As New Orleans Recovers, Will The Dew Drop Inn Swing Again?
It was known as the "Swankiest Night Spot in the South" and considered one of the most famous clubs in the network of black cabarets known as the "Chitlin' Circuit." During the era of segregation, it was the cultural mecca of black New Orleans — what the Savoy Ballroom was to Harlem. Little Richard, a frequent performer there, even composed a song about the place.
The Dew Drop Inn closed its doors in 1972, after a 34-year run during which it featured some of the greatest R&B and soul artists who ever lived. Now, there's a new effort to rescue and reopen the Dew Drop for a new generation.
Located behind a modest storefront on LaSalle Street in Mid-City, the Dew Drop was actually a complex of businesses.
"It was just a place where you could come, you could eat, you could listen to music," says Kenneth Jackson, the current owner of the Dew Drop. "If you got too drunk, you could go and rent a room in the hotel. You could go next door and get your hair cut. My grandfather, he loved to have a place where you could go to have fun."
Jackson is a big man in a sweat-soaked work shirt, the dean of students at a local high school. His grandfather was the redoubtable Frank Painia, who opened the club in 1938.
The restaurant was famous for its red beans and rice, cooked with pig tails. The inexpensive hotel was popular among musicians (Ray Charles crashed there back in the day). And the stage of the two-story "Groove Room" hosted some of the greatest black American entertainers of the day --like Mabel Louise Smith, known as Big Maybelle.
The Dew Drop also featured more eclectic entertainment: drag queens Sir Lady Java and Patsy Valadeer, a tap dancer with a wooden leg named Peg Leg Bates, the ventriloquist Calhoun with his dummy, Society Red, and Iron Jaw, who picked up patrons in their chairs with his teeth. The club hosted an annual Halloween Ball for cross-dressers every year that became a legend. New Orleans saxophonist Charles Neville once called the creative atmosphere of the Dew Drop "a subculture within a subculture."
Local bandleader Deacon John Moore got his start at the Dew Drop in its 1950s heyday. He says the scene outside the club was just as entertaining as it was inside.
"There was the pimps and the players and the hookers and the B-drinkers; there were the card sharks and the people with the dice games," Moore says. "There was just a huge assortment of musicians — jazz musicians, R&B musicians, blues musicians, traveling musicians who would stop by all the time, because this was the place."
The Dew Drop was also popular among white patrons who knew where to find the hottest floor show in town. Painia welcomed everyone, even though Section 5-61-1 of the city code prohibited race mixing:
"It shall be unlawful for any person to sell any of the beverages on the premises under the same roof to both whites and Negroes unless the space where said whites and Negroes are served is divided by a solid partition from floor to ceiling without any openings whatever therein."
Frank Painia did not have a "solid partition" to separate his patrons, and he paid the price, his grandson Kenneth Jackson says.
"There were instances where the police would come in and find white people in the place, arrest everybody in here and take 'em downtown and charge 'em with racial mixing," Jackson says. "Well, that went on until he just got tired of being harassed about it. And he ended up filing a lawsuit."
In 1964, Frank Painia sued the City of New Orleans in federal court, on the grounds that the race-mixing ordinance was unconstitutional. Before a judge had a chance to rule on it, President Lyndon Johnson signed into law the Civil Rights Act of 1964, ending segregation of public accommodations.
White and black patrons were suddenly free to mingle in any nightspot across the city. But Painia's ideal — legal integration — actually contributed to the Dew Drop's demise.
"Black clubs and black neighborhood businesses that had live entertainment in general started losing their customers in that fashion," Irma Thomas says. She sang at the Dew Drop Inn in the early '60s, when she was a teenager, and went on to become the Soul Queen of New Orleans.
"Once integration hit, of course, it was like, 'the door is open, let's go try it,'" Thomas says.
As the Dew Drop's audiences shrank, Painia's health declined. The club closed its double metal doors the year he died, in 1972. The hotel stayed open for a few long-term tenants until Hurricane Katrina hit in 2005. Flooding damaged the downstairs and propwash from rescue helicopters blew pieces of the building off. Today, the historic building is in sad shape.
Next month, Jackson, along with Harmony Neighborhood Development and the Milne Inspiration Center, will kick off a campaign to raise $3.5 million to reinvent the Dew Drop. They're thinking about a combination nightclub-hotel-restaurant that is both a business and a training center for young people interested in the hospitality industry.
La'Kedra Robertson, a community-engagement consultant working with Jackson, says they hope the Dew Drop will become a place musicians can call home again.
"They can come for practice; they can network with other artists," she says. "I just think it's gonna be a hub, and a haven, for artists to find the true grit and authenticity of what real good music is."
The old building is waiting for them. The original sign still hangs above the door out front: "Dew Drop Inn: Hotel, Lounge, and Restaurant."
"You know, I don't have any doubt that it'll return to its former glory," Jackson says. "It may not be exactly the same, but people are gonna be able to come here and really enjoy themselves and say that they've had a good time."
In a city that knows how to have a good time, people are watching to see if the Dew Drop Inn will swing again.
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