Stories of the Municipal Auditorium, Including a Place for Mayors
Once while performing at the city’s Municipal Auditorium country singer Hank Williams got married. That was on a Saturday. The crowd loved it so much that he got married again, to the same woman, during the Sunday matinee.
There are many stories behind the building that the city opened in 1930 as a modern multi-purpose entertainment facility. There were two stages – the St. Ann Street side and the St. Peter Street entrance – so it was possible to have a pair of events simultaneously. That happened most often during Carnival when krewes held their soirees there – the most notable being Rex and Comus, which each occupied their own space and then formally met on the Comus side at night’s end. At one time, Carnival parades took their last leg through the French Quarter and then turned at Orleans Avenue toward Rampart. From there they crossed into the back area of the auditorium. The riders on board would climb from the floats and head for the spacious dressing rooms to prepare for the ball. As they did, many partook of the offerings from the bar and, most of all, guzzled a cup of hot turtle soup. The soup played an important role during Carnival, not only was it hot and nourishing, but it helped stabilize the riders who may have had too many bolts from a bottle during the parade.
At Thanksgiving the Shrine Circus would come to town. These were full-fledged circuses highlighted by elephants who would come out forming a circle with the trunk of each grasping the tail of the one in front—at the end there was always a baby elephant causing “awws” from the crowd. Seeing the big cats entering the center ring from their wheeled cages was always a sensory moment intermingling the smell of the sawdust and the roar of the lions.
For circus people nationwide, the Thanksgiving week stop in New Orleans was always a melancholy moment signaling the end of the circus season. Like some animals, the circus too would go into hibernation for the winter. Although, the joke was that by January, when the carnival balls started, the backstage area still had the lingering aroma from the elephants.
Karl Wallenda was the biggest name in high wire walking. The German-born daredevil was pushing into his seventies, yet he still walked the high wire while balancing on a chair and doing a handstand. Spectators were allowed to enter the floor after each performance. Once, I joined a crowd that had stopped to talk to Wallenda who was greeting fans. Not long after that, he staged a special performance in St. Juan Puerto Rico where he attempted a high wire walk 121 feet up between two hotel towers. A sudden wind gust, plus an improperly secured guide wire, ended his life. Wallenda once said that, “the only place I feel alive is on the wire.”
The Municipal Auditorium has been in the news lately because of the Mayor’s suggestion, greased by 38 million dollars in FEMA funding, to turn the building into a City Hall. There was a furor last week ending with a statement from the mayor saying that the administration is willing to look for new ideas. I am not sure of what new possibilities there are short of putting City Hall in a warehouse at Elmwood. At least city workers would not have to worry about Orleans Parish’s traffic cameras.
Similar objections were heard when the city wanted to build Armstrong Park near the same site. That was in the ‘70s. Back then Treme as a neighborhood existed but the name had not achieved the sanctity that it has over the last few years, especially since the TV series of that name. The mayor promised that the City Hall conversion would not affect Congo Square, but the protesters were too well organized. Their train could not be slowed.
Left for debate is what to do with the building if not to be City Hall. In the 1930s the auditorium was the ultimate theater space, but now the arena and the Superdome get the big shows. Nearby are the Mahalia Jackson theater; The Saenger; standing unused on Canal Street, the Lowe’s, and the Joy Theater with the Civic not far away. UNO’s arena can handle mid-sized concerts plus graduations, which were once common at the auditorium, and Jefferson Parish’s theater on Airline Highway has the advantage of easy parking. The auditorium was indeed great for the balls, but they are too few to support it year round.
In these days whenever there is an old but savable building with an uncertain future, the idea is usually to make it a multiple purpose center with offices, retail and residential uses as will likely be the plan for the former Charity Hospital. Does the neighborhood need something like that? If not, what? What it clearly does not need is an empty blighted building.
It seems to me that something could have been worked out that would have maintained, even enhanced, Armstrong Park’s integrity and heritage but still accommodated government offices. There could have also been a space for a museum dedicated to the area’s history. Those who govern would have been reminded daily that conga drums are part of the city’s legacy.
Finally, a little known fact. Tucked away on an upper floor of the auditorium was a room developed in 1930 as a Mayor’s Parlor. Since the building was envisioned as a centerpiece for the city’s culture, mayors could entertain guests from their own perch. So, the influence of City Hall is already there, it just needs a building to go with it.
BOOK ANNOUNCEMENT: Errol’s Laborde’s books, “New Orleans: The First 300 Years” and “Mardi Gras: Chronicles of the New Orleans Carnival” (Pelican Publishing Company, 2017 and 2013), are available at local bookstores and at book websites.
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