It’s a cool Saturday night in October, and Chicago is performing its greatest-hits catalog on the West Bank of the Mississippi, directly across the river from where the Warehouse once stood. The New Orleans skyline serves as the backdrop to thoughts that fade back to that fateful night over 40 years ago when the Warehouse was conceived in the mind of the late Bill Johnston. A New Orleans native, Johnston was working at a club on the north side of Chicago called Barnaby’s. Every other weekend, a band then known as the Big Thing would play there at 8 p.m. on Sunday nights. Johnston struck up a friendship with the band that we know today as Chicago and accompanied them to New York for a gig at the Fillmore East.
“They were the opening act for Buddy Miles at Bill Graham’s Fillmore East,” Johnston said in 2011. “That did it for me. I immediately went back to Chicago and thought it would be a great idea for New Orleans.”
It’s sometime in 2007 and Johnston is soon to cross paths with a young filmmaker named Jessy Williamson. As the Louisiana legislature debates whether to renew the state’s film-industry tax credit, Williamson’s filmmaking career hangs in limbo. One night at a local watering hole, a friend of Williamson’s suggests that he do a documentary on the Warehouse. The idea seemed a natural. As a boy growing up in Covington, Williamson’s parents—“old hippies,” he says—regaled him with stories of the legendary music venue. “Between the ages of 12 and 17, I was experimenting with classic rock and talking to my parents and their friends about the Warehouse,” says Williamson. “I’m this little kid in Covington and New Orleans seemed a million miles away. The Warehouse seemed like this magical place in New Orleans that Pink Floyd played at and the Doors, Bob Marley, the Allman Brothers.”
Johnston began connecting Williamson with fans who attended shows at the venue. “I had no idea how to make a film,” Williamson recalls. “I was very poor, only $800 to my name, and no camera. I bought a camera off eBay with a credit card and I’d work weddings and other miscellaneous events to pay off the camera while I was shooting the film.”
Williamson had two goals for the documentary that he planned to film in only two weeks; enter it into the New Orleans Film Festival and get it aired on WYES. Six years later, both of those big dreams have become reality due, in large part, to a grassroots fundraising effort fueled mostly by fans and former patrons of the Warehouse.
A Warehouse on Tchoupitoulas airs on WYES-TV on Thursday, November 7 at 7 p.m.