In 1981, a young woman moves to the French Quarter and lucks into a job at the Toulouse Theatre, home of the hit show One Mo' Time.
- by Nan Parati
The last day of the school year was now on the Thank-Goodness schedule, and Ellis Anderson, my best-since-seventh-grade friend celebrated my pending release by calling to invite me to jump in on a new adventure she had found: Life in New Orleans. She left college just shy of graduation to move there, had found a wonderland of possibility, and, recognizing my struggles with the middle-class norm in North Carolina, knew I needed a break.
The very day school was out I jumped on a midnight train to New Orleans with the intent of staying for two whole unencumbered weeks.
The long train bridge over Lake Pontchartrain made me reconsider my plan. It energized the nightmare I have carried since babyhood: driving down a road that gets narrower and narrower until the car drops off into the ocean and everybody drowns. I don’t know where that nightmare came from, but I dream it religiously.
We didn’t drown and instead made it to hardcore land (as stable as I thought the Louisiana ground was in those days) and wound our way through this new landscape of graveyards with tombs that sat on the ground like little houses. Seeing those stones invited the Spirit of the Mystical Past into my soul, where it buried a hook and planted me in.
Ellis met me at the station. I looked around downtown as we drove through it, and then through the French Quarter itself, and within 10 literal and not-exaggerated minutes, I knew I lived in New Orleans. Ellis resided on Esplanade Avenue, just outside the Quarter, and a mere 12 hours after my arrival I called the high school principal to tell him that I was sorry, but I lived in New Orleans now and would not be available to continue my job at his school ever again.
I now had no means of work. Ellis was a self-employed musician who played with her band in neighborhood clubs and the streets of the Quarter for money that enthusiastic tourists tossed in her fiddle case. Ellis and I met sharing a music stand in orchestra class. She had developed her talent and I had not, but boy was it fun watching her entertain the crowds in Jackson Square, on Royal Street, all through the Quarter where people wore anything in the world but white linen pants, and if you saw their underwear, well that was to be expected.
Moments after calling my “disappointed” principal, I marched off into the Quarter to find my own adventure. Not a musician, nor a stripper, nary even a tap-dancer, I had to find my own thing. In the French Quarter you invented your own authenticity, invented it block-by-block so that by the time you reached Canal Street you weren’t even the same person who’d started in on Esplanade. Anything more secure than street music seemed sinful to me that day, but I set out to find my calling.
Rounding a corner off Royal, I saw it. At 615 Toulouse Street sat a theater named for its street, where a live stage show called One Mo’ Time was playing. I had theater experience! I walked in and left about 12 minutes later with my new job: I would be the house and bar manager for Russell Rocke's Toulouse Theatre.
Never mind at all that my theatrical experience consisted of being on the stage and not out in front, managing anything, or that I not only didn’t drink, but completely avoided bars since my non-drinking lifestyle had rendered me far too unsophisticated to hang out with the kids in them who did drink; I had a job! In New Orleans! In the French Quarter! Where I now lived – or rather, sponged off Ellis!
So I didn’t drink. And I had no management experience. Larger than either of those potential pitfalls was my new real job, the one I could never have prayed hard enough to Baby Jesus to have in life; I had to keep tabs on James Booker.
James was thrilling, genius, magical, and unpredictable. It was explained to me that James was out of prison under the conditions that he stay out of trouble and securely employed at the Toulouse Theater. Whether or not this was expressly true I don’t know, but the “out of trouble” part was part of my job description.
James still enjoyed drinking, even if he was off the heroin that had awarded him the prison sentence in the first place. Liquored up or sober, one didn’t know what James might say to one of the patrons gathered around his piano as they waited for the interior doors to the theater to open. He might even throw up in their direction and continue playing, as he did once in our tenure together. But he was James Booker and I got to work with him every single day, there, 40 years ago in the French Quarter.
And that thrill was just out in the lobby. The show, One Mo’ Time, had been written by New Orleans son Vernel Bagneris, who was by that time gone with his original cast from the musical to a long-running off-Broadway production of the show.
In New Orleans, the cast featured legends-in-the-making Juanita Brooks, Lady B.J. Crosby, Wanda Rouzan, Topsy Chapman, Thais Clark and Lillian Boutte. The live band was a revolving crowd of established and future legends that included Lionel Ferbos, Pud Brown, Walter Payton, Big Al Carson, Charlie Gabriel, Lars Edegren, Orange Kellin, Teddy Riley, Al Bemis, Steve Pistorius, and many more. Even the costumer designer was JoAnn Clevenger, whose day job was founding and running the James Beard award-nominated Upperline Restaurant.
Lord Heaven, I got to see those people every day, talk to them, hear their stories, and watch that show every night except Tuesdays when we were dark. I had no idea what paradise I had walked into.
One night I sat in the box office selling and taking tickets. For some reason, most likely because I was 24 and thought I was cute, I was wearing a paper bag as a hat. A man approached and asked to see one of the show’s producers, Mr. Lyle Leverich. Ever polite, I asked if I might tell Mr. Leverich who was calling. The man said, “Tennessee Williams.”
Lesson learned: don’t ever look intentionally stupid in the French Quarter, because the likelihood that one of your lifelong heroes could walk up at any unexpected moment is just about 93%, a statistic that remains solid to this day.
I found out that Mr. Tennessee was looking for someone to paint his house, the one on Dumaine, near Rampart. I told a respectable house painter-friend that I could get him the job, under one condition: I got to be his assistant for one day. While the painter didn’t really need an extra assistant, he also didn’t mind having a free one. I got paid just by being there.
That day in Mr. Tennessee’s house, I studied his bookcase. All I wanted was to see what books he read, what inspired him, as he inspired me, a fledgling, wannabe playwright. I left quietly, without pay but no doubt richer than when I arrived.
In those days I thought no one would pass away, move on, grow old or disappear; I thought it was regular life, that we’d all be there in the Quarter forever. It didn’t work out that way though. Everybody grew up and away, off to stardom, off to Jesus, or adventures, expanded lives.
The magic remains though, just look down the street. See it coming at you? Squint your eyes. It’s there.
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As the sign writer for the Jazz Fest, Nan Parati may be the most collected artist in the world, but nobody knows who she is. Other than that, she’s lived in the French Quarter and the Treme, was the sign writer at Whole Food Company (before Whole Foods Market,) worked for Jimmy Buffet for a while, has made a life’s work out of festival design all over the country, has won awards for her plays, has a film script revving up for production and just sold a restaurant she opened in Massachusetts after Katrina took out her house and sent her out of her mind. Now she’s back in her right mind and having a real good time.
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