The enduring appeal of Frank Capra’s classic holiday film It’s a Wonderful Life is its premise—that the quality of a person’s life is measured by how it affects others. George Bailey’s guardian angel, Clarence, tells him, ““Dear George, remember no man is a failure who has friends.”
By that measure, Charlene Schneider, legendary lesbian bar owner, was amazingly successful. One of her friends was Valda Lewis—a young woman who left her small town in England to move to New Orleans to explore her sexuality.
In 1986, Charlene Schneider called Valda and told her that she and her girlfriend Loretta Mims needed to attend a City Council meeting. The Council was considering a non-discrimination ordinance to protect lesbian and gay city employees. A similar measure had been voted down two years earlier by the council, despite heavy lobbying from LAGPAC (Louisiana Lesbian and Gay Political Action Caucus) and other groups.
The City Council Chamber was packed as people testified. Those opposing the ordinance cited religious objections. One woman testified she had obtained secret information that a national conspiracy was underway and that the gay powers coordinating it had selected New Orleans as a test city to try to take over the government.
The non-discrimination ordinance was not passed that day. Valda Lewis was astounded at the misinformation and downright ignorance on display at the Council meeting as the ordinance was being debated. Resolved to do something to clear up the prevalent misunderstanding of homosexuality, she began producing a television show called Just for the Record. She recalls, “We needed a better image.”
Just for the Record was a weekly cable access television show produced on cable channel 49 from 1987—1993 and covered both local and national topics of interest to the gay and lesbian community. The shows ranged from 30—60 minutes. In addition, Lewis and Mims also published a monthly newsletter of the same title from 1989 to 1993. After the show’s run, Lewis produced another show called Queer Street Live, which ran for thirteen weeks.
Valda fell in love with the camera producing these shows and began recording other events relating to the LGBT+ community. A sampling of what she recorded includes four annual conferences of the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force Policy Institute, the second HIV/AIDS Regional Summit, the thirteenth National Lesbian and Gay Health Conference, the National Commission on AIDS “Sex, Society, and HIV” Hearings, several Bourbon Street Awards contests, Armeinius and Amon Ra Carnival Balls, and just about anything else queer-related that was happening in New Orleans. In all, Valda Lewis recorded almost 800 hours of living history.
In 2019, Valda Lewis reached out to the LGBT+ Archives Project of Louisiana to help her find a permanent home for her vast video collection. Archives Project President Frank Perez then set up meetings with a professional archival appraiser and several area repositories. Lewis, who currently lives in Cleveland, Ohio, then traveled to New Orleans where she and Perez met with representatives from several archival institutions. Ultimately, Lewis donated her collection to the Amistad Research Center. In recent years, the Amistad Research Center has made increasing its LGBT+ holdings a priority.
The LGBT+ Archives Project of Louisiana awarded the Amistad Research Center a grant to digitize footage of the Just for the Record shows. Those videos are now available to the public on the LGBT+ Archives Project website (https://www.lgbtarchiveslouisiana.org/) and Amistad’s Vimeo channel.
These recordings and their preservation are just one aspect of Charlene Schneider’s profound legacy. Near the end of It’s a Wonderful Life, Clarence tells George, “Strange, isn’t it? Each man’s life touches so many other lives. When he isn’t around he leaves an awful hole, doesn’t he?” Charlene Schneider had a wonderful life and the world is better for it.