Way back when, during the late 1950s and early ’60s, there were those all too infrequent nighttime forays through the French Quarter when you were curled up in the back seat of the family car, heading for chocolate milk and beignets at the French Market.
What your dad and mom and your geeky sister sitting next to you didn’t fully realize at the time was that rather than chocolate milk and beignets, your interests were strictly focused on the “fringe benefits” of that slow, bumper-to-bumper crawl down Bourbon Street, with you panting and slobbering all over the window.
“Here she is folks, Rita Alexander, the Champagne Girl, right here only at the Sho-Bar,” Bennie the Barker would yell and you’d swear his invitation was directed right at you personally, all 13 years old, 110 acne-faced pounds of you.
You would roll down the window and crane your neck until Bennie closed the door and gave you a sardonic grin and a “gotcha” thumbs up. No matter how much you pounded on your dad’s shoulder and begged him to “Go around the block,” all you got was that beady-eyed look back at you in the rearview mirror. Of course, the old man knew. In fact, you’d swear he and Bennie the Barker were in cahoots. A little something to move you along your rite of passage.
But hey! There was always Linda Brigette down the street at the 500 Club and Jezebel and Kalatan, eyes-on lessons in human form that you’d never find in a Grey’s Anatomy textbook. And, forever more, chocolate milk and beignets would remain a pale consolation prize – and, sadly, only a memory.
The Champagne Girl, Linda Brigette and all the other young ladies who were living, breathing bumpin’ and grindin’ quick memory passages in the pre-pubescent heebie-jeebies of many a young man have long since passed on.
So, too, for the most part, have the strip joints on Bourbon Street, gone the way of long-vanished District Attorney Jim Garrison, who vowed back in the 1960s to, “clean up Bourbon Street” by arresting seemingly everybody in sight. Since then, there have been less salacious offerings each year, since for the folks from foreign soil must be content to park their SUVs and walk the boulevard of sin, mostly past daiquiri bars, T-shirt and poster shops and “Gentlemen’s Clubs.”
“Hell,” said ‘Herky Jerky’ Herkenheimer from the Irish Channel, “The only time you see any real skin on Bourbon Street is on Mardi Gras night when some polluted frat boy from Purdue yells up to some equally soused chick on a balcony, ‘Hey show us your …”
Well, you know the drill by now.
“And that’s a real shame,” says Rick Delaup, a West Bank native in his mid-40s who long ago decided to revive at least the memories, if not the careers, of some of the strip queens of yesteryear. “I didn’t know about the French Quarter or what Bourbon Street was like back in the (19)50s. One day, a friend of mine who grew up down there told me about it. His father was an emcee on Bourbon.” He continues, “The more he told me and the more photos I saw, the more interested I became. At the time, I was doing freelance video, commercials, documentaries, things like that. But then I got the idea to do a documentary about that era (on Bourbon Street). I was contacting the former strippers and videotaping the interviews I was doing with them. But it was hard getting funding and trying to make a living at it. It was an ongoing project. It was tough, so I started the actual production of live stage shows. Burlesque.”
Delaup is sitting at a table at the House of Blues. He is well into a plate of cheese fries and looking for all the world like the kid you used to pay to do your math homework in junior high. You can hear the wheels turning in the head of the guy next to him: “Did he say he was born in 1967? Let’s see that would make him … hmmmm, mid-40s? Yeah, that’s about right.”
All of which may be the greatest cover in the world for a guy who invented “Bust Out Burlesque,” a classy skin show he puts on at the House of Blues monthly and another invention, the New Orleans Burlesque Festival, which has played Las Vegas. Locally, Delaup is readying the Festival for the fifth time in September at Harrah’s Casino.
And, if Delaup’s passions are the two increasingly popular burlesque extravaganzas he produces, he heart still beats strongest for those women hidden away on tape, the former queens of Bourbon Street bump ’n’ grind who made the words “Bourbon Street” familiar in households all over the world.
“Some of them were successful after they left ‘the street,’” Delaup says. “Some of them sad and tragic. Kalatan was probably the most successful in that she married a sheriff. Linda Brigette; that’s a tragic story. In the end, she was homeless. I can imagine back then and even today a lot of girls who strip and make money with their youth and beauty don’t have much of a plan. They don’t even think about the future.” He continues, “Many still think and act like they did when they were 20 years old. Take Bambi Jones. She was dancing in the late 1940s and today she lives in Las Vegas.
She can still perform, and did last year. She spends the whole weekend partying. During the day she goes into Coyote Ugly and really cuts up – all day and all night. And, she’s 80 something years old. There’s no stopping her.”
Delaup says the real tragedy of it all, however, is Bourbon Street itself. And that, he says, is his goal: to revitalize the strip and bring it back to world recognition where the mere mention of the name “Bourbon Street” would turn heads. There is still stripping on Bourbon Street, at gentlemen’s clubs and such, but there’s less tease. The dance has changed.
“Back then … back when the strippers were the queens of Bourbon Street, it all meant something,” Delaup says. “People came to New Orleans just to go to the clubs, just to see the strippers. Guys had their favorites. Even the emcees were big names. We actually had Shecky Green working the street at one time. Everything was locally owned.” He continues, “Today, the people with money who own the clubs and other businesses, they’re not from here. They don’t have the feeling for New Orleans that locals have. It means something to us. It means everything. I think bringing the girls back would be a good way to start getting all that back.”
A young girl in a less than modest skirt slithers past Delaup’s table at The House of Blues, just as the burlesque impresario is polishing off his last cheese fry. Nothing is lost on him. You just know he’s thinking, “Now, she could just play a major role in bringing back Bourbon Street.”