Joy, Revisited

I wasn’t around to see the Joy Theatre in its heyday, though I did catch a few movies there during its inglorious slide toward the mothballs of lost New Orleans nostalgia. Watching Spider-Man at the Joy in 2002 was memorable not so much for the film’s superhero thrills, but for the super-sized cups of soda that people in the audience periodically hurled at the battered screen when the villainous Green Goblin appeared, not to mention the gelatinous feel of a floor, its queasy mysteries invisible in the darkened theater but impossible to ignore.

Still, even in such a woebegone state the old place had character, from the marquee stretching around the corner, to the mid-century contours of the interior to, most strikingly, the towering, vertical sign outside that spelled Joy to all who passed on Canal Street.

The Joy’s days as a movie house ended in 2003, when the theater went into a deep and prolonged hibernation. But today, that Joy sign shines again and the theater’s doors are open, the result of a renovation and revitalization, one that happened surprisingly fast once the wheels started turning. It was also a reinvention that gives the theater a new life and a new role along a stretch of Canal Street that’s starting to get some of its old vigor back too.

This new Joy Theatre is still a theater, but a calendar of live shows is the draw now rather than the daily matinee.

This Friday, Jan. 13, that calendar includes a performance of "Joint’s Jumpin’,” a musical revue of the golden age of New Orleans R&B. These are the hits any self-respecting New Orleans music fan knows by heart – by the likes of Fats Domino, Lloyd Price, Allen Toussaint, Huey “Piano” Smith, Irma Thomas, the Dixie Cups, Al “Carnival Time” Johnson and Professor Longhair – performed by veterans of the local club circuit. The following day, Jan. 14, the music stays local but the tempo changes a bit for a show by Cowboy Mouth, the long-lived, hard-touring, powerhouse New Orleans rock band. Crowd participation is a huge part of this band’s shows – but then if you’re a Cowboy Mouth fan or if you even just caught them at Jazz Fest one year, you already know that.

The new Joy is configured to accommodate parties and all kinds of events (it hosted a drag show last weekend). The shift from forlorn movie house to modern performance venue included the installation of a state-of-the-art sound and light system, a new stage, dressing rooms and bars, including one on the vintage, 250-seat balcony, plus elevators to the upper levels and more restrooms.

There is such gleaming newness to the place – the fresh white paint, the sleek ticket window, the radiant glow around the Joy sign’s lettering – that it almost seems like a retro-inspired replica. But the Joy is the real deal, which is what makes the venue – and its return – so special.

As the new Joy took shape last year, its developers received a cache of vintage photos showing the theater through the decades (the collection, posted to the Joy’s Facebook page, is worth a wander). There’s a lot of history here, and hopefully there’s now a lot more of it yet to be made.

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