By: Ken La Rive
For me, New Orleans is mostly destroyed. Nearly everything I remember with fondness or bitterness has been smashed by Katrina’s winds, or flooded from the Seventeenth Street canal... My travels back since then shows only fragile skeletal remains in my old neighborhood, and the people who were the heart and soul of that city can’t or won’t return.
Raised there, New Orleans brings back a wide mixture of memories, and though the realist in me knows 50 year old recollections may be a bit distorted, I am convinced that what I remember of the people and places from Gentilly Woods lakefront to Canal Street and the French Quarter, is as vivid to me today as it was when it was actually happening.
Running through the center of my world was Elysian Fields Avenue, and it was truly the perfect name. Laced on every side by massive live oaks, I drove my 66’ Mustang with the love of my life as co-pilot, and she still is. Her face lit by the moment, laughter and singing the tunes of WTIX and WNOE, are memories deeply buried, and my most cherished possessions.
There was a lot to do back then, and I wish now I had taken less time watching television and more time exploring. Ponchartrain Beach was kicking full swing in the 60’s, and as I lived just 10 blocks away, I knew every crack in the cement. Twice a night, at 19:00 and 22:00 there was a live show from the roof of the beach concession stand, and there was everything from diving donkeys, popular singers, Magicians, to dancers in colorful costume, a true variety show. Men would climb long polls and direct high powered lights on the stage, and it now seems just too amazing to behold.
I suppose it wasn’t so amazing back then, as we were so close to it, and I think we might have taken it somewhat for granted. Today we all realize that there was nothing like it before, nor will there ever be again. Jan and Dean, Wayne Newton, Dick and DeeDee, Lesley Gore, Steve Alaimo, and most every traveling artist, made their way to Ponchartrane Beach. My friends remember the year 66’ where Sonny and Cher, Herman’s Hermits, Wayne Fontana and the Mindbenders, and a group called Cannibal and The Head Hunters, were hosted by WNOE’s “The All Star Show,” live, and though we could have been there for less than a dollar, we listened to it while driving. Why? Because so many things happened every night it was an overload! We enjoyed it, sure, but we lived so very close to it that we couldn’t see the total picture. It is only now, in reminiscing, that we realize how very special it really was.
There was an Olympic sized swimming pool, and what was called the “Hell Diver” where the brave could jump or dive into a seventeen foot deep pool. We boys would sit by the stairs and watch the bikini tops pop off for an eyeful. As I got older my friend Kenny Kuntz and I became “beach bums” running and throwing our skim-boards for a sometime slide of 40 feet or more. We put lemon juice in our hair to bleach it and used iodine in baby oil to make us tan. I worked at Bali Hi my junior and senior year at JFK High School, and learned a lot about waiting tables, and serving wine. We had a drink called the “TIKI Bowl” for two, and a “Typhoon” where only one was allowed. One night an older lady made a big deal about the limit and another was brought. I heard a dull thud and saw that her head had hit the top of the table. She had passed out! Her husband was up quickly, trying to stabilize her not to fall on the floor. She had to be carried out, and there was a bit of smirks and laughter as they made their exit.
Within walking distance from my house was The Pitt Theatre, Jo-Jo’s Chicken, and Teddy’s for the best roast beef sandwich in the world; sitting on Mr. Messina’s Sweetshop porch on a hot summer day drinking a little coke and eating a Zero candy bar seems like something out of an Ive’s painting, and I remember every peace of rust on the panted metal sign on the swinging metal door, The Lone Ranger rides for Marita Bread.
As we got older and traveled farther afield on our bikes, we found Saint Rock and Pressburge where Mr. Jerry would make the best cherry and coke floats this side of People’s avenue canal. Of course for a nickel fare and a transfer the whole city could be experienced by a public service bus, but having my own wheels is what really opened up this world of dreams. There were back seat memories in the Lenfant’s parking lot where”Singapore Slings” stained our new Madras shirts, and never once were we IDed; Submarine racing at the lakefront and walking around the light show at Pop’s fountain; bowling at Sugar Bowl Lanes on Saturday sponsored by the CYO, and the CYO dances at St. Raphael where all the boys were on one side and the girls on the other, just pops in my head with a barrage of recall. I remember that long walk with taps pounding on hard wooden floors echoing through the hall to ask for a dance, and I remember with pain being turned down. Ha!
There were King Cake Parties where I learned valuable social skills with the opposite sex, and an occasional kiss too, and I learned how to dance from my Boy Scout buddy Walter Williams. Of course these skills were mostly obsolete in the 70’s as liberal feminist’s movements tried to destroy the hard won differences of boys and girls in a few short years.
With my stock 289 Aztec Bronze Mustang, I discovered the Skyvue and Do Drive-Inns, with mosquito pucks, chocolate toddies, and fogged-up windshields. On our drive home we listened to the Beatles, Elvis, Fats, Little Richard, and Chuck Berry, all on loud. Loud was in then, and our parents didn’t like our music or the volume. Today my daughter still turns down my oldies at a barbeque, so I guess it skips a generation.
The Beatles gave a concert in City Park once and it was the only stop on their world tour where they lost money. They played with the Davy Clark 5, Jerry and the Pacemakers, and the Kinks, but in 1964 New Orleans wasn’t ready for this radical new music, preferring good ol’ R&B. Me and my group seemed more than ready.
My dad managed the Roosevelt Hotel Barber Shop in the fifties and sixties. There were 26 chairs in that basement shop, with infinity mirrors behind each one, white polished marble floors, gigantic brass spittoons, 20 barbers, 7 shoeshine boys, 12 manicurists, and one porter who worked with my father 50+ years. The Fairmont bought it out and closed it down, building a small shop on the mezzanine. They made my father fire half of his friends for that transition, and three months later fired him for a young man from the “corporate office,” so I remember. It worked out fine as my father soon went on to own his own shop in the Royal Orleans Hotel for the next thirty yeas, and then in Orleans Place at the base of Canal. What great memories of barber shops that gave shaves, facial massages, shoe-shines, manicures, and even cut the hair out of your ears! The Blue Room and the Christmas decorations in the hall with tons of lights behind angel hair were remarkably beautiful. I remember seeing a pile of first edition Spider Man magazines sold at the book counter at the rear entrance, and for about ten bucks worth I could have retired years ago.
Some called it TIKI Beach, but my group called it Old Beach. It was located right next to the Bayou St. John Bridge, on the UNO side of Lakeshore Drive. In those days the Lake was salty and clear, before it was found that shells made good roads. I had my first taste of Miller Ponies, Dixie, and the popular “Ring Day.” I knew a guy from J.F. Kennedy who dove head first from that bridge on to a piling. He was lucky with only a few stitches and a lot of scratches. My sister sent me a six-pack of Dixie through the mail all the way to the Tonkin Gulf, Vietnam. I drank them with my sailor buddies from an iced bathroom sink in Honk Kong, 1969, but that is another story.
Everyone in New Orleans, young and old, knew Uncle Henry Dupre... He started a wake-up show on WWL 870 from high atop the Roosevelt Hotel in the late 40’s and early 50’s. That was a little before my time, but we knew him as “Uncle Henry” on “Popeye and Pals” on WWL-TV for many years, along with his Toys for Tots.” I can still see his smiling face dressed in his sailor uniform and cap. He was well loved.
Being that my father knew everyone at the Roosevelt, we heard a lot of stories when he would get home. I remember him trying to get to an upper floor to cut Elvis’s hair, but never could, and how Earl Long got caught on live TV urinating on the carpet. He was running around with Blaze Starr back then, and made quite a show as they strolled arm and arm into the Blue Room.
Want to go to the show? There was no more beautiful and unusual places than the RKO Orpheum, the Joy, and the Saenger Theatres. The Saenger had the illusion of sitting in an Italian Courtyard with lights on a ceiling that gave the impression of a sunset with stars coming out, slowly, just before the cartoon came on. It was before advertisements and such, and a Disney cartoon broke the ice.
For two years I took dancing lessons, and I suppose I was considered a Hazel Romano Dancer. I and my partner Sheila Demarco would go on Saturday Hop with John Pela, and do the four-step on Saturdays. There was another group there called the Tony Bevenetto Dancers, and though it was all in fun, I remember a bit of competition trying to get in front of the camera.
I remember the smell of fresh baked bread going over the Gentilly Industrial Canal overpass, and the smell of Luzianne Coffee on the other. It is the kind of memory, though small, that will leave goose-bumps, as what you were doing at that moment, what life you had there, was enhanced by that situation, where strong memories are made. You see, a lot of our lives are forgotten, except for photographs, so what we have in our minds are cemented vividly by the strength of the moment. When you are young, there seems to be many more of these.
Another famous New Orleanean was Hap Glaudi. He was the sports editor for the Item and also reported the sports for WWL. He was noted for being a straight shooter, and called it as he saw it. But then all will remember Morgas the Magnificent! His introduction and ongoing skit during mostly B horror movies every Saturday night was very popular. He and his buddy Chopsly and Eric the Skull would make the movie more enjoyable, and I have never seen anything like it again. Ha! One of a kind...
My wife Maddy and I have been dating since she was fourteen. I used to pick up her and her friends from Holy Angels and bring them home in Gentilly. It was before air-conditioning there, and I remember the smell of these girls as we drove down St. Claude to Franklin avenue, to turn on Prentiss. Curious, the smell of perfume and girl could never be duplicated. What a great memory.
Needed a car? There were plenty of jingles to go around, and they stick in your mind forever. “Buy your Chevrolet from Persia, Mike Persia Chevrolet!” and “Jacobson Young, where the lights are strung!” or the one and only “Trader Joe Paretti! …the dealer who is ready!” But there were others that come to mind, like: “Rosenburgs! Rosenburgs! 1825 Tulane!” and Dixie Beer: “The beer that makes you feel alive!” or “Jingle Jangle Jingle, here comes Mr. Bingle, with another message from Kris Kringle!” for DH Holmes.
Left over from WW2, before LSUNO was thought about, was Camp Leroy Johnson. There in the middle of a cluster of Quonset huts was a little known movie theatre used mostly by the local AF boys attached there. A young man who lived next door to me would take me and his new wife to see movies like “The Day the Earth Stood Still” and “The Incredible Shrinking Man.” But the most amazing part of our night was walking right up to the “Blue Angels” and actually looking into the cockpit. I remember them breaking the sound barrier over my house every Saturday morning, and there was a commercial that my sister Cindy and I would sing: “You take the blue from the sky and a pretty girl’s eyes and a touch of ol’ glory too, and give it to the men who proudly wear the US Air force blue. …and you can wear it to… The US Air force blue!”
When we moved to Marigny Street we had a next door neighbor who worked for the Batts. They owned Ponchartrain Beach. Every New Year’s night there was a fireworks display that would rival nearly everything I have ever seen publicly. After Katrina I drove back to the site where so many had such a good time, and the only thing remaining was the Lighthouse, now considered a national monument, made during the civil war. On the brackish breeze that blew over the seawall and levees there seemed to be sounds of children’s laughter. I can still hear the tic-tic-tic of the Zephyr going up its wooden frame, turnstiles clinking coins, and the glass encased fortune teller who moved and spoke magically for a nickel. I can still feel the shock on the lever in the penny arcade that determined if you were man enough, and the air spray on the floor of the haunted house that blew up summer dresses, all in fun. There are, at least, a million smaller things, and all of it is still alive in our collective dimension of memory. On the now barren cement, lovers still stroll arm and arm, and in my minds eye I can still see my sister Cindy running with a great fluff of pink cotton candy almost as large as she was.
I’m not alone in my memories, and though we are all displaced by both time and tragedy, those moments still live on in our minds. There is an eco blowing in the few palm trees to have survived there, at the base of Elysian Fields, and our world. “At the beach, at the beach, at Ponchartain Beach, you’ll have fun; you’ll have, fun every day of the week.” You see, the old days are alive in another dimension, and it fades in and out of our reality and our lives no matter where we find ourselves, and will till the day we die.