Local comedic and nostalgic musician Benny Grunch wrote a song specifically about iconic local businesses that have closed down called "Ain't Dere No More" for his popular Twelve Yats of Christmas album. And even though the businesses have ceased, their remnants remain all over town. One example is offered by local flair store Fleurty Girl, in the form of a wrist ornament aptly called the "Ain't Dere No More bracelet," featuring the logos of some of those businesses. Here is what happened to some of the businesses Benny Grunch sang about in "Ain't Dere No More."
Many of the businesses in the song are former department stores that once lined Canal Street.
Beginning with the boom of the port of New Orleans in the mid-1800s, Canal Street became a mecca of shopping. Downtown stores like Krauss, McCrory's, Godchaux's, Kress, LaBiche's, Kreeger's, Maison Blanche, and D.H. Holmes were held in such high regard that they even required certain attire, as the author of the popular local history series Mary Lou Widmer describes in New Orleans in the 1940s. "The shops on Canal Street" were beautiful and their window displays were breathtaking. Trips to Canal Street still meant dressing up with hats and gloves. Local historians Peggy Scott Laborde and John Magill wrote a book in 2008 just about a little well known street called Canal Street: New Orleans' Great Wide Way. The book is introduced by Laborde as she remembers, "Lerner's was a favorite stop. Clothes at the right price and the option of lay-away. For shoes, I would visit Butler's Burt's or Baker's. With only an occasional visit to the Teen Fashions department at Maison Blanche and Kreeger's, I became mostly a Holmes customer." The street was also a place for socializing. Mary Lou Widmer reminisces, "We were walking along Canal Street at a leisurely pace, window-shopping, when hoots and catcalls attracted our attention. A group of boys were standing out in front of Kress Five-and-Dime next door to Maison Blanche whistling at us."
Especially during the winter holidays, the large display windows were a sight to see. The iconic holiday snowman Mr. Bingle, who was introduced in 1948 at Maison Blanche, was one of the most visited window shows, and crowds gathered around to see it: sometimes to the point of needing a police presence for crowd control.
Many of the department stores were bought out by larger national chains that subsequently dismantled them. Maison Blanche was absorbed by Dillard's in 1998, and Mr. Bingle went with the deal. He is still used for holiday decor and merchandise by Dillard's. The building and the neighboring former Kress store are now the home of the Ritz-Carlton Hotel. D.H. Holmes was also acquired and shuttered by Dillard's in 1989. In its former building, the Hyatt Hotel operates.
Canal Street became littered with stores aimed at tourists selling silly T-shirts, walls of hot sauce, and cameras, but is currently experiencing renewed interest and becoming a destination again. Although the businesses shuttered, their building facades remain and new businesses are operating in the spirit of hospitality with - Mary Lou Widmer, grandeur: hotels are opening and reopening, New Orleans in the 1940s the decades-old Joy Theater hosts amazing shows with its newly lit neon sign, and the Saenger draws big crowds for it's plethora of shows. Plans are in place for even more renovation and construction in the coming years. One new resident proudly displays its heritage. The Saint Hotel in the old Audubon Building on the corner of Canal and Burgundy, which once housed Polly Store, among other ladies clothing shops, has embraced the old stores and put pictures of the street on its tall walls.
Also former Canal Street tenants, the Claiborne Towers constructed in 1951 and once hailed as a marvel of contemporary architecture were recently demolished on July 22, 2012. Mary Lou Widmer describes it in New Orleans in the 1950s: "It was spacious and beautiful and, best of all, air-conditioned. That was a new thing in all our lives!" The first of the popular K&B drugstores with the identifi able purple theme color opened in 1905 and was located at 732 Canal St. The beloved chain proliferated all over the Gulf Coast region, coming to a peak of 186 stores. It was bought out by Rite Aid in 1997. The building which housed the company's corporate office in Lee Circle still bears the logo.
Before there were supermarkets, there were corner stores, butchers shops, and bakeries that served the needs of the community. That changed in the 1940s with the opening of the Schwegmann grocery store. Mary Lou Widmer in 1940s explains, "In August 1946, John G. Schwegmann founded Schwegmann Brothers Giant Super Market when they opened the 40,000 square-foot St. Claude store. It was the first grocery market in New Orleans to obtain a license to sell fresh meat." Schwegmann stores proliferated, but were bought out in 1996 by the Kohlberg & Co. investment firm, who sold some stores. Over the next years, the few remaining stores went bankrupt and were sold. The first Schwegmann building on St. Claude Avenue still stands. It is still owned by the Schwegmanns, and it is rumored that they are negotiating selling it to another local grocery chain.
McKenzie's Bakery is still revered for having the tastiest treats anywhere, even though their stores were systematically shut down, ending in 2001, due to bankruptcy. Some of their recipes and their logo were purchased by Tastee Donuts, which boasts about its McKenzie's recipes, like buttermilk drops and turtles.
The lakefront was an alternative to heading downtown for entertainment. You could visit some of the drive-in bars here, like the Rockery Inn and Lenfants, and Bali Hai nearby. Mary Lou Widmer describes them in 1950s: "Curb service was still available at Lenfant's or at Rockery Inn. Dating couples frequented the curb-service restaurants[for] a whole lot of privacy." Rockery Inn was located on the corner of Canal and Robert E. Lee Boulevard, but closed in 1969 and is now a strip mall.
The vitamin elixir Hadacol was made by Dudley LeBlanc, a state senator with no knowledge of medicine, in the 1940s. The drink had a 12 percent alcohol content, which made it popular with drinkers around New Orleans. Songs were even written about it, like "Hadacol Boogie" by Bill Nettles. LeBlanc promoted the drink heavily, coming under much scrutiny from the American Medical Association, and spent so much on the extensive ad campaign that the company was crushed by debt in the 1950s.
You can learn more about Benny Grunch on his website, bennygrunch.com. The new edition of the Twelve Y'ats of Christmas album, called the Economy, Recovery, and Bailout edition, is available in stores now, includes the new songs "The Red Light Camera Fines for Auld Lang Time" and "The Hubig's Pie Boogie Woogie," as well as his latest, Grunch Road. Of all of the places in "Ain't Dere No More," Benny Grunch misses one the most. He says, "Pontchartrain Beach. Of course it wasn't as big as Coney Island or Palisades Park; however, in New Orleans, that was a big deal. I don't know if it would even be popular now, but I do miss Pontchartrain Beach."