from giving it away.)
"Almost every musician that would come on tour through Memphis would come to Graceland," she said. "And sometimes if a show didn''t sell out, the musicians would send 30 or 40 tickets to Graceland and the tour guides would get to go."
Fans and friends
While not rubbing elbows with celebrities, Brady got very close with visitors who came on her tours. She even became pen pals with some of the people who came through.
"This was before e-mail and digital cameras. You''d get to know a fan during Tribute Week, and they''d like to share pictures or newspaper articles done on their Elvis collections."
The letters, usually on Elvis stationary, asked about her school or if she missed Memphis and would be sent with photos or clippings. Brady kept all the letters, some signed "friends-in-Elvis," and still keeps up with some of the people she met during her time at Graceland via Facebook.
"Most all the fans are very serious and respectful and just very interested in the people that worked there and appreciated people that enjoy Elvis," she said. "Another reason I got to know so many of them is because some families or groups would come for a week, multiple years in a row, and tour the mansion several times while they were there."
New day and age
There aren''t tour guides at Graceland anymore; instead, you receive a pair of headphones which run pre-recorded information to tell you about the rooms as you go through. But when Brady worked there, she and the other tour guides had to memorize all of that information, and be experts on all things Elvis.
"You are now in the dining room of Graceland," said Brady from memory. "It was not uncommon to see Elvis at the table with up to 13 of his family members and friends." She laughed. "I don''t remember all of it, but I could still tell you about the three TV''s he had -- so he could be tuned into all three major networks at once, or about how he recorded almost two full albums in the Jungle Room."
When Jennifer and her husband John decided to take their two girls Hannah, 7, and Rachel, 9, to Graceland this past September, she said she would have preferred to have a tour guide take them around. "I guarantee that the relationship between fans and tour guides isn''t the same as it used to be."
And while Brady left Graceland more than a decade ago, Elvis still has a place in her heart ... and her home. She enjoys maintaining a small collection of Elvis art and memorabilia, including a custom piece done by Columbus folk artist Elayne Goodman, a 43-by-27-inch collage of buttons, pictures and other tokens Brady collected as a tour guide. It hangs in her upstairs hallway.
"I went into it just because I thought it would be a cool summer job," said Brady. "But it turned into me learning things about Elvis and the humanitarian he was and becoming more interested in him and the legacy he''s left."
Jan Swoope is the Lifestyles Editor for The Commercial Dispatch.
Jennifer Lehner commented at 1/4/2010 10:03:00 PM:
An amazing story and an amazing woman!
2. Former U.S. poet laureate to give reading Wednesday ENTERTAINMENT
3. Hot Mississippi blues will honor late Willie King ENTERTAINMENT
4. MUW festival puts spotlight on music by women ENTERTAINMENT
5. Thursday talk features Southern Gardening's Bachman ENTERTAINMENT