The Gunga Den
A brief history of an infamous spot
The Gunga Den in 1949, two years after opening. In 1965, a newspaper ad ran with a photo of a donkey and the text: “Everyone’s going to the Gunga Den but me!!!! I’m a Jackass.” Days later Din the Donkey walked down this block of Bourbon Street and was steered inside and onstage to amuse patrons. Management claimed: “Now, even jackasses go to Gunga Den.”
The Gunga Den nightclub opened at 325 Bourbon St. in 1947. By the early 1950s – the beginning of what was arguably Bourbon Street’s swankiest era of colorful characters – the Gunga Den was one of the most popular burlesque spots in the city.
Featured dancers during the 1950s-1960s included Von Ray the Texas Tornado (the Most Beautiful World’s Champion Flagpole Sitter), Carol Lynne (“Tanniger The Red Bird” who performed in a swinging bird cage), Penni Peyton (and her $100,000 Treasure Chest), Sandy Shore (the Shakin’ Queen of New Orleans), Wild Cherry and Kitty West (Evangeline the Oyster Girl).
But no act was more famous – or infamous – than Linda Brigette, “America’s Most Beautiful Exotic,” who won the hearts of many with her “Dance of a Lover’s Dream” routine, including Gunga Den owner (and reputed mobster) Larry Lamarca, whom she married. Brigette was arrested twice for this dance and sentenced to jail. But her repeated claims that her performance was merely an innocent “form of exercise” reached all the way up to Baton Rouge, and she was given a full pardon by Gov. John McKeithen.
Dancing shared the Gunga Den stage with music. The 1950s era featured jazz greats like Pete Fountain, Johnny Elgin and Paul Barbarin. In the late 1960s, it was English Mod music and late-night jam sessions, as well as singer-songwriters, including the then-unknown Jimmy Buffet. Clarence Frog Man Henry had a nightly gig at Gunga Den in the early 1970s.
As burlesque started losing its allure, the club turned to other ventures. In 1970, a cabaret theater took over with a show that was advertised with instructions for the “Faint-hearts” and “Shock-easies” to stay home. Shortly after, like at most Bourbon Street clubs, female impersonators took over the stage. According to frequent visitor Truman Capote, the Gunga Den had the best acts in town. But high praise from a literary powerhouse wasn’t enough to keep Gunga Den open; it closed in the mid-1980s.