Nostalgia: Monkey Business on Canal
When entertainment reigned at the Brass Rail & the Monkey Bar
Image provided courtesy of The Historic New Orleans Collection, Charles L. Franck Photographers, 1979.325.5047
The Brass Rail opened at 1316 Canal St. in 1934. Taking its name from the brightly polished brass rail running along the mahogany bar, the Brass Rail was a 24-hour bar, package store and music club. Mike Gordon, a former distilling company manager, bought it in 1941. He touted his bar innovations, claiming to be the first in New Orleans to serve the Moscow Mule (the “new dream drink”), as well as bringing back an old custom: free snacks at Happy Hour.
Gordon opened the Monkey Bar next door on November 21, 1951, with a full roster of entertainment: Nancy the Exotic Wildfire, Linda and her Cuban Rumba and Dorothy the Comedy and Ballet Dancer, closing out with Larry Gerard and his Bedtime Stories for Grownups.
The entertainment at the Monkey Bar tended to be the exotic type, advertising fun, frolic and a “gala of beautiful vivacious girls.” Sometimes these acts made headlines, like a catfight that went legal when Lilly Christine The Cat Girl (trademarked in 1952) sued the club for advertising a different “Cat Girl” in 1958. Lilly sued for “damage to her reputation” and “loss of good will” and won.
Both the Brass Rail and Monkey Bar became known as a hot spots for jazz in New Orleans. They are mentioned in Dr. John’s autobiography Under a Hoodoo Moon; he was rumored to have skipped Sunday Mass to catch early morning band sessions. In 1955, Paul Gayten’s Orchestra was booked for an extended residency at the Brass Rail. Gayten soon went on to discover, sign and produce Clarence “Frogman” Henry and have a national hit song of his own with “But I Do.”
The clubs fell victim to D. A. Jim Garrison’s pledge to sanitize the French Quarter. The relentless arrests of both staff and customers eventually led to the loss of their liquor licenses in 1962 and closing of the establishments.
The Brass Rail and the Monkey Bar in 1953. The Monkey Bar was known for its monkey and palm tree mural painted on the S. Liberty Street side of the building. But the monkey business didn’t stop there. During a raid in 1962, the District Attorney’s investigators discovered a warning signal inside the bar: when the police showed up, the doorman flipped a switch, activating a light-up toy monkey over the bar inside the club. (The doorman was arrested for interfering with the police.)