Night moves: Peggy Scott Laborde’s latest prime-time nostalgia trip confirms what we’ve always known: The nighttime has always been the right time to be in New Orleans.
By Dave Walker
17 November 2004, The Times-Picayune
The latest in a long series of keepsake documentaries from Peggy Scott Laborde, “The Nightlife That Was” debuts Thursday at 7 p.m. on WYES-Channel 12.
Laborde’s handiwork is predictable in the best sense of the description, always chock-full of the kind of memories that longtime New Orleanians cling to like Mardi Gras throws cling to high tree branches along St. Charles Avenue.
“Nightlife” is no exception, though it takes several surprising side trips while exploring such beloved haunts as the Roosevelt Hotel’s Blue Room and the Monteleone’s Swan Room.
Surprise: In “Nightlife,” Times-Picayune Theater Critic David Cuthbert says that the Blue Room saw the world debut of Sonny & Cher’s nightclub act, their putdown shtick evidently pinched from Louis Prima and Keely Smith.
Cher’s needling repartee with stage stooge Sonny would eventually conquer prime time and provide them both with second acts in life, a rarity for pop stars.
That makes the Blue Room a genuine pop landmark beyond the many specific and dear memories most locals hold of life landmarks celebrated or touring stars enjoyed there.
Elsewhere, “Nightlife” works hard to get beyond the usual suspects.
Don’t worry. Bourbon Street memories are, as expected, well- explored here, not least of which is the mental movie of a teenage Jimmy Anselmo delivering food from his father’s French Quarter restaurants to the employees of neighboring strip joints.
Call it The Adolescence That Was.
Also revisited is young Bill Clinton’s visit to watch hero Al Hirt gig on Bourbon. Laborde got a quickie interview with Clinton when he was here to sign his book, literally hours before he underwent heart-repair surgery.
Additional kudos to Laborde for chasing down a few tales from pioneering French Quarter gay bars.
The brief taste of that side topic offered in “Nightlife” could be expanded into a “That Was” of its own.
Also visited is the legendary R&B hangout The Dew Drop Inn, as well as the many venues in which underage New Orleanians practiced their night moves, including Catholic Youth Organization dances at which the entertainment was often members of the New Orleans musical pantheon, including Dr. John and Irma Thomas.
Fat City follies
The two most intriguing segments, though, have the least to do with “legendary” New Orleans: Fat City, the ad hoc suburban entertainment district that hit its stride in the 1970s; and The Warehouse, the fabled hippie-era concert venue.
I tracked down a couple of Laborde’s interview sources to elaborate on their “Nightlife” reminiscences.
Maria-Kay Chetta, a young habitue of Fat City, recalled how the physical proximity of the clubs made for a movable cocktail party.
“You could wander from bar to bar,” she told me. “That was the fun of it. You could park in one place and go from there.
“I just thought it was special that you could just wander. You’d get tired of one place and leave and go to another. That was the fun of it.”
Aside from the ease of movement within the cluster of clubs, what was the appeal of the Fat City nightspots?
“Some had live music or piano, some had entertainment,” Chetta said. “One of them had a ‘Gong Show’-type deal. Most were just lounges.”
But: “Fat City was unbelievable in its time,” she added. “Like I said in the show, it was trashy looking. You know how Christmas decorations look in the daylight? That’s how Fat City looked in the daytime.
“It just was a whole different dreamy thing in the night.”
Amazing, but Laborde’s special reveals that Fat City apparently was named for a neighborhood snowball stand.
A local rock landmark
Not so hard to believe is that The Warehouse actually inhabited an old Tchoupitoulas Street warehouse, its cement floor covered in carpet remnants.
It was the local franchise of a national trend of the day, the rock ballroom.
“It was the Fillmore East or the Fillmore West of the South . . . during a time when long hair meant something,” said Sidney Smith, who at age 17 began taking photos of Warehouse performances. “It was pre-Tip’s, long before the House of Blues.
“It’s amazing the groups that played The Warehouse, mega-groups. It was not a large venue, holding maybe 3,000 people, and you could sit right up next to the stage.
“It was crowded, it was sweaty, it was leaky and we loved it.”
According to Smith, such huge acts as The Who and Elton John played the Warehouse.
Also Bob Dylan, Joe Cocker and Dr. John during his psychedelic Night Tripper phase.
Smith’s favorite Warehouse memories, however, were made by the Allman Brothers Band, then a scuffling blues combo from Macon, Ga.
“There was something very magical about the Allman Brothers playing The Warehouse,” Smith said. “You just can’t put it into words.”
You can put it into pictures, however, and Smith did. You may visit some of them at www.sidneysmithphotos.com .
“These guys just really lit up the place,” said Smith of the early Allmans. “There was no curfew at The Warehouse, and they would play into the wee hours, then go back to the hotel bar and play in the bar, then come out into the park and play for free the next day. They were addicted to playing.”
Among other things. But that’s a different documentary entirely.
Asked for a single favorite Warehouse memory, Smith cited the time Duane Allman jammed with Peter Green, front man for Fleetwood Mac.
Of course, this was in the days before Stevie Nicks and Lindsey Buckingham took Fleetwood Mac from playing converted cotton warehouses to football stadiums, an evolution that illustrates music- industry changes that doomed venues such as the mellow Warehouse.
“The era of arena rock was upon us,” Smith said. “The Warehouse became obsolete.”
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TV columnist Dave Walker can be reached at email@example.com or at (504) 826-3429.
Copyright (c) 2004 Bell & Howell Information and Learning Company. All rights reserved.