I grew up in East Tupelo, about a mile from the birthplace of Elvis Presley.
Even though Elvis was at his height as a performer during my youth, Tupelo didn’t make too big a deal out of Elvis in the late 1960s. In the summers, sometimes we would hear rumors that Elvis was in town to visit one of his favorite elementary school teachers and we would all jump on our bicycles and ride all over East Tupelo trying to find him, operating under the assumption that he would probably give us a Cadillac if we ever caught up with him. We had heard stories that Elvis did give out random Cadillacs on occasion. But we never tracked him down and we never got a Cadillac.
Back then, Tupelo’s main claim to fame was that it was the “First TVA City,” which didn’t exactly fill the town with gawking tourists.
It’s much different now, though. These days, you can’t shoot at a circus elephant in Tupelo without hitting some sort of building, sign, park, walking path or statue dedicated to the memory of Elvis and Tupelo’s great foresight in allowing him to be born there.
There are festivals, celebrations, picnics staged in his honor. It’s become a pretty impressive tourism attraction.
Columbus, too, can lay claim to an artist who went on to international fame — the brilliant playwright Tennessee Williams, whose home place is one of the first landmarks visitors encounter as they enter downtown Columbus from the west.
For a variety of reasons, Tennessee Williams hasn’t become the focal point of the city’s tourism strategy, even though I strongly suspect that Williams’ fame will ultimately surpass that of Elvis. I’m fairly confident that “The Glass Menagerie” and “A Streetcar Named Desire” will resonate with future generations far longer than “Heartbreak Hotel.”
That Williams hasn’t gotten “The Elvis Treatment” in Columbus is no fault of Brenda Caradine, who for the past 12 years has served as chairperson for the Tennessee Williams Tribute and Tour of Victorian Homes. This year’s event will be held Sept. 3-8.
For Caradine, the event is a year-round endeavor, and while there are a lot of people who have jumped on the Tennessee Williams bandwagon, she is in the driver’s seat, a relentless, tireless, crusader who is determined to make sure Williams gets the attention he deserves and that the city embraces its most famous progeny.
In that endeavor, she is never satisfied.
Still seething from the Columbus-Lowndes Convention and Visitors Bureau’s decision to cut funding for the Tennessee Williams Tribute from $15,000 to $8,000, Caradine and the Tribute’s board of directors are making a big push for private donations, which are tax deductible. To make up from the $7,000 drop in CVB funding, new board member Keith Gaskin, a veteran grant-writer, and the board have been able to secure grants from the Mississippi Arts Council ($3,800) and the Mississippi Humanities Council ($3,000). Those grants have helped make up some ground, but there is much work to be done if the Tribute is to collect the $30,000 it budgets for each year’s event.
Anyone who would like to contribute, should contact the Columbus Arts Council at 662-328-2787 or call Caradine at 662-328-5413 or 662-328-0222.
Since its inception in 2011, the annual tribute has drawn national attention, gaining mentions in such publications as the New York Times. For Williams biographers, Columbus has become a regular stop. Writers and documentarians are drawn to the place where the story of Tennessee Williams began. Caradine says that exposure for Columbus is priceless and is perplexed that the role of Columbus in Williams’ story seems to create more attention in other parts of the world than it does here. She mourns what she perceives as a lack of support from the city in funding the Tribute.
Of course, “A prophet is not without honor except in his own town, among his relatives and in his own home.”
That doesn’t keep Caradine from working, pushing, pleading and planning, however.
It’s what she does.
Tennessee Williams has a multitude of admirers.
But he has only one Brenda Caradine.
Slim Smith is a columnist and feature writer for The Dispatch. His email address is email@example.com.