Our favorite hotel was previously named The Inn On Bourbon at 541 Bourbon and was the site of the famous multi-storied French Opera House, established in 1859 and destroyed by fire in 1919. The current hotel was featured in the TV series Treme. It is now a Sheraton Four Points but has the same staff and the local ambience of the smaller hotels. I have always had a connection to this 500 block of Bourbon and can “hear” the music pouring out of the store fronts that are now T-shirt shops, beer bars, and less savory establishments.
Until the 1920s, Bourbon Street was the most fashionable residential street in the French Quarter. With the closure of the red-light Storyville district to the North, some cabarets and nightclubs moved a few blocks further South to the very respectable Bourbon Street and thus began the transformation of the residences to nightclubs and restaurants.
In the mid- twentieth century, a stroll down Bourbon would have a patron crossing back and forth on both sides of the street to enjoy the following nightclubs that featured traditional New Orleans Jazz, Swing, and Hot Jazz:
200 Bourbon – El Morocco — Phil Zito’s band and George Lewis (cl) regularly played here.
227-229 Bourbon – Prima’s Shim Sham Club – was originally a Piano Company then the Swing Club.
228 Bourbon – Ferrera’s Sho-Bar – Sharkey Bonano’s band took over when the bar was a jazz music venue.
231 Bourbon – Pete Fountain’s French Quarter Inn – this was the second site of the Inn after Pete relocated from the 800 Bourbon spot in 1969. He enjoyed being in a larger facility located on the “noisier” blocks of Bourbon. He liked that it was only ½ block from the El Morocco where he first played with the Phil Zito band in 1948.
240 Bourbon – Old Absinthe House – still a popular bar but it had a prior jazz history. Lively piano music was a daily occurrence and Louis Armstrong played here on a trip to New Orleans in 1955.
309 Bourbon – Paddock Lounge – a nightclub with a horseracing theme, the band in the 1950s was Papa Celestin and then the Octave Crosby band. During the week, Narvin Kimball’s Gentlemen of Jazz took to the stage. Owner and equestrian Steve Valenti and his wife, Charlotte, operated the restaurant next door at 315 Bourbon, the Paddock, and were able to serve food to the patrons of the Lounge. Clarinetist Alphonse Picou performed often.
333 Bourbon – Mardi Gras Lounge – also known as Sid Davilla’s Mardi Gras Lounge, it featured Freddie Kohlman’s band and others.
339 Bourbon – Famous Door – it still exists as a music venue and it truly was one of the most famous of the Bourbon Street nightclubs. Opened in 1934 by Hyp Guinle, a boxing promoter, the club featured many bands and local musicians. The frame near the front door boasts a litany of the many performers that entered the venue. Sharkey Bonano’s Kings of Dixieland also played here as well as the (Assunto’s Original) Dukes of Dixieland, the Basin Street Six and Santo Pecora’s band.
426 Bourbon – Dream Room – this club started out as the Silver Slipper opened by banjoist Steve Loyacano, later named the New Silver Slipper, then the Dream Room. Bandleaders Tony Parenti, Jules Bauduc. Merritt Brunies, Peter Bocage and Sharkey Bonano all played here throughout those years. It was also the site of Jack Teagarden’s last performance. He passed away while staying at the nearby Prince Conti Hotel.
441 Bourbon – 500 Club – Prima’s 500 Club was operated by trumpeter Leon Prima, the older brother of Louis Prima. Both Prima and Frank Federico were highlighted at the opening in 1946. Sam Butera’s Witnesses became the house band.
501 Bourbon – Al Hirt’s Club – was directly across St. Louis from the 500 Club. This location started out as the second spot for Dan’s Pier 600 located farther down the street. It was later named Al Hirt’s Club, then Al Hirt’s Basin Street South. This location is at the end of the same block as our hotel and is no longer a music venue. Al Hirt’s group was the house band but the club hosted other bands while on tour. Ellis Marsalis was the pianist for Hirt’s band and Al gave Ellis’s son, Wynton, his first trumpet.
600 Bourbon – Pier 600 – this nightclub started out as Dan’s International Settlement Club, then became Dan’s Pier 600, then Dan’s Bateau Lounge. Dan Levy featured Pete Fountain, Al Hirt, Bob Havens (tb), Godfrey Hirsch (vb) and many others at this iconic venue.
640 Bourbon – Crazy Shirley’s – this very popular jazz club was around the corner from Preservation Hall. Ernie Elly (dr) – a Preservation Hall Legacy Awardee – played there as well as Bob French’s Storyville Jazz Band with Ellis Marsalis (p), George French (bs) and Teddy Riley (tp). Prior to 1962, the club was named Poodle’s Patio and enjoyed some burlesque activities in addition to the bands.
701 Bourbon – Dixie’s Bar of Music – Clarinetist Dixie Fasnacht (a Swiss-German name that means “eve of fasting” aka Mardi Gras!) with her sister, Irma, started out with her own club on St. Charles and moved it to the corner of Bourbon and St. Peter. She continued her policy of an all-girl band and welcomed all patrons. It was a sophisticated spot that had many well-known visitors. Movie stars and international performers were attracted to its gay and racially inclusive policies which were never questioned by the local police. Regular visitors included Tennessee Williams, Truman Capote, and Gore Vidal. Her famous wall mural depicting more than 60 celebrities of the 1940s, is now on permanent display at the New Orleans Jazz Museum on Esplanade.
The 29-foot mural by artist Xavier Gonzalez was restored and repaired after any damages from Katrina and storage mishaps. The mural characterizes such notables as: Nat King Cole, Louis Armstrong, Frank Sinatra, Johnnie Ray, Lena Horne, Xavier Cugat, Benny Goodman, Salvador Dali, Helen Hayes, George Gershwin, Kate Smith, Tommy Dorsey, Jimmy Dorsey, The Ink Spots, Jack Benny, Paul Whiteman, the Andrews Sisters, Connie Boswell, and Dorothy Lamour.
800 Bourbon – French Quarter Inn – Pete Fountain’s place at 800-808 Bourbon was at the far end of the French Quarter but drew nightly crowds. From 1960 to 1969, this became the place to be and it strengthened the activities at that end of Bourbon. Because of Pete’s exposure on the Lawrence Welk Show, any celebrity in town for another gig stopped by the Inn. A small roster included: Phil Harris, Frank Sinatra, Robert Goulet, Carol Lawrence, Keely Smith, Robert Mitchum, Joan Fontaine, Joe E. Lewis and the one and only Benny Goodman. When the landlords did not negotiate an extension of the lease in time, Pete moved his Inn to the 231 Bourbon site.
And these were just the dancehalls and nightclubs on Bourbon Street! Other clubs in the Quarter were located on St. Peter, Toulouse, St. Louis, Conti, Bienville, Iberville, or Rampart. Although not confirmed, I believe that when Bob Thiele and George Weiss wrote one of Armstrong’s most famous songs, those decades in the French Quarter must have been their inspiration – What A Wonderful World!