Hank Staples is old-school—a raconteur of no mean talent, able to regale listeners with 30 years of wild and sordid tales of the renowned and notorious Maple Leaf Bar and the denizens of that great tavern. He’s seen the changes in Carrollton (“the Montmartre of New Orleans” according to poet and Maple Leaf barfly Everette Maddox) and in New Orleans. He’s seen everyone from Bruce Springsteen to Mariah Carey to J. Monque’D pass through the doors of the Maple Leaf. This month, he’s working on the Oak Street Po-Boy Festival on Sunday, November 24; the Maple Leaf’s 40th anniversary; and he’s rooting for the Saints dressed as the Pope (if you’re watching games at home, look for him. The networks always show him at least once per game). Needless to say, because Staples is such a Saints fanatic, the Oak Street Po-Boy Fest is always on a day when the Saints aren’t playing.
How did the idea for the Po-Boy Festival come up?
There was a “Main Street” program, and one of the requirements to get funding was that the organization had to have a cultural-preservation event, and nobody could think of one. The group was deciding this at Brad [Wilkins]’s place, Oak Street Café, and he says, “How about po-boy preservation?” The festival happened for three years, and each year was way beyond expectations. After the third year brought in 30,000 people, there was the so-called “civil war.” The group that had been managing it wanted to move it to Palmer Park, fence it in, and charge admission. The original purpose of the festival as far as the residents and merchants were concerned was to showcase the Oak Street neighborhood; it wasn’t meant to be a successful festival. It was meant to attract people to Oak Street.
How was it changed over the years?
The festival had created some problems between vendors and residents who had access to their house blocked. Some vendors would refuse to move a few feet and be rude and threatening. None of those vendors have been asked back. I’ve lived on Oak Street for almost 30 years, and I’m at the Rue De La Course every morning at 7 a.m. So after Po-Boy Fest for the first few weeks, I’d have people coming to me telling me what went wrong, and I’d tell them I’d take care of it, even though I wasn’t running the festival. When I took over, it was very important to make sure that resident concerns were met as we talked to vendors.
I remember one year there was an incident with the owners of a bike shop. A vendor refused to stop blocking the entrance and became threatening, and the owner’s wife ended up throwing a drink in the guy’s face. And she got arrested. And there is video of the guy giving her the finger with both hands as she was getting arrested. I was like, “Why would you even behave like that?” Why couldn’t you just move 10 feet over?” We have face-to-face meetings with vendors, so it’s not an issue anymore.
What are you doing for music?
We have one stage now, but by festival time we’ll have two or even three stages like before. If Rebirth is in town, they’ll be the headliners. We’ve got Johnny Sketch, Los Po-Boy-Citos and a funk band from Mexico called Pilaseca. And we’re going to have a small stage that showcases high-school bands. Maybe Debra Vidacovich can come up with some young bands to showcase, like what she’s doing at Tips on Sundays.
Is there a need to preserve po-boys?
Seven years ago I think there was. It seemed like po-boy shops, the traditional ones, were closing. And a lot of the places that were doing them were using pre-packaged processed meat and packaged bread. The reason po-boys are so delicious was that the guy on the corner making them would be roasting his own meat, making his own gravy. He was getting his bread delivered every day. That’s why po-boys were so good for so many years.
This festival has almost turned into “Top Chef” for po-boys. We have a lot of traditional po-boys, but there are little po-boy shops that are doing creative things with new ingredients, and then there are a lot of high-end restaurants that are coming up with stuff like a paté po-boy and a lobster po-boy. So it’s expanding the definition.
You cannot discuss po-boys without discussing Parkway. What they have done there is phenomenal. Last year, they didn’t cook but they gave us a very generous sponsorship. This year they are back to cooking as well.
How is the bar?
I’m working on the Maple Leaf’s 40th anniversary and also an oral history of the Leaf.
We’re trying to get people who played the bar when it first opened. Andrew Hall played opening night. He’ll be participating in a big way. It’s amazing because I have photos from back then. It’s funny—you can go through the mundane activities of your life from day to day, and it seems normal and dull. And decades later, you realize that people you knew were historical, but it doesn’t seem that way at the time.
Tell me something about how the Maple Leaf started presenting music.
John Parsons should get the credit he deserves for showcasing the music of New Orleans and South Louisiana, not only to the people of New Orleans but to people all over the country by doing it at the Leaf week-in and week-out. Where he’s different is that he could really pick the talent. When he sold his shares in the Maple Leaf, I took over the booking. I can’t go out, hear three bands, and say “This is the better band.” He could. If you look at the bands he chose, they are local bands who over time are multiple Grammy winners. So the legacy Parsons left me was a stable of top-quality musicians.
To celebrate, who else will you have?
We were the first venue in town to present zydeco music. We’re probably going to do something with the Dopsies. I can’t remember when Rockin’ Dopsie died, but it was around ’93. I remember that I went to the funeral, and it was so impressive. It was easily a mile long. When they say he was the king of zydeco, he was. It was like watching a king’s funeral.
I want to do a tribute to James Booker with many of the musicians who played with him. For instance, Johnny Vidacovich and James Singleton played with Booker for several years at the Leaf. Jack Cruz played with Booker and was his roommate. It’s funny because we were teasing him about rooming with the gay guy: “What did you have to do when you were short on the rent?” But Jack said that the entire time he roomed with James, he never made a pass at him, and he seemed almost disappointed.
I’m absolutely going to bring back Walter “Wolfman” Washington and the Roadmasters. It will go five or six weeks—January through February. We’ll have a special each week where the prices will be what they were in 1974. It won’t be everything, but it will be like, “This week a seven-ounce draft is 25¢.” I remember when I was first on Oak Street, a 16-ounce Dixie bottle was a dollar. I don’t think Dixie is around or if it is, it isn’t Dixie.
What was the neighborhood like back then?
Back then, I also worked at Jed’s University Inn. I’d work days at the Bureau for Governmental Research and nights at Jed’s. There was a guy who came in there who would argue with his wife and pull a gun on her. He got ‘86ed, but he came to us and said that Jed’s was the only place he could come in. He said that if he could keep coming in, he would turn in his gun at the beginning of the night and we could give it back to him when he left and if he was kicked out, he’d go without an argument. This wouldn’t work today, but back then it seemed reasonable. So then whenever the neighborhood guys would come in, they would give up their gun. Back then the neighborhood was so different.
So many people who lived around the Maple Leaf made their living as criminals—burglary and stuff. But there was nobody who was violent. But you couldn’t leave stuff out. I had a nice hat that disappeared for weeks. Then a guy shows up wearing my hat. I said, “What the fuck are you doing with my hat?” He said, “Oh, I didn’t know it was yours.” “Give me back my fucking hat.”
What was the Maple Leaf like back then?
I remember walking into the Maple Leaf and back then, the place was so poorly insulated that in the winter you’d go outside to warm up and in the summertime, you’d go outside for refreshment. Back then, the place was absolutely filthy. It was horrendous. The clientele? When I first walked in, the people in the place were a junkie and an alcoholic.
When I first started tending bar at the Leaf, one of my customers was 93 years old.
The city has changed a lot. The Maple Leaf is now a destination place for live music. It’s survived as a neighborhood bar with music that everyone likes to hear. But when business is down in town, we have a core business that keeps going—if you look at our competitors from years ago, almost all of them are gone.
You know when you go to the Maple Leaf, you’re going to hear good music.
That’s what I’ve tried to maintain. There were obviously a few errors, but—the funniest thing from those years was a guy whose tape sounded absolutely fabulous, but when he showed up, his backing band was the tape. And so he’s up there, and of course, one by one the regular customers left, so by the end of the first set the Maple Leaf regulars, who are a tough crowd, were gone. So he finished his set and at this point it’s getting pretty ugly. They’re jeering and yelling. So when the set is over, he introduced the musicians as if they were really there. “Give it up for the bass player.”