Call It A Night: The History of Nightlife and Gambling in Metairie

09:56 September 28, 2018
By: Steven Melendez

Visitors to New Orleans often remark that Metairie has more bars, pool halls, and overall nightlife than the staid suburbs around many other American cities. As it turns out, that’s nothing new. If anything, the unincorporated community just outside the city has calmed down over the years. In the not-too-distant past, the Jefferson Parish hamlet was home to swanky semi-underground gambling clubs and, in the 1970s, a bar-hopping nightlife scene that was said to give the French Quarter a run for its money. 

During the 1920s, gambling was largely illegal in Louisiana, though in many places around New Orleans, the ban was taken little more seriously than the national Prohibition on alcoholic drinks. Gambling in New Orleans proper often involved bookies taking bets on horseraces in the back of speakeasies, grocery stores, or private homes. But in the adjacent suburbs, what were effectively unlicensed casinos flourished despite state laws against gambling, often with protection from the local authorities.

<em>Call It A Night:</em> The History of Nightlife and Gambling in Metairie

In 1921, New Orleans Item reporter Meigs O. Frost reported that a 17-ton Jefferson Parish “road roller” had been spotted paving the private drive to a gambling club near the 17th Street Canal, while the area’s public thoroughfares went without needed repairs. Though the parish sheriff was apparently informed of the activities within the club, variously called Ballard & Ballard or the Metairie Country Club, he seemed less than excited about shutting the place down. “I might raid the place Monday night,” he told the reporter over the weekend, “but not tonight.”

Under pressure from citizens, some of whom had complained to Governor John Parker, the parish district attorney ultimately sued to close the club under a nuisance abatement law, though the case failed. Frost testified before a grand jury investigating gambling in the parish—and soon found himself indicted, alongside the club’s owner and a patron. After all, the reporter had acknowledged in his testimony that he had gambled while investigating the venue. Frost was quickly granted bail, and the grand jury concluded that the illegal gambling was an isolated incident.

“The parish is absolutely free of any gambling whatsoever prohibited by law,” the grand jury proclaimed, urging that taxpayer funds be spent on better pursuits than on investigating such rumors.

Either in spite of or thanks to its optimistic conclusion, gambling venues continued to flourish in Metairie and elsewhere throughout the parish, derisively called the “Free State of Jefferson,” to the point that both that nickname and the ease with which bets could be placed would be cited in the New Deal-era Works Progress Administration guide to Louisiana.

Near Metairie Road stood a number of unlicensed casinos, some with rustic names like Beverly Gardens, the Victory Inn, and the Metairie Inn. Residents in nearby upscale homes were less than thrilled with the establishments and the indifference shown by parish authorities. They voted to form their own municipality which, in 1927, became the City of Metairie Ridge, hoping to better regulate the venues. It would be dissolved the following year, thanks to a legal challenge reportedly financed by gambling interests.

Still, some of the gaming establishments got the message and relocated farther south, to the area of the parish near the Mississippi River and the Orleans Parish line. Among the most famous of these was the Southport Club, reputedly run from the 1930s through the 1950s by mob boss Carlos Marcello. The building is now Southport Hall, a music and event venue, and visitors can still see a keno board positioned to be easily hidden behind a picture on the wall.

Further raids took place across Jefferson Parish and St. Bernard Parish, New Orleans’s neighbor to the east, in the late 1920s. Publicity-hungry Governor Huey Long called in the Louisiana National Guard to crack down on gambling in both parishes, though he too failed to put a long-term end to the practice. 

<em>Call It A Night:</em> The History of Nightlife and Gambling in Metairie

Later, in the early 1950s, the U.S. Senate’s Kefauver Committee held hearings on organized crime, including the illicit casinos around New Orleans, calling Jefferson Parish Sheriff Frank Clancy to testify. In an initial appearance, he repeatedly pled the Fifth Amendment, but returned to testify and endure the ire of angry committee members after they threatened to hold him in contempt of Congress. 

“You are a blot on this country, and you are one of the men who is bringing this country into disrepute,” Senator Charles Tobey, a New Hampshire Republican, told Clancy when the sheriff acknowledged not only permitting gambling in the parish, but also having remarkably good luck with his own bets on legal horse racing. Clancy said he kept no receipts documenting his luck at the track but attributed his good luck to occasional tips from friendly “stable boys” and his own restraint, as he only placed bets late in the day, when there was no time to squander his winnings.

“If you bet on the first race and win,” he advised the committee, “you’ll lose your money before you leave the track. If you win on the last race, you have to go home.”

After the hearing, Clancy ordered the casinos shuttered for good, reportedly in exchange for having the potential contempt charge scuttled. The move put 1,100 people out of work, The New York Times reported in 1951.

At that point, as the postwar suburban boom came to Metairie, establishments were opening, offering more wholesome entertainment in the area. Catherine Campanella, in her illustrated history Lost Metairie, depicts a 1950s and ‘60s Metairie of drive-in theaters and bowling alleys, miniature golf and go-karts, neighborhood pubs and swanky cocktail lounges. In one distinct South Louisiana touch, the iconic supermarket chain Schwegmann’s featured an unusual offering at its Airline Highway location: A “Shopper’s Bar” gave customers a place to sip beer or cocktails before picking up groceries or, perhaps more realistically at the time, while their wives did the family shopping.

As the Baby Boomers came of age in the late 1960s, many of them chose to live and play in a roughly 40-block area of Metairie between Veterans Boulevard and West Esplanade Avenue that came to be known as Fat City. At a time when the French Quarter seemed to many to be in decline, the neighborhood bustled with dozens of bars and restaurants, from tiki lounges and seafood restaurants to dance clubs, music venues, and go-go dancing establishments. A headline on a 1974 States-Item column boasted, “‘Fat City is booming, baby,” and described the area as a “blazing white way which rivals Bourbon Street.” Even the Playboy Club opened a branch there for a time.

Columnist Pepe Citron marveled at the joyous young crowds, many of them living in singles-focused apartments that had gone up in the area, carousing from bar to bar. “It’s just that nobody nowhere in the Fat City area seems to care if there is a tomorrow … and really, why should they?” he wrote. “I’ve been in some of the apartments, and each and every one is something that, a generation ago, would have been an ideal movie setting for the very rich. Life and lifestyles have changed that much in so very short a time.”

Photos from the era show a remarkably clean-cut, rather homogeneous crowd for the 1970s, something that even reporters from the time pointed out.

“The slice of life is considerably thinner in Fat City than in the Vieux Carre,” The Times-Picayune reported in 1974. “For one thing, there are few hippie types in evidence. And the clientele is almost all white.”

But after a few years, as entrepreneurs rapidly continued to develop nightlife in the area, Fat City quickly lost its squeaky-clean image. A 1978 column in The Times-Picayune bore the headline “E. Jeff’s Armpit?” and described overflowing dumpsters and toilets, “young punks attracted by the mushrooming of cheap discos,” and teenagers too young to enter bars drinking on the street. Later reports described the arrival of a drug-dealing, motorcycle-riding crowd. Limited parking and a lack of sidewalks made the area tough to navigate on a crowded weekend night. 

Bars that had quickly opened on shoestring budgets couldn’t stay in business amid the competition, and reports of crime in the area became more common. Massage parlors offering sex sprang up in the area, The Times-Picayune soon reported, sending in undercover reporters who were offered erotic services. Sheriff Harry Lee, in an echo of his predecessors alerted to illegal gambling, told the paper that prostitution wasn’t a high priority for the Sheriff’s Office. “It has been here for centuries and always will be,” he said.

<em>Call It A Night:</em> The History of Nightlife and Gambling in Metairie

By the early 1980s, the new trend in the struggling neighborhood was the replacement of nightclubs and bars with office buildings. The Playboy Club had been replaced by a building named Corporate Plaza. The president of the Fat City Business Association called for the neighborhood, and presumably his organization, to get a new name. Among the last articles celebrating nightlife in the area was a bizarre 1983 Times-Picayune column profiling a 5-foot-7, 450-pound burlesque performer named Fanny Farkle. By 1985, the Parish Council had rezoned the area to keep new bars and massage parlors from opening in the area, and the Fat City era of Metairie nightlife was essentially over.

While Metairie is no longer compared to the French Quarter, the community has seemingly built its own nocturnal vibe. A diverse group of restaurants offer everything from Asian cuisine to innovative takes on New Orleans classics. Corner pubs have become cozy, affordable, and even walkable drinking destinations in many neighborhoods, and longtime residents find it hard not to spot a familiar face even in some of the area's larger establishments. More specialized venues have activities like billiards, karaoke, and live music. A surprising number of Metairie bars even stay open 24 hours a day, catering to suburban shift workers and insomniacs. 

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