Oh, there were thousands of people waiting at the airport for their plane – it was like when the Saints came home from the Super Bowl!” says David McCarty, a location manager, recounting the arrival of the stars of “Days of Our Lives” to New Orleans for the filming of six episodes of the popular series in 1984. “Bo and Hope got married at Oak Alley plantation and came in on a horse drawn carriage. People came in droves!” The World’s Fair was going on at the time, but producing a TV series in New Orleans was big news.
Television series have been made in New Orleans since the first local station, WDSU-TV, went on the air. Mildred Fossier, age 97, remembers both writing and starring in a continuing series in the early years at that station. “‘Mimi and Titine’ – I wrote it and my friend Elsa Echezabel and I played the two ladies,” she says. “I based them on my old aunt and grandmother. The humor involved getting French and English all mixed up.” The show was a local hit.
“We out-polled Milton Berle!”
The first extensive series based locally was a police procedural. “N.O.P.D.” was shot in black and white. There were about 39 episodes of the half-hour crime drama that ran in 1956-’57, with actor Stacy Harris (a friend of Jack Webb and frequent guest on “Dragnet”) as Detective Vic Beaujac and Louis Sirgo as Detective John Conroy. Sirgo was a New Orleans police officer. (Years later, as deputy superintendent of the department, he would be killed during the Mark Essex sniper incident at the Howard Johnson’s Motel.)
As long time New Orleans TV watcher and critic David Cuthbert noted, “N.O.P.D.” spawned a movie with the same leading actors: the 1958 feature New Orleans After Dark. On the Internet Movie Database, reviewer “filmnoirfilms-1” from Knoxville, Tenn., called it “truly classic bad cinema” that seemed “to have been put together on the fly,” redeemed only because “on location shots of New Orleans are excellent.”
Another locally filmed series in 1957-’58, “The Tracer” starred journeyman television actor James Chandler as Reagan, an investigator in search of lost heirs. At the end of each episode was a list of lost heirs and a response address for anyone finding their name there.
Although not filmed here, the 1959 “Bourbon Street Beat” was one of four shows made by Warner Brothers for ABC-TV. (“77 Sunset Strip,” “Hawaiian Eye” and “Surfside Six” were the others, featuring exciting locales and catchy theme music. The ABC Network thrived on them.)
One TV series that thrived on filming around the country was “Route 66.” In its first season in 1960, the lead characters left New York and headed South, with New Orleans as the site of Episode 3, “The Swan Bed;” the plot combined smuggling and a possible epidemic.
“Longstreet” starring James Franciscus was the first hour-long series set (and partially filmed) here. The character of Mike Longstreet was a blind insurance investigator with a guide dog named Pax. Bruce Lee had a recurring role as Longstreet’s martial arts teacher. The show was on the air in 1971 and ’72, with a 90-minute pilot and 23 episodes. One of the episodes, “Elegy in Brass,” involved the murder of the director of the “New Orleans Jazz Society.”
“Longstreet” was set in the title character’s home, an actual residence at 826 St. Ann St., now the headquarters of the Spring Fiesta. At the time of the series’ filming it was the property of Edna Haldebel, an elderly woman who would later figure in her own crime drama, when she was presumed to be held hostage in her home by kidnappers. (All charges were dropped and several people, including District Attorney’s Harry Connick’s wife Anita, told the Orleans Parish Grand Jury they had seen Mrs. Haldebel around town during her supposed imprisonment.)
The quintessential New Orleans television series of the past would have to be “Frank’s Place.” The shows’ premise features a Boston professor inheriting a restaurant much like the local Chez Héléne. The series, with 22 episodes, ran in 1987 and ’88 and still has fans. It had no laugh track; it was true to its local setting and characters, and it had wonderful local music, with Louis Armstrong’s version of “Do You Know What It Means to Miss New Orleans” over the title.
The Times-Picayune television writer Dave Walker says the music may be a major reason the series isn’t available on DVD, since procuring rights to all the music would make it prohibitively expensive to package. Walker viewed the series in a California film archive, and thinks it wears remarkably well (and a May showing at the Contemporary Arts Center was very well received). Walker predicts a DVD issue would be a moneymaker, “Every television critic who was working when that show was on the air would write about it and celebrate the DVD – it would benefit from some of the widest free publicity of any release.”
The 1986 movie of the same name brought out the 21-show ’96-’97 series “The Big Easy,” with Tony Crane as New Orleans Police Detective Remy McSwain. “There were some good people in that,” says local actress Lyla Hay Owen; one of the actors, Cuba Gooding, would later become well known. “We shot all over the city. There were different directors for different segments,” she says.
Al Salzer, co-producer of that series, lived in the city while production was ongoing. First season location manager David McCarty recalled that the production took over the old Time-Saver warehouse in Elmwood and “we built a whole series of sets there.” As in all locally filmed productions, some things rang true while others seemed false.
As McCarty explains, “Each project you have, there’s always a little quirk of knowledge or accents. I think it’s gotten better as years go by.”
Another crime series, the short lived 1997 “Orleans,” had “Dallas” star Larry Hagman as a judge.
Post-Katrina, the city welcomed “K-Ville” for 11 episodes running in 2007-’08. “I think it was, in retrospect, a noble effort to throw some production money at New Orleans,” critic Dave Walker concedes. (If you want to watch “K-Ville,” you can find all the episodes that aired online at hulu.com.)
“The notion of setting a cop show in post-Katrina New Orleans seemed like a good idea – the city was a cauldron of drama.” Walker says. “But, they missed most of the nuance of the city.” The show found a big audience locally, and won for its time period in number of listeners. “I think people were watching for surveillance, not for enjoyment,” Walker adds. A writers’ strike in its opening season might have doomed “K-Ville,” but Walker remarks that it probably would’ve failed anyway.
The phrase perhaps most remembered from “K-Ville” was “gumbo party,” possibly an adlib by actor Anthony Anderson who portrayed policeman Martin Boulet. While it seemed to be a campy stereotype, Walker points out that at one of the parties launching the new series “Treme” an old recording of a song “Gumbo Party” by a New Orleans band was unearthed and played.
In New Orleans, the truth is more exciting and mysterious than even the most dramatic television.