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New Orleans Impresarios Put on the Shows
taging a giant ball to raise money for a lost theater, getting an opera star to the airport through a flood, buying an old limousine to transport musicians: New Orleans impresarios have brought the city fabulous music, fascinating performers and a wealth of great stories about their own adventures.
Rock music found a New Orleans home on Tchoupitoulas Street at The Warehouse. Covington attorney John Simmons recalls that back then – circa 1970 – “Rock bands couldn’t rent the Municipal Auditorium.” He, Bill Johnston, Don Fox and Brian Glynn, founded Beaver Productions, and, as Simmons explains, “we were out riding around and we found this warehouse: 28,000 square feet.”
“We paid $150,000. We blacktopped the floors, put in seven exits, more bathrooms than were required.” Simmons says. The opening acts on Jan. 30, 1970, were Fleetwood Mac and the Grateful Dead – who went to the French Quarter after the show and were arrested on a drug charge, recounted in their song, “Truckin.’” A list of The Warehouse’s acts is at Blackstrat.net, the website done by Bob Wahl and John Dubois.
Simmons recalled that The Warehouse, in its 12-year run, brought attention to rock: “I think it broke the ice, got a lot of people thinking it’s not just for hippies, it was fun for everyone.” And, it was profitable. “We made money with it, yes ma’am,” Simmons says. Johnston remembered how they would improvise services. “We bought two old limousines. One time somebody wanted caviar … well, we would just fix red beans and rice for everybody.”
Simmons kept up his legal career, but Johnston continued in the music business, serving for a while as entertainment director of Harrah’s in New Orleans and, until his battle with throat cancer slowed him down, more recently with the Joy Theater. “What I miss most about The Warehouse? You could see so much great talent for such a cheap price,” Johnston says.
Nella Scheyer Ludwig dealt more with classical music performers from the 1940s to the ’70s. Jack Belsom, a longtime opera fan, explained that Ludwig first served on the board of the New Orleans Opera Association and then became active with the New Orleans Opera Guild. The guild, Belsom says, was affiliated with the Metropolitan Opera in New York. With those good New York connections, Ludwig was able to help the Opera Guild here put on concerts with “singers, musicians, dancers, whoever she could bring,” Belsom says. The Bolshoi Ballet came to New Orleans in this way as did a Metropolitan Opera production of The Daughter of the Regiment with Joan Sutherland and Luciano Pavarotti.
According to Ludwig’s grandson, E.B. “Trip” Ludwig III, Pavarotti stayed at the Ludwig home. “There was a huge storm and the neighborhood flooded. We had to use a Ludwig Buildings, Inc. boom truck to get him to the airport.” Dr. Vivienne Monachino Hayne remembers says that “she was a singer, a pianist, a comedienne – and she was a longtime supporter of my father’s (Frank Monachino) Lyric Theater at Tulane.”
Ludwig’s productions were not all with stellar musicians. “She made a great vegetable soup – it took three days,” her grandson says. “And, she had birthday parties in her front yard for kids and grandkids all her life!”
When the iconic French Opera House burned in 1919, New Orleanians sought to rebuild it. Impresario Robert Hayne Tarrant had come to the city from South Carolina and had been putting on productions at the opera house as well as for Grunewald’s and Werlein’s, two music stores. Tarrant decided to spearhead fundraising. A committee of local ladies – all music patrons – was set up and a grand ball was held. “The French Opera Trades Ball” had young ladies representing local industries – including the Crescent City Ice Company and the United Fruit Company – serving in the court, with Ellene White as Queen of Trade.
After the event, the ladies inquired as to the proceeds, and Tarrant was less than forthcoming. They sued him.
Tarrant’s day in court came in 1923. Judge Sam LeBlanc of Civil District Court presided (and was reported to laugh occasionally). The Times-Picayune reporter made sure to note the color of Tarrant’s tie each day, and described his testimony as “suave and modulated.” The “New Orleans society women” suing Tarrant over the ball receipts were Mrs. George Whitney, Mrs. George Penrose, Mrs. Charles Buck, Mrs. Horace Crump, Mrs. Joseph Friend, Mrs. Edouard May and Mrs. Sidney White. They were represented by attorney Monte Lemann. Tarrant’s attorney was Arthur Leopold. The trial included descriptions of an “omelette soufflé luncheon” at Antoine’s when three of the ladies had to block Tarrant’s exit when he became hysterical. Sheriff’s deputies searched Tarrant’s home, “La Cabana,” for missing ball receipts, which Tarrant claimed to have taken out of state overnight.
The ladies prevailed. The case was appealed up to the Louisiana State Supreme Court and the verdict upheld. Tarrant couldn’t keep the money raised.
In the end, the opera house was never built, but Tarrant didn’t desert the city. His 1965 obituary listed his address on St. Ann Street in the French Quarter – for him that was still center stage.
New Orleans through the years has boasted numerous places around town to showcase performers. In the past, concert performers and vaudeville acts as well as movies might share a stage. Restoration of four classic spots is ongoing. The Joy Theater at 1200 Canal St.; the Saenger Theatre, 1111 Canal St.; the Civic Theatre, 510 O’Keefe Ave.; and the Carver Theatre at 2101 Orleans Ave. will all offer New Orleanians new – but familiar – theatrical venues, suitable for concerts or movies. To refresh your memory of past New Orleans theaters, try this book: There’s One In Your Neighborhood: The Lost Movie Theaters of New Orleans, by Rene Brunet Jr. and Jack Stewart.