**Reprinted from the San Antonio Express News
By: Magin McKenna
Special to the Express-News
FERRIDAY, La. — An Abba CD croons "Dancing Queen" as Frankie Jean Lewis Terrell reclines dreamily on a plastic chair inside the convenience store she owns in Ferriday, La. She ignores the stale smell of beer and gestures frantically behind her, to the Lewis Family Museum.
"What do you do with a white elephant?" Terrell wants to know. A lopsided grin spreads across her face. "You put it on display and have a freak show."
Terrell knows her fair share about freak shows. She's the caretaker of the Lewis Family Museum, a maverick stepchild to the official Southern shrine of Graceland — something certain to irk its namesake Jerry Lee Lewis, who outlived, but never outsold, Elvis Presley.
With her crooked smile, pale eyes and wild hair, Terrell looks disarmingly similar to her famously rough brother, '50s rocker Lewis. She closes her mouth and narrows her eyes into hyphen-sized slits. "The Lewis Family Museum is the biggest freak show there is," Terrell, 66, preaches.
In Ferriday, a Concordia Parish town of about 4,000 some 13 miles west of the Mississippi River, few people would disagree with Terrell's pronouncement that the museum is a temple to the weird. In its unapologetic display of one famous family's demons, the Lewis Family Museum transforms the painful into the hilariously familiar.
Jerry Lee Lewis, who lives behind graffiti-covered walls on a ranch in Nesbit, Miss., turned 70 in September. In 2005 he won a Grammy for lifetime achievement. His star has waned, but the music hasn't died. Lewis' next CD, "The Pilgrim," slated for release later this year, likely will be his last. Twenty-two guest artists, including B.B. King, Mick Jagger, Ringo Starr and Eric Clapton, recorded with the Killer.
The Lewis Family Museum affirms his ever-so-humble beginnings. Alcohol, drugs and lawlessness set the backdrop to the story of a poor sharecropper's son, Lewis, turned child prodigy near rock 'n' roll's advent. They chronicle a crooner's rise from the violent, booze-soaked nightclubs of Natchez, Miss., to his immortalization in the bars of "Whole Lotta Shakin' Goin' On" and "Great Balls of Fire."
If sin had a soundtrack, it would sound very much like the wail of Jerry Lee Lewis' piano absorbing rage, which is why Terrell also believes people travel from all corners of the world — France, Japan, Australia — to walk across the floors of Lewis family history.
"I guess people like that are a curiosity to all of us," says Joan Svoboda, who visited from Nebraska. "How come people visiting Memphis drive by Graceland?"
Unlike Graceland, the Ferriday museum has few rules. Visitors may roam freely, from room to room. They may take photographs and touch most everything, except the pianos. One, its keys yellowed and jammed, is the first Jerry Lee Lewis ever pounded, and it stands in a bedroom, its lid covered with framed family photographs. Terrell says that ghosts of the living haunt this place, but the dead don't stick around. She keeps glass bottles of whiskey atop a black baby grand piano in the sitting room, a refusal to sugarcoat her brother's dangerous climb to stardom.
"Once you come see this house and take it all in, you're never the same once you leave," says Terrell, who speaks with the frenetic pace of a street preacher.
She confesses to curling up on her brother's bed at night, closing her eyes and pretending that time is capable of stopping and rewinding. She can listen to the past anytime she wants. She can replay it like a record.
"At night when I close my eyes, I can hear Jerry playing the piano," Terrell says. She e-mails her brother at least once a week, through her sister, musician Linda Gail Lewis.
Ferriday's other famous former residents, Linda Gail Lewis, Jimmy Lee Swaggart and Mickey Gilley, all enjoy corners of memorial in Terrell's museum, in the family home. Visitors may prowl the bedroom of Linda Gail Lewis, touch her makeup brushes (left on a nightstand) or let their fingers waltz across her dresses.
The museum pays little attention to Jerry Lee's marriage to his second cousin, Myra Gale, when she was 13. The scandal sank Lewis' career at a time when some thought he would surpass Presley in popularity. "You don't get inducted into this hall of fame," Terrell cackles. "You get indicted." The infamous marriage license of Lewis and Myra Gale hangs on a faux-wood paneled wall.
Visitors may think they've fallen through a portal to the 1950s. The oven in the kitchen holds shellacked bread baked decades ago on a Christmas morning by the now-deceased matriarch Mamie Lewis, who on Sept. 29, 1935, birthed the Killer on a four-poster bed exhibited in the home. The highchair of the man whose music helped define rock sits in the corner. His tattered baby clothes string a fine line above a bed. Their presence proclaims that even Jerry Lee Lewis had to start somewhere.
"It's strange how life goes on in other places and it just stops here," Terrell says sadly. "It's incredibly strange," she repeats.
Terrell says the home has always been a museum, but she officially started giving tours in 1960, lately adding a small admission fee because of rising costs. Her convenience store pays the taxes and utilities.
A chronic pack rat, she could wallpaper three rooms with the letters she has saved since the age of 11. She claims to have started the museum when she was 6 because she knew "Jerry Lee was special." Neighbors came from miles to hear him play the piano, and Terrell didn't want anyone to forget the music. That's why she stayed on in Ferriday, a dust-laced Louisiana delta town about 100 miles north of Baton Rouge.
"It's good to never change an address," Terrell says. "Jerry Lee can come back and see his baby shoes."
She keeps a house in Ferriday, but sleeps in the museum at night. She eats all her meals in its kitchen. Even if she tried to leave, she says she thinks the house would drag her back. The house isn't officially haunted, but Terrell believes that memories, all great and terrible, have enchanted its rooms.
After soaking up the Lewis saga — similar to a "Dallas" rerun minus the millionaires — museum visitors may sit with Terrell in her convenience store and drink something a Lewis would drink — usually whiskey, she says. Fans enter for free. Critics have to pay a dollar and only get to see one room. That's Terrell's rule.
Magin McKenna is a reporter for The News-Star in Monroe, La.