“At carnival time, it’s a tawdry showoff. Unmasked, a city of beguiling charm”
NEW ORLEANS, OUI! MARDI GRAS, NON!
PAUL A. GARDNER
MY FIRST GLIMPSE of the Mardi Gras spirit was on the Baronne Street sidewalk, opposite the elegant Roosevelt Hotel, soon after I reached New Orleans. Two young women who looked like socialites were kicking an empty beer can to each other in a kind of foot hockey. I had my last glimpse on Mardi Gras midnight, in Pat O’Brien's bar on St. Peter Street, off Bourbon. Revellers had wrecked it so badly that drinks were no longer being served, and one man had passed out full-length along the bar.
To me, that pretty well summed up the carnival as I saw it early last year—except of course for the parades, which featured more opulence than genuine artistry. And almost worst of all was to see famous Bourbon Street looking like a fall-fair midway, with red hats being sold, with vendors of hot dogs and beer making the air hideous with their cries. Big lapel buttons were peddled, too, and widely worn, and 1 was startled at the messages on some—two of the mildest were “1 hate school,” and “I love sex.” A group of teenagers wearing such labels w'erc emphasizing their mood of protest by sitting in the middle of the street and chanting, “We’re on a sitdown against everything!" Passersby skirted the young demonstrators, giving them scarcely a glance.
I’d been wanting to see the famous carnival in New Orleans ever since 1 heard Mary Martin sing Come To The Mardi Gras. Finally 1 w'as here—and could hardly wait for it to end.
Then 1 fell in love with the fascinating city and stayed an unplanned four extra days.
\A/AI KING DOWN the middle of the street is always lun—but 1 can do that on Ottawa’s Mall, without stumbling over beer cans or sidestepping broken glass, as I did on Bourbon Street. Dancing in the streets? '1 here wasn't any that I saw'. Closest to it was on a sidewalk off Bourbon in the Vieux Carré outside a restaurant that had an orchestra inside. Three young couples were twisting, while a pair of policemen placidly watched. That w'as one thing: I never felt in any danger, there were so many cops around. Everyone seemed goodnatured enough, mostly just roving the streets drinking beer and munching hot dogs, or trying to get into the overcrowded bars.
It suddenly struck me, though, that the merrymaking was completely segregated. The only Ne-
groes I saw in the Vieux Carré were vendors or those doing other menial tasks. Later. I discussed this with a Negro 1 had met and 1 asked him why this was. He shrugged and said, “Maybe they thought they wouldn’t be welcome there.”
Most of the day and the early evening of Mardi Gras I spent watching parades on St. Charles Street. Trinkets tossed to onlookers from truck-borne floats — one hundred and seventyfive in the Elks’ parade alone—cost an estimated $500,000. About $1,500,000 was spent on the floats themselves, and perhaps $1,000,000 on the sixty-five fancy-dress balls, which began at Little Christmas, January 6. In all, a total of about $3,000,000. But then, the festivities bring about $6,000,000 in business to the city.
Prices rise, some phenomenally, during Mardi Gras. I paid fourteen dollars a day for a room at a hotel, by no means New Orleans’ classiest. The rate dropped to six the morning after.
The parade 1 most wanted to see was King Zulu's, the Negro procession, which was led one year in the forties by Louis (Satchmo) Armstrong. But each newspaper gave a different route; no one could tell me where it would pass; and 1 later found that it never came downtown at all, preferring to remain in the Negro section. King Zulu took two progressive steps last year: eliminating the grass skirts, fright wigs and “facial disguises”—white circles around the eyes and lips —of other years; and following a specific route— “instead of wandering off and getting drunk in bars along the w'ay,” as a Negro acquaintance told me with warm approval.
Grandest Mardi Gras procession of all, with the most opulent floats, was that of Rex, which had some huge European-style mobile figures. Soon after it came the endless Elks’ parade. The staggering succession of lavish, but rarely imaginative, spectacles soon palled on me. But occasionally there w'as a lively one, like “a swampful of frogs,” hopping about gaily as they tossed out trinkets to those watching along the route.
T he final procession, held after dark, w'as that of the Krew'e (a mystic name given to every organization holding a parade) of Cornus. That Krewe is one hundred and eight years old (the New' Orleans’ Carnival itself was begun in 1827). 1 found Comus’ display particularly unappetizing because, following the theme “The Lure of Gold,”
all its masquers were clad and behaved like decadent sybarites — a covey of Neros, as it were.
Masks are supposed to be worn by everyone from 6 a.m. to 6 p.m. in Mardi Gras. I bought one in a dime store, but never used it. No one I saw' wore a mask, except those in costume. The 6 p.m. curfew on masks is a police rule: a mask would make it much easier to commit a crime and get away with it in the dark.
An occasional Negro joined the white crowds in St. Charles Street, but always seemed rather tentative and soon disappeared, although I saw no indication of any resentment against their presence. But, while watching an armed-forces march between parades, it was good to see integrated Navy and Marine Corps detachments, one of them w'ith a Negro adjutant.
Once the carnival was over, New Orleans regained its beguiling charm. Now I was able to roam freely, to see, uncluttered, the lovely patios in which the Vieux Carré, or French Quarter, abounds, the delicate wrought-iron balconies, the dozens of curio and art shops.
The most charming patio wasn’t in the guidebook; I wandered into it by chance one night and revisited it twice by day. It has a gracefully curved swimming pool, and belongs to the Chateau Motor Hotel on Chartres Street. There’s also a nice little bar. with tables out on the flagstones, where I sipped a Scorpion—a twelveounce drink made chiefly from light rum, which cost a dollar and was worth it.
^}NE FEATURE of the Vieux Carré that will soon disappear, I predict, is the grotesque, grinning life-size caricatures of Negro “mammies,” which still stand outside many shops to advertise their wares. A few male caricatures, too, are on display here and there. It is almost incredible in this day and age, in a city like New Orleans, which prides itself on its good race relations.
A feature that will long remain, however, is the strikingly beautiful Cathedral of St. Louis— beside which, incongruously, runs Pirates’ Alley. It’s actually a quiet little paved lane, with curio shops along the other side.
Figuring I could afford one expensive meal, I was torn between the Court of the Two Sisters, which extends from Bourbon through to Royal, and the Vieux Carré Restaurant, on Bourbon. I tried the Two Sisters first, and found it fascinating — lounges and bars leading into a spacious covered courtyard, elegant and charming. I ordered a mint julep, on the menu at $1.50, but they were fresh out of mint, so I settled for a tall rum drink. Later I had a julep in the delightful main bar of Pat O’Brien’s, rich with filigreed ironwork and its high ceiling decorated with beer mugs. The julep cost only $1.10 and was delicious, with two big bunches of fresh mint crushed into the bourbon. / continued on page 39
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At the Vieux Carré Restaurant I had a very fine meal, for about five dollars, starting with delicious C reole Gumbo, followed by an excellent salad, then Red Snapper (fish, not turtle) in champagne sauce, which was quite delectable: then genuine sherbet (not water ice) and codee. I can recommend both places highly.
Another fine meal was at Castillo's Mexican Restaurant on Conti Street. Unlike a bland-food tourist trap in Puerto Rico called Mexico in San Juan. Castillo's served real Mex—hot. man! My waitress, however, was a winsome Russian-Irish girl who had lived near my mother's old home on the Seint John River in New Brunswick.
In a French Market bar. beside Fuj agues' Restaurant on St. Philip Street I had an absinthe frappé, which the bartender assured me was made with genuine absinthe—minus one ingredient, wormwood, which is illegal in the United States as in most other countries. This bar has no stools—just an old brass foot rail, bail/} bent hv Mardi Ciras roisterers. Then, after failing to get served at the large Café du Monde, which has outdoor tables. I strolled to the nearby Pancake Manor and had turtle soup (thirty cents) and buckwheat cakes (sixty cents) with maple syrup and several kinds of jam provided on the table. Highly recommended.
LasT stand of the nickel
While in the French Market I remembered to make a phone call, and had the nostalgic thrill of getting my number for a nickel! New Orleans is said to be the only city left in North America that still has nickel calls, and 1 asked an acquaintance how come this modern miracle. "The telephone company did raise the rate to a dime." he said, "but there was such a public outer} that after about two weeks the} put the nickel phones back in." It's good to know that there's one place where the people didn't behave like sheep, but raised hell with Bell and wem out.
Fares on the smart new buses are ''till only a dime. (There's still one streetcar line to an area whose residents prefer it to a bus.) I rode in a bus -which has replaced the streetcar
.....named Desire (originally, of course.
Desire) to F.lysian Fields, a strange street, part of which was almost as lovely as its name, while part was near-slum. In that section it was casv to visualize the locale of Tennessee Williams play A Streetcar Named Desire, exceptthat the weather was cold when I was there, instead of hot. steam} anil violence-inciting as in the drama.
I luce other famous rues, though, were disappointing. Basin Street and South Rampart both seemed just largecommercial thoroughfares. Decatur Street, in the French Quarter, is still 'mail. but the onl} red lights I saw were on traffic corners and on the Jax Beer warehouse. Not far from it stands what is said to be the citv's
most expensive hotel, the stately, beautiful Royal Orleans (oddlv pronounced "Orleens." although the inhabitants all pronounce the city's name "New Orlians"—all. that is. except a few who slur it to "N'vOrlans"). I he Royal Orleans dining room, in full view of the street, is the most fascinating I've ever seen—lit by candles in small glass globes and
each table with a square white cloth surmounted by an angled square crimson one. dipping to a red point oxer the white at each side. After what I'd heard of the prices 1 didn't even consider dining there, but strolled through to the cocktail lounge and had a Tahiti (one dollar), a tall drink made from blue rum. which I'd never heard of. The waiter, who looked
Hawaiian, said he thought it was Dutch.
Another famous drink I had was a Saz.erac cocktail, in Hotel Roosevelt's bright, ga} Saz.erac Bar. The waiter told me it was rye with absinthe flavoring. A dish of chicken livers was perfecti} cooked. I had Chicken Gumbo once again, too —at the Gumbo Shop on St. Peter Street, next
MARDI GRAS continued
door to Le Petit Théâtre du Vieux Carré. That playhouse was what I most wanted to see in New Orleans, partly because of having worked under the late Walter Sinclair, then director of Hart House Theatre, University of Toronto, who had later gone to Le Petit Théâtre. Its beautiful patio is open, with guides, from ten to noon and two to four, except Saturdays and Sundays.
At the Jazz Museum on Dumaine Street you can study charts of the evolution of jazz, see instruments once used hy jazz greats and listen to one or more half-hour programs recorded by splendid artists. I heard some of Bessie Smith’s earlier, less rich and gutty, but still throbbing songs, then a rare record of the great pianist Ferdinand (Jelly Roll) Morton actually singing, in a light but excellent voice, a melancholy ballad called 2/9.
Jazz on Bourbon Street
Two other jazz spots besides Preservation Hall on St. Peter’s Street were worth visiting, but one just barely. I skipped AI Hirt’s because he wasn t there, and Pete Fountain’s because he was — I heard he had gone commercial since making the Lawrence Welkin ring. So I tried the Famous Door — like them, on Bourbon Street — but in an hour and a half of listening to two bands heard only two real Dixieland numbers. The rest was strictly for squares.
Next night, at Dixieland Hall—on Bourbon, too—I heard a dozen real ones in less than two hours. It’s the other noncommercial jazz spot and, unlike Preservation Hall, which charges a flat dollar admission (for four hours if you want to stay that long), asks only a contribution—but suggests a dollar. Dixieland Hall is definitely worth a visit. I heard an all-Negro band led by cornetist Kid Howard, with the well-known Louis Cottrell on clarinet: and with an occasional song by Blanche Thomas. A young white cornetist sat in with the band and played one of the most beautiful solos I’ve ever heard. He’s nineteen, his name is George Finóla and he'll be heard from. Around midnight, in trooped some other visitors: Sister Elizabeth Eustis and her Gospel Singers—a warm-eyed, fortyish lady, two young men and a tall girl blessed with more hair than all tour Beatles. They were terrific—especially Sister Eustis, who for several bars sounded like Bessie Smith.
Another singer in the Bessie Smith tradition was at Preservation Hall one night: short, lively Billie Pierce, who with her trumpeter husband DeDe led the hand that night. She also played fine piano and he did some vocals, even making Hello Dolly sound faintly Dixielandish. On the second night I heard trombonist Jim Robinson’s New Orleans Band. Third night the hand was standout trumpeter Punch Miller's and the music was again celestial.
A lively commercial show was at the 809 Club on St. Louis Street, where I sat at a piano bar—much like the one at Le Diplomate in Hull, Quebec—
and watched gorgeous, elegantly constructed Chris Owens and half a dozen girls doing Latin-American dances to the beat of a bongo drum on a little floor between rows of tables. Finally the girls chose partners including me — for a conga line around the room. Lots of fun for one reasonably priced drink.
One entertainment I passed up was a revue called Nobody Loves A Smart Ass above one of the two Original Old Absinthe Houses on Bourbon Street. (One had the original location, the other the original bar in another spot.) I asked an acquaintance if it was any good, and he replied discreetly, “Well, it’s been running for two years.”
I didn’t hear much French in New Orleans, and was told that all Frenchlanguage newspapers have died out. But a kind of French is still spoken by the Cajuns in the bayous along the Mississippi River, descended, of course, from the Acadians ruthlessly expelled from the Maritimes two hundred years ago. (The famous Lvanpeline is well known there, but Louisianans make it rhyme with “wine.”)
My final memory of lovely New Orleans is of a slender crescent moon cradled in a cold blue sky above the Crescent City. I hope to revisit it when it's warmer—and when Mardi Gras will be well over. ★