Julia Street with the Poydras Parrot

The Pursuit to Answer Eternal Questions

The exotic and only partially documented lives of Hungarian-born Flora Gellert (1895-1985) and her sister Piroska (1904-’91), better-known by their stage names – Nita and Zita – have intrigued and frustrated biographers and inspired Lisa D’Amour’s locally produced Off-Broadway play, which garnered a 2003 OBIE award.

Dear Julia,

Several years ago I remember reading an article in some publication (can’t remember which one) about the Polka Dot Sisters. It was a charming story about the sisters who lived together and everything in their house was polka dots and they wore polka dot clothing, etc. Is there any chance you could tell their story again? I have tried to Google it and can’t find it. It was such a great and warm story about the New Orleans we all know and love and the very eccentric sisters.

Susan Lucchesi, C.R.M.C.
New Orleans


While I would admit that the story of Flora and Piroska Gellert is an intriguing one, I would hardly call it warm. Once globetrotting exotic dancers, the sisters retired from the stage in the 1940s and taught ladies’ exercise classes before retreating to their Marigny cottage, where they lived for decades as eccentric recluses. Although their sometimes bizarrely embellished personal belongings became coveted and costly collectibles and their lives were creatively explored in an acclaimed locally produced stage production, the sisters themselves died in obscure poverty and were laid to rest in Hebrew Rest cemetery. When Piroska died, in 1991, only three people attended her funeral: the undertaker, the rabbi and the sisters’ neighbor.

The exotic and only partially documented lives of Hungarian-born Flora Gellert (1895-1985) and her sister Piroska (1904-’91), better-known by their stage names – Nita and Zita – have intrigued and frustrated biographers and inspired Lisa D’Amour’s locally produced Off-Broadway play, which garnered a 2003 OBIE award. On Sun., Aug. 18, 1996, Times-Picayune writer J. E. Bourgoyne penned an informative and poignant profile of the late Gellert sisters; the article was called “Sister Act” and should be readily accessible at any public library or through online newspaper archive services.


Dear Julia,

My family lived Uptown in the 1980s while I was in high school. There was a private social club for high school kids called “Valencia” on Valence Street a couple blocks from St. Charles Avenue. Valencia held an annual “Southern Ball” I attended one year where the guys dressed as Confederate soldiers and the girls dressed as Southern belles in frilly hoop dresses. (I sometimes wonder whether I dreamed the experience, which now may be viewed as politically incorrect by some.) How long was Valencia in existence, and who owned and operated it? How long did it hold the Southern Ball? Was there ever any public criticism of the Southern Ball? Poydras hopefully remembers flying around Valencia and feeling disoriented from the Old South time warp.

John Gisleson
Pittsburgh, PA

 
John, Poydras stopped flying around Valencia after that night during duck hunting season when one of the kid’s father thought he was a mallard and reached for a shotgun in his trunk. The distraction of a covey of low-flying pigeons may have been all that saved Poydras’ life.

In late 1949, Daniel T. Manget Jr. and his wife, Marjorie, proposed a radical new idea for teen entertainment. Each of 400 families would invest in their children’s future by buying $125 memberships in a new privately funded youth center. The new $55,000 Valencia Club on Dryades Street at Valence Street was a young people’s country club featuring a dance floor, tennis court and soda fountain, offering teen members a safe place to socialize.

The Civil War was fought between 1861 and ’65, and centennial observances were in high gear when, in 1963, Mrs. Joseph J. Hebert Jr., Valencia’s director of social activities, initiated the Southern Ball saying she “wanted to give the girls a taste of their rich Southern heritage and a little glimpse of real Southern charm.”

Whether or not the ball was ever publicly criticized, coverage in the local morning paper appears to have been uniformly positive. Hosted by the eight “coteries” or girls’ social clubs within Valencia, the Southern Ball continued until the late 1980s, when money trouble and dwindling membership shuttered the Uptown club.


Dear Julia,

As a local kid growing up in the 1960s, I have a clear memory of noontime whistles or sirens. I never gave it much thought at the time, since it signaled to me that it was time for either lunch or recess. I remember asking my mom about them and she told me it was a signal to tell the men at a nearby brewery it was time to take a break and eat lunch. I never really thought that was the whole truth but it was enough to satisfy my curiosity at the time. I may have been a young and relatively innocent child of the Cold War, but I wasn’t dumb. Those “noon whistles” were really air raid sirens, weren’t they?

Katherine Hope
Metairie


Yes, they were air raid sirens.

In late 1952, the city of New Orleans began installing a civil defense system comprised of a command center and a network of air raid sirens. Initial plans called for 67 sirens, the first of which was installed at the intersection of Esplanade Avenue and Decatur Street on Sept. 23, 1952.

Initial siren testing went badly, with many units found to be defective. Even after the whole network was up and running there were problems with theft and habitation by birds and small animals.

Initially, the sirens were tested only once a month but, as fears of nuclear holocaust increased later in the 1950s, they were tested at noon every day except Sunday. Anyone who grew up here between the ’50s and ’70s knew the daily drill, even if they eventually forgot its significance and the system was allowed to slide into disrepair. By July ’78, the city still had a network of 90 air raid sirens, only one of which still worked – the unit atop City Hall.


Dear Julia,

Why are so many porch ceilings throughout the city painted pale blue? I have heard various explanations, ranging from bug control to ghosts to good luck but am hoping you may know more about this old New Orleans tradition.

Ann Chambliss
Shreveport


Although many local families practice this custom, it isn’t unique to the New Orleans area. Depending on where you live and whom you ask, the name of the shade and the reason for the tradition will vary considerably.     

The Gullah people of Georgia and South Carolina believe the shade called “haint blue” resembles water and is useful for preventing water-fearing evil spirits (haints) from entering their homes. On the other hand, many other Southerners claim blue porch ceilings look like the sky and discourage spiders and insects from gathering there. Further away, in the Pacific Northwest, the pale blue porch ceiling color is known as “Aurora Blue” and is associated with a mid-19th century Christian commune. Painting a ceiling to look like sky would also have appealed to Victorians who sought in nature inspiration for the colors they used when painting their homes.


Dear Julia,

Why are there Russian Orthodox crosses on the steeples of the St. Louis Cathedral? I’ve been visiting the city for years and always pose for family pictures in front of the cathedral, but I only recently noticed the crosses. When were they installed, and what’s their significance?

Helen Esterhazy
Mobile


The crosses with angled cross bars may look Russian Orthodox, but they’re actually metropolitan crosses. In 1850, the Diocese of New Orleans was elevated to the Archdiocese of New Orleans, and Bishop Antoine Blanc became its first archbishop. As an archdiocese, the city became, in ecclesiastical terms, a metropolitan see, meaning, essentially, it became an archdiocesan capitol city. This means the city itself, known as a “see,” became the place where the archbishop, the “metropolitan,” is based and oversees an ecclesiastical territory, known as the “metropolis.” The metropolitan crosses on the cathedral spires indicate the church is the metropolitan’s church – the archbishop’s church – for this archdiocese.


Julia on TV

Look for the Julia Street question on “Steppin’ Out,” every Friday at 6:30 p.m. on WYES/Channel 12. The show features reviews, news and features about the New Orleans entertainment scene. Viewers who can answer Julia’s weekly question can call in for prizes. Tell ’em you read about the show in New Orleans Magazine.


Win a Court of Two Sisters Jazz Brunch or Lunch at the Rib Room

Here is a chance to eat, drink and listen to music, and have your curiosity satiated all at once. Send Julia a question. If we use it, you’ll be eligible for a monthly drawing for one of two Jazz Brunch gift certificates for two at The Court of Two Sisters in the Vieux Carré. To take part, send your question to: Julia Street, c/o New Orleans Magazine, 110 Veterans Blvd., Suite 123, Metairie, LA 70005 or email: Errol@MyNewOrleans.com. This month’s winners are: John Gisleson, Pittsburgh, Pa.; and Susan Lucchesi, New Orleans.
 

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