The Saturn Bar (3067 St. Claude Ave., 504/949-7532) seemed like one of those New Orleans places that was too weird, too delicate and just too improbable to survive very much change. Things piled up there, creating an untidy, unlikely but endlessly fascinating patina of trash and treasure over practically every surface. In much the way that fixing the plaster walls inside the Napoleon House might degrade that legendary spot’s own identity, it seemed like even a good cleaning would somehow threaten this Ninth Ward bar’s gruff but rare character.
Yet when massive change came crashing down, the Saturn Bar not only survived but also reinvented itself –– and in some ways made itself better, albeit after a difficult period of loss and upheaval.
The bar’s owner, O’Neil Broyard, died in December 2005 while the place was still closed down in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. The man was the heart and soul of the Saturn. He founded it in 1960, taking over a space that had been a succession of blue collar bars beforehand. In more recent years, he was its perpetual bartender, overseeing a crumbling scene of hard-core daytime drinkers; Bywater bohemian artsy types; brave tourists; and the occasional celebrity, whose visits are still memorialized in faded photos stapled to the walls.
He did more than open the doors and pour the drinks. He lent a hard gravity to the place. The Saturn Bar was his domain as surely as the lion’s bone-scattered den. The haphazard altar of dust-coated trinkets, the collage of girlie photos, the trophies and hats and miscellany behind the bar were all of his slow making, and the take-it-or-leave-it attitude that hung on the place as heavily as its musty aroma was his also.
Broyard’s death could have spelled the end of the Saturn Bar, but the torch was passed to his family. Even for the most experienced bar owner, picking up the keys to a place as odd and idiosyncratic as the Saturn would have to be like learning your way around a steam engine. It was inevitable that some things would change here as they learned to run the place. Fans of the Saturn Bar were relieved it would reopen after Katrina and its founder’s death, but some also were anxious about what a revamped Saturn would be like. Happily, things have turned out pretty well here, even if it’s not the same old place.
The new owners began by carting out a layer or two of clutter and outright debris. Far from a gutting, this had the rejuvenating effect of a good pruning. The doors still open to a scene that looks like a hallucinatory rummage sale, though now with half as many items and a lot more room in which to move around and take things in.
One trademark of the Saturn has always been its offhand collection of paintings by Mike Frolich, a retired diver and neighborhood friend of Broyard’s who started creating them around the time the bar first opened. Now, these ‘60s-era works of history, fantasy and ominous visions stand out around more clearly than ever.
A post-Katrina loss was the Saturn Bar’s heroic relic of a jukebox, which played three 45s for a quarter through a gravely speaker just this side of audible. More than compensating, however, is the bar’s new life as a music venue.
Eclectic local bands and touring alt rock acts now perform in the rear room, a feat that would have been impossible in the old days. There was a pool table in this back room, but the space was so thickly piled with power tools, paperwork, crates and lumber that it could barely be used for anything but a narrow passage to the harrowing restrooms far in the darkened rear. Today that is all cleared out, opening space for a band, a dance floor and more reliable access to the short wooden mezzanine built about 8 feet above it, a second level for patrons to peer down on the doings from three sides. The music schedule is irregular (see the bar’s MySpace page for updates), but band nights can be unforgettable fun when the musicians, the crowds and the arcane ambiance of the Saturn all click together.
The bar itself has been rebuilt, and it is better stocked now, but the Saturn still is not the place to order a Sazerac or quiz the bartenders on the finer points of bitters. This is a place for a shot and a beer. While the band is playing in the rescued back room or while you gaze around at the stripped-back but still mesmerizing and essential neon and bric-a-brac atmosphere of the place, raise that beer and that shot both to the Saturn’s late creator and to the caretakers at its helm today.