A lost treasure of New Orleans’ rich cultural history is being resurrected. From the late 1930s to the early 1970s, the Dew Drop Inn in Central City was an iconic venue for African American musicians both locally and nationally. For black artists traveling through the segregated South, it was a must stop on the Chitlin Circuit. Now, fifty years after it closed, the Dew Drop Inn is set to re-open next month.
Functioning as a barbershop, restaurant, hotel, lounge, and nightclub, the Dew Drop Inn—or the Groove Room as it was called—featured local talent as well as national stars such as Allen Toussaint, Tommy Ridgley, Earl King, Huey “Piano” Smith, Ray Charles, James Brown, Sam Cooke, Ike & Tina Turner, Otis Redding, Solomon Burke, and Little Richard. Richard’s early hit, “Tutti Frutti,” which was about anal sex, was born at the club when a resident musician there helped him rewrite the lyrics in order for recording. New Orleans record producer Bumps Blackwell had felt the original would be a hit but said the lyrics were too dirty.
Although the Dew Drop Inn was a straight club, many of its legendary performances were presided over by openly gay, black drag queen Patsy Vidalia, who was the resident MC and a local celebrity. Originally from Vacherie, Louisiana, Vidalia moved to New Orleans with her mother after her father died and by the mid-1940s was performing at Club Desire in the Lower 9th Ward as a “female impersonator.” Vidalia recorded a few songs in 1953, but success as a singer eluded her. Her real success came as a charismatic host and entertainer. Dew Drop Inn owner Frank Painia supported her and allowed her to host the annual Halloween Gay Ball at the bar each year. Vidalia died in 1982.
Another black music venue that regularly featured drag shows was the Caldonia Inn located in the Treme. Opened in 1947, the Caldonia is perhaps best remembered for launching the career of Professor Longhair, and, to a lesser extent, as the birthplace of the late, great Uncle Lionel Batiste. The Caldonia also occupies a place in local queer history.
The Caldonia was welcoming of its gay patrons and even hosted at least one gay wedding, at which Professor Longhair played. According to trumpeter Frank Mitchell, “The Caldonia had the best female impersonator show in the city. It was so popular that the white sissies started coming there until the police ran them off.” (Quoted on WWOZ’s website “A Closer Walk.”) The building housing the Caldonia was demolished in 1971.
In addition to drag queens, black New Orleans had its fair share of drag kings as well, the most famous of whom was the legendary Stormé DeLarverie. Born and raised in New Orleans, DeLarverie eventually made her way to New York where she befriended trans advocates Marsha P. Johnson and Sylvia Rivera. (Described as both a “butch lesbian” and a transperson, DeLarverie used female pronouns.) DeLarverie was at the Stonewall Inn the night it was raided in 1969 and has been credited with throwing the first punch at the police.
Before she made history at Stonewall, DeLarverie made history as the only drag king and host of the Jewel Box Revue, a racially integrated drag entertainment troupe that performed throughout North America from 1942 to 1975. The Revue had been founded by lovers Doc Brenner and Danny Brown and was named after a Miami nightclub. DeLarverie traveled with the show from 1955 to 1969.
According to her obituary in the New York Times, DeLarverie’s “role in the movement lasted long after 1969. For decades she was a self-appointed guardian of lesbians in the Village.” Her brief experience as a bodyguard for Chicago mobsters came in handy in later years when she worked as a bouncer at a number of lesbian bars, including the famed Cubby Hole. But even when she was off-duty, she often patrolled the streets and frequented lesbian bars looking for trouble. DeLarverie packed heat and, according to her legal guardian Lisa Cannistraci, “She literally walked the streets of downtown Manhattan like a gay superhero. She was not to be messed with by any stretch of the imagination.” DeLarverie died in 2014.
Performers such as DeLarverie, Vidalia and those at the Caldonia and Club Desire are an important thread in the tapestry that is New Orleans queer history. Their stories are not represented nearly enough in our historical narratives. In this regard, they are emblematic of a larger gap in local LGBT+ history; namely, the experiences of queer people of color in New Orleans.
While there is much digging to do to get that history out of the closet, the good news is the excavation has begun. The LGBT+ Archives Project of Louisiana has commissioned a book on the history of queer people of color to address this gap. The book is being written by African American scholar and New Orleans native Channing Joseph and will be published by The Historic New Orleans Collection.