After working 60 years at the French Quarter's famed Hotel Monteleone, Al Barras has become an institution - and the subject of an award-winning documentary.
- by Kirsten Reneau
- photos by Ellis Anderson and courtesy Full Armor Productions
It’s not much of an exaggeration to say everyone in the French Quarter knows Alvin Barras, at least by his nickname “Hotel Al.”
Al has eyes so blue they catch people off guard, but everything else about him - his thick New Orleanian accent, his constant half smile - puts people at ease. He’s sociable in an endangered, southern gentleman sort of way. It’s not hard to see why his has become such a memorable face in Hotel Monteleone.
The veteran bellman has now gone from neighborhood character to actual celebrity. The 2017 award-winning documentary short, “Hotel Al,” follows the Louisiana native through the streets of his life and into the legendary Hotel Monteleone, where Al has worked for over half a century.
The Monteleone family still owns and operates the grand dame hotel, a wedding cake of a building that has welcomed actors and diplomats and writers and rock stars since it opened in 1886. Just a block from the Canal Street border of French Quarter, it straddles the line between the city’s Central Business District, where contemporary high rises shoot upward, and the Vieux Carré, where history reigns and some buildings date back three hundred years.
Frank Monteleone is a New York filmmaker, founder of Full Armor Films (sharing executive producer duties with wife Kathleen Monteleone) and part of the hotel family’s fifth generation. When Frank and his New York creative team came to New Orleans for a project in 2016, director Colleen Keeley, met Hotel Al for the first time.
“She immediately said, ‘His is a story that must be told,’” Frank recalls.
Because of the film, Hotel Al’s celebrity keeps growing. In the past two years, the documentary has been selected for a number of film festivals, including Fairhope (Ala.) Film Festival, New Orleans Film Festival, Thin Line Fest (Denton, Texas) and more. It stole hearts at the 2017 New Orleans Film Fest, where it was named “Audience Award Winner for the Best Louisiana Short.” In December 2018, Hotel Al won “Best Documentary” in Atlanta’s Southern Shorts Awards.
Most recently, the documentary has been picked up by Tubi, new free-streaming site with more than 200 partners providing movies, TV shows and documentaries like “Hotel Al.”
In many ways, the short film by Frank works as the entire Monteleone family’s love letter to its long-time employee. Frank had known Al for decades by the time he started filming. The two met at Frank’s first Mardi Gras, “at an age that’s probably too young to admit,” Frank says. Al was running the balcony of the hotel then.
Al knew all the fun people who made a party soar, Frank says. And he still does.
If you have met the man before you see the film, on screen you might recognize some of his tried-and-true jokes and sayings. But hearing them again doesn’t make them less special. It’s like you’re a member of a club -- the winking, laughing and drinking society of Hotel Al.
Al started as a bellman, but he’s done just about every job there is to do at the Monteleone: limousine driver, front bellman, tour conductor and more.
“Now I’m 82. I’m winding down,” he laughs.
It may be difficult for people to imagine that Al had a life before the hotel. After all, he’s been there since 1959, when a night at the Monteleone was $5 a night. As he points out, now you can’t even get a cup of coffee for $5.
Al was a self-described rough kid, the youngest of several siblings, when he convinced his mother to let him join the Navy at 17.
“It was one of the best things that happened in my life,” he says.
By the time he left the Navy, he was 22. He worked another job for a few months before joining the hotel staff. He’s been a fixture there ever since.
The nickname “Hotel Al” was bestowed in 1990. First used just by locals and visitors, now everyone knows him by the moniker, thanks to the documentary. Al admits when they were filming, he had no idea what he was doing really – no script, no rehearsal, just him in front of a camera.
“I was on the levee that busted, I was on Bourbon Street, I was in here,” he says, motioning around the Chart Room, where we sit. The local’s corner bar is right next door to the Monteleone. Hotel Al’s likely the only person in the city allowed to keep an open tab there. “Every day I'd wind up in here.”
He calls himself a million percent Cajun and recites the same joke he uses in the documentary - one he’s no doubt told a hundred times before. It still gets a chuckle from the Chart Room bartender.
“The definition of a Cajun, it's a guy who can look at an acre of rice and tell you how much gumbo it would take to cover it,” he says. Right on cue, we both laugh. “All good,” Al says.
A lot of things are “all good” for Al. I ask if he would ever consider leaving the job, or if he ever has.
“Yeah, if I hit the Powerball I'm leaving tomorrow,” he jokes. “If I hit the Powerball, I'm leaving today. Done, done.’’
Retirement is on Al’s mind. He’s getting older. Moving around is getting harder. But the likelihood of his actually leaving the city or the hotel is low. He says it’s because they won’t let him, and it’s easy to see why; it’s hard to imagine one without the other.
Frank points out that you can see Al has been embraced by his block, his people and, ultimately, every passerby. He’s what people call a “character.”
“He's literally become a part of the fabric of this city. He's become one of the things people love about the Quarter and the hotel,” Frank says.
We walk from the bar to Al’s apartment. It’s catty-corner to Chart Room, no more than 40 steps, but people stop him twice along the short way to say hello. The apartment is on the second floor, and he goes up and down the 17 steps, 8 to 10 times a day. He says as long as he can do that, he’s staying.
When he escorts me back to the bar, three men sit outside and wave him down.
“They got me drunk last night!” he tells me.
“You got us drunk last night!” they correct him.
“Hey fellas,” he says and motions to me. “This lady told me that when I win the Powerball, we’re running away from here and going to Europe.”
Al laughs, which makes everyone else laugh too. He has that power, to control the mood of the room. Whether it comes naturally or from working with the public for 60 years, chicken and egg, no one knows.
“I talk to doctors, lawyers, murderers, dope dealers, who cares?” he says. “It's all people. It's America.
“It's all good.”