Pete Fountain has been to the top of the musical mountain so many times the heights have become dizzying.
A living legend, the jazz clarinet virtuoso has played five U.S. State Dinners by command performance for three presidents, made 59 appearances on The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson and performed for Pope John Paul II and a crowd estimated at 150,000 for the New Orleans Papal Mass.
He also played two years with Lawrence Welk on the West Coast, appeared on The Ed Sullivan Show and did variety shows with Bob Hope, Bing Crosby, Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin, Andy Williams and Perry Como. He’s won an Emmy for his pre-game music at the 1990 Super Bowl, he’s reigned as Bacchus, several of his albums have gone gold and at Musical Legends Park on Bourbon Street there’s a life-sized bronze of Pete, along with those of Fats Domino and Al Hirt, among others.
A fixture at Jazz Fest, it’s been a dream ride for Pierre Dewey Fontaine, who Bing Crosby called Pedro.
But … there’s no place like home.
“I’ve done everything with Pete – the Pope, the state dinners, Bob Hope, Carson,” says Benny Harrell, Pete’s son-in-law, manager and co-captain, “and they’ve all been great – but none of it compares to how people treat Pete on Mardi Gras Day.” That is when his Half-Fast Walking Club hits the streets.
“They want to touch him, take pictures. They shout out his name. And there’s a whole side of Pete that comes out that day. You can see it. He’s got that gleam in his eye, that little bad boy look. There’s a twinkle in his eyes you don’t see all the time,” says Harrell. “It’s a real love affair between the people of New Orleans and Pete. It’s always special, and there’s no experience that can match it.”
2010 is a milestone – it’s year 50 for this 79-year-old Warren Easton graduate to lead Pete Fountain’s Half-Fast Walking Club, never to be confused with any group that marches. For the past 20 years, originating at Commander’s Palace at 6 a.m. Mardi Gras Day, this renegade group of revelers prances, dances and stumbles along the St. Charles Avenue parade route ahead of the Zulu organization, and somehow staggers – after many stops – toward the eventual finish line at the New Orleans Hilton Riverside Hotel, where they have lunch.
“Fifty years just flew by. It’s hard to believe,” says Fountain. “In the early days it was really crazy – it was a good drinking day. Now I have a glass of wine and that’s about it.”
“We’ve matured a little bit – and I use that word lightly,” says Harrell. “Those years when Phil Harris was on stage at the club, then Sunday they would roll in Bacchus. It was a long, long weekend. Pete would look after me and I’d look after him. He’d watch me a lot. We’re very close, real friends. Now the tide has turned – now I watch him more than he watched me.”
Pete and his band no longer walk. They ride in a “streetcar” that leads the parade. His band has been together a long time. Of the bass player, Oliver “Stick” Felix, says Fountain, “I think we played The Last Supper together.” There was an official Half-Fast truck, but it was at Pete’s home in Bay St. Louis, Miss., when Hurricane Katrina hit.
Beverly Fountain is Pete’s wife of 58 years. They met when she was 17. “You were 19 when I met you,” she tells him. “I’m still 19,” he replies.
Beverly is the de facto historian for the club. “When we came back here in 1959 after two years on the coast with Lawrence Welk, Franky and Johnny’s had a streetcar that was unbelievable in the Elks Krewe of Orleanians,” she says. “They asked us if we wanted to ride. We were living Uptown at the time. It was terrific. Pete played and that experience spawned everything.”
Fountain always wanted his own walking club and so in 1960 it began with about a dozen couples walking from Pete’s club on Bourbon Street. That lasted exactly one year, with the ladies deciding it was better left to the boys.
“The guys got sloshed and the women wouldn’t walk with ’em anymore,” says Beverly, who walked that first year.
It was about at this point that Beverly Fountain proclaimed it a “Half-Fast” club, play on words intended. “One year was enough with the men,” she says. Another problem, recalls Nonemacher, was that when they were first organized – a term rarely used with this group – “they were changing wives and girlfriends like they were changing clothes.”
Part of that equation was that Jack Daniel’s was a sponsor, and every member got a half-pint as the walk began. Like the David Allen Coe song, “Jack Daniel’s If You Please Knock Me to My Knees,” it did exactly that to many of the Half-Fast members.
The club grew in size over the years and eventually opted for the St. Charles route over Bourbon Street. Through the years they have costumed, honoring virtually every different nationality and group. They have been Mississippi riverboat gamblers, gauchos, pirates, King Arthur and his court, Northwest mounted police, Dutch boys, Vikings and conquistadors.
For the year of “Not So Beauty and the Beast,” they dressed in women’s dresses with Pete sporting a silver tutu and wearing a crown. He looked lovely.
In 2006 they were scheduled to be Aztec warriors. Katrina claimed the costumes, except for the hats. So Nonemacher improvised. She bought orange sweatshirts to go with the headgear. One of the members complained that they were either going to look like FEMA workers or like they just got released from Central Lockup.
“No you’re not,” she replied. “You’re going to look like Half-Aztecs.”
Because of a rough bout with shingles, Pete couldn’t make the parade that year and was hospitalized. His protégé, Tim Laughlin, substituted and was humbled and honored by the experience. “I was really saddened even though I knew he was OK,” Laughlin says. “They asked me to sit up where he sits but I was hesitant. Mardi Gras was his day.
It wasn’t the same and we missed him. I was pretty bummed out until I put about three beers in me. It got easier after that.”
Fortified with liquid courage, Laughlin says the members of the walking club treated him wonderfully, “as if I had saved the day or something, but we really missed Pete.” After the parade, Fountain called Tim that night to thank him, saying he had seen him doing a live interview. Stealing a page out of Yogi Berra’s quote book, Laughlin told him: “Boss, if you do this again next year, nobody’s going to show up to see you.”
He added, “It was fun but that’s the last time you do this to me.”
When Laughlin met Pete on his 17th birthday, he never thought he’d be performing shows with him and riding with him every Mardi Gras day. “My 21st birthday was coming up and I was telling Pete that Mardi Gras fell on my birthday,” Laughlin recalls. Fountain says, “Why don’t you walk with us?”
“I still have the picture of us playing together. He was dressed as an Argentenian cowboy and I was wearing my Holy Cross band jacket with my 4-year-letter. That was 25 years ago – hard to believe.”
Trumpeter and coronet player Connie Jones, 75, will be in that number for the 50th procession, after starting in 1967.
One of Fountain’s closest friends, he first met Pete at Lenfant’s on Canal Boulevard “when I was too young to get in” but did anyway, wearing his dad’s suit. When the Basin Street Six trumpet player George Girard left the group in 1953, Jones says, the band hired him. He was 19 at the time. He calls Pete almost every day.
“It’s a fun day. We get to play a lot. It’s just a whole lotta friends,” he says. “Pete’s been around so long. He’s never gotten into trouble, been married forever. He’s just a guy who’s working at what he does. He loves the people and they love him.”
Now 250 strong with a waiting list, many of the former “banner boys” who carried the banner as kids are now members. They come from all over the country to participate, and there are 62 out-of-towners. For the 25th walk, they wore silver-gray tuxedos. For the 50th, they’re wearing ivory tuxes with matching shirts, ties and fedoras.
“They’re like a bunch of women,” says Nonemacher, who’s dubbed the “Half-Fast den mother.” “They’re so prissy when I show them what they’re going to wear.” The themes and the costumes are selected by Beverly Fountain and Nonemacher, who are good friends. “Bev and I do it,” she says. “If we left it to them, they’d wear baseball caps and blue jeans.”
At a meeting before Christmas, Nonemacher stressed the importance of this year’s costume. “I don’t want y’all looking like an un-made bed during the parade. This is a special year. Get your tuxedos fitted.” Then came the grumbling, which Nonemacher simply dismisses with, “They’re just a fun, fun bunch of children.”
There have been years when there were costume problems. Jimmy Ponsetti, a member for 46 years who has held various official positions in the club – most of them upright – recalled the year he showed up and forgot his pants, only had his boxers on. “So I just went that way,” he says. “No big deal.”
Steve Plotkin, the last living walking charter member, created the charter and filed the papers for the original group before he became a judge. His feelings about the club pretty much say it all. Pete, he says, has been such an active member of the club, always appearing at meetings and functions. “The members think so highly of him as an individual and there’s no doubt that he has not only been the glue that kept the originals marching together, but a group that has grown into 250-300 members.
“The experience is unique,” says Plotkin. “You can ride a float but there’s nothing like walking ahead of the floats, swapping doubloons, flowers and beads for kisses.”
Every year, Fountain addresses the members before they begin with the words: “This is your day,” as if it wasn’t his, too – emphasizing their role, downplaying his. For years his dad, Red Fountain, walked. This year sons Kevin and Jeff will join the fold. Through the years, celebrities from Frankie Laine and Phil Harris to M*A*S*H’s Gary “Radar” Burghoff and John Goodman have walked.
Merlin Schaeffer of Schaeffer’s Seafood in Bucktown, Chris “Bozo” Vodanovich of Bozo’s Restaurant in Metairie and co-captain Elmo Spellman, Fountain’s optician, are long-time local members who have been active participants.
As the years went by and the older members got even older, the club paid to have a specially-built truck for incapacitated members who still want to participate. “That’s where you go if you’re on injured reserve,” a member explains.
And then there are experiences like the year one member who had plied himself with Jack Daniel’s and bloody Marys walked up to a woman who was dressed up as a nun and offered her a flower for a kiss. “She was standoffish,” says Plotkin, so he then offered her both a flower and a doubloon. “She was non-committal about that too,” he recalled. So the member decided to grab the woman and plant a kiss on her.
“She was aghast,” says Plotkin. “She said, ‘I really am a nun.’”
John Thieler, who has also been victimized by the magic elixir from Lynchburg, Tenn., admits he always “looks forward to making an idiot of myself every year.” One year, he surpassed himself. “I climbed a tree on St. Charles to give a girl in the tree some doubloons. Made sense to me.”
Well, as everyone who lives here knows, not everything in this city is supposed to make sense, nor in many cases can some behavior be explained. It is what it is, plain and simple.
Laughlin recalls the year that Al Hirt came out of his club and walked a few blocks with Pete. “Jumbo was dressed as a pirate. He had the patch, the hook and the parrot and looked so cool playing with his good arm. All I could do was stare at the two of them. What a great memory.”
In the early years of the Saints, the late 1960s, many of the players, including Joe Wendryhoski and Davy Whitsell, walked with the team. It was always a dicey situation. Beverly Fountain says in 1967 a group of the players, including Whitsell, showed up at her house at 5 a.m. “They knocked on the door. They were ready to go. They had been up all night.” It wasn’t pretty, she says, as they walked on top of cars parked along the route.
One year, she says, they walked between the Rex floats, and the members wanted to know, “Who were those people?”
The group used to meander more than it does today. That changed when the Zulu organization opted to take the traditional St. Charles route, so they had to precede them. There have always been pit stops along the way, but they have changed through the years. Some of those include or included Kolb’s Restaurant, Swiss Bakery, Mike Anderson’s Seafood restaurant, Faux Pas bar, Nick Karno’s Club, Pat O’Brien’s and Hotel Monteleone.
The ladies’ arm of the organization, “The Better Half,” was organized in 1975. They have had banquets through the years and these days on Mardi Gras Day you can find them at the Monteleone during the parade, eating and drinking in the Carousel Bar and behaving somewhat better than their counterparts. “Guys don’t know how to pace themselves,” says Beverly. “Some just fall along the wayside.”
Anybody who has spent any time with Pete Fountain not only knows what a city treasure he is, but also how genuine he is, and how much he loves his city and his people. No story tells more about him than when Russ Nonemacher, a charter member of the group, was dying in 1999. “He was at death’s door,” wife Marilyn recalls, “and he so wanted to make the parade in 2000.”
Since one of his favorite things was eating raw oysters, Pete showed up at their home one day, carrying two five-gallon containers of raw oysters. They went in the backyard on a cold day. Pete opened the oysters and they ate them together. Russell Nonemacher didn’t make the 2000 parade … but, then again, upon further review, he did. Pete put Russ’s likeness on that year’s doubloons. And when he couldn’t find a CD with Pete’s “Just a Closer Walk” for the funeral home, Fountain said he would provide one.
Instead, he provided himself, and played at Nonemacher’s funeral.
Pete and Beverly Fountain have three children (not including Pete), six grandchildren and two great-grandchildren.
Before Christmas in 2009, they were looking over some old Half-Fast pictures at lunch one day. Married 58 years, he looked at her and says, “My girl – she puts up with me.”
“It’s been a good ride,” Beverly replies.
Yes, it has.