Lost But Not Forgotten

00:00 July 31, 2012
By: Emily Hingle
[Where Y'At Staff/Provided Photo]

It's almost unfair to label places that have entertainment and serve alcohol simply as bars here. Bars weren't just social spots, but the laboratories that musicians used to experiment with and perfect their sound and that other entertainers used to hone their craft for which our small city's culture has become world-renowned. Patrons remember fondly their times listening to their favorite bands at now-extinct bars, and historians cite them as an essential piece of music history.

The best known venue for black entertainers during a time of segregation was the Dew Drop Inn located in a large two-building span at 2836 LaSalle St. Owner Frank Painia bought and renovated the buildings which housed the venue, apartments, a restaurant and a barbershop during the World War II era. By the time troops were returning home, the Dew Drop was being hailed by the black-owned and operated newspaper "The Louisiana Weekly" as "the South's swankiest night club," and remained so for the next 25 years. The club was a critical stop on what was called the chitlin' circuit; the route of clubs that black entertainers traveled through in the South, and helped to make a name for many musicians in the early days of blues, rock and soul. In the beginning, Painia booked local and national blues and R & B musicians like Joe Turner, Clarence Gatemouth Brown, The Ravens, Earl King, Guitar Slim and Allen Toussaint. But Painia was a good businessman and knew how to change the acts with the changing times. As rock and roll and soul grew in popularity, Little Richard, Ray Charles, Ike and Tina, and Sam Cooke were performing more. The club not only had live music; but between bands, acts like shake dancers, magicians, comedians, and emcees in drag entertained the crowd. "Black female impersonation was accepted as a part of the general act, and Bobby Marchan personifies that tradition," says Michael Mizell-Nelson, associate professor of history at UNO. "One could be both a female impersonator and a traditional musician creating hit songs that broke from the impersonator role." Bobby Marchan would emcee shows as his drag persona Patsy. Patsy's most famous act was singing the bawdy bar tune "Hip Shakin' Mama." Though the main customer body was black, there was an area for white people who were curious about the music being performed. The club had been in trouble for allowing "mixing" races before. "A barrier allowed space for whites to watch the genderbending and other performances taking place on stage while holding to the concept of race separation," says Mizell-Nelson. The Dew Drop Inn closed down due to Frank Painia's death in the 1970s and was placed on the Louisiana Landmark Society's Endangered Nine List in 2010.

The Dew Drop Inn wasn't the only placed called Dew Drop that reached a historical status here. Across the lake in Mandeville and decades before, the Dew Drop Social and Benevolent Association was organized by a group of African Americans in the late 1800s after the Civil War. They built a small building on Lamarque Street that still stands today and is considered to be the oldest unaltered dance hall in America. Jazz musicians would cross Lake Pontchartrain on steamboats to play the joint for the rural crowds. Players included Kid Ory, Bunk Johnson and Louis Armstrong during the time when he was known internationally. This venue is not technically a lost treasure, though. Since the mid-2000s, with the help of the Friends of the Dew Drop, music can be heard pouring through the old, wooden slats on the weekends as bands are booked to play for audiences that pack and pour out of the small structure. Musician Tuba Skinny even recorded a live album called Tuba Skinny Live at the Dew Drop, and there is a seasonal calendar full of great acts coming up. You can see the calendar and learn more at dewdropjazzhallnew.point2pointdesign.com. Other than the music, clubs were spots where people could try their luck with the opposite sex, even if they weren't exactly the gender that they claimed to be. Club My O My was one popular club in West End right off the Lake that specialized in drag culture. It was not the same type of drag that the Dew Drop Inn had, though. Club My O My was as much for entertainment as it was a haven for gays who were often discriminated against. The club was originally located on Bourbon Street, but was often raided because of the so-called immoral acts taking place. So to get away from the police, the club moved out onto the Lake in the late 1940s. Mizell-Nelson explains: "It catered to heterosexual audiences (as did many of the sorts of clubs found in Seattle, Kansas City, New York City, Miami and elsewhere) by playing up the naughty atmosphere. Grayline Tours brought busloads of tourists [there], and New Orleanians enjoyed bringing unsuspecting visitors to the club for the 'shock factor' as their friends caught onto the club's performers. It also served as a gathering and meeting place for gay men and lesbians." The drag shows here were more about art than comedy. In fact, the performers had difficulty breaking from their drag roles unlike Bobby Marchan did with Patsy. "The emcee Jimmy Callaway had a great voice and released some songs as a male, but he never broke out of his reputation as a female impersonator," claims Mizell-Nelson. It's notoriety as a sordid place made it an attraction for many famous visitors also. "Judy Garland, Bobby Kennedy, Richard Nixon and others were reportedly among the celebrities and political figures who were said to have visited the club," states Mizell-Nelson. Club My O My ceased business after burning down along with Kirsh's Seafood next door on Jan. 5, 1972, and never rebuilt in that location. The club made a comeback on Bourbon Street in the 1980s, but it did not last.

As American popular culture took a strong hold here in the late 1960s and 1970s, the top radio hits were the rage among the younger crowds not content to listen to the traditional New Orleans music. Bands from all over America were performing rock music at places like the Municipal Auditorium and The Warehouse, and DJs would spin the latest tunes by Kool & The Gang, KC and the Sunshine Band, and Gloria Gaynor at disco clubs. The main entertainment area for the disco scene was Fat City in Metairie. Clubs with bright signs advertising exotic names like Don Quixote, Que Pasa and Sancho Panzo lined the blocks, and cars would cruise slowly down the streets. Mizell-Nelson mentions The Crash Landing Bar: "Like a lot of clubs in Fat City, its heyday was in the 1970s as a disco place. Toward its final years of existence, it catered to the underage teen set." A film has been made recently about such a group of teens partying and getting in trouble with seedy gangsters in the area called Fat City, New Orleans. The film has already won awards at The Indie Fest, the Los Angeles Movie Awards and Accolade.

Even if you don't care for the style of music and nightlife that happened to earlier generations, you should acknowledge that they partied just as hard, if not harder, than people do today. If not for establishments like these, New Orleans would not be nearly as colorful as it is today.

Photos provided courtesy of Dew Drop Jazz & Social Hall.

Sign Up!