Entering Chris Owens’ luxurious French Quarter home, visitors first encounter her highly territorial Maltese terrier Bousi (Arabic for “Kissy”), diligently guarding the Celebrity Wall of framed photographs. The hostess, in an accent derived from her native Texas, points out friends and dignitaries, all of whom have been treated to her legendary hospitality: “Larry Hagman was here for a party. Tom Benson sold cars with my husband Sol—they knew each other very well. Gary Collins. Major Ferguson—he just died. Allen Funt from Candid Camera. Cesar Romero—I loved him! Remember Dick Stabile from the Blue Room? Here’s Steve Rossi and marty Allen—very close friends. Tony Moran. Liberace—I did a television show with him. Ted Shackleford—from Knot’s Landing. Elizabeth taylor, when she was married to John Warner. This is Chita Rivera. The Mills Brothers. This is the great-great grandson of Charles Dickens, in Aspen. Robin Leach. Geraldo Rivera. This is Jeannie Cooper—we had her as a special guest one Easter. Robert Goulet. I entertained two Latin-American presidents here in my house—he was president of Honduras. This is James Michener. We were on a cruise with him and my mother and sister. This is Prince Faisal—he was on the same cruise. Merv Griffin. Ava Gabor. Here’s Abbe Lane with her new husband—she divorced Xavier Cugat. This is the Mod Squad—they came to see my show one night. Sheriff Harry Lee. Edwin Edwards.”
It’s a color photograph of the former governor of Louisiana, now incarcerated in federal prison, posing with Chris. Edwards’ eyes are shut; Chris, as she appears in every photograph, is radiant. Like her friend Edwin Edwards, Chris Owens is a survivor—a virtual institution, dancing on Bourbon Street in the 1950s era of Blaze Starr and Lily “The Cat Girl” Christine, and still dancing nearly five decades later, in the era of Larry Flynt’s Barely Legal Club. In the succession of Bourbon Street royalty, Chris Owens is the undisputed Queen.
At this year’s Best Of The Beat Awards, Chris Owens is the recipient of the inaugural Bourbon Street Award, presented in recognition of her long and glamorous career on New Orleans’ most famous thoroughfare.
When did you first start performing on Bourbon Street?
This goes back to the late ’50s. My husband Sol was in the automobile business and I was in nursing—I was Dr. Warren Rosen’s nurse and receptionist. Sol and I met, got married and we used to go to Havana, Cuba all the time. That was my first training—in Havana, Cuba—with all the Latin instruments. We used to go to all the famous watering places around the country but Havana was my training ground. I was on the shows there in Havana at the Tropicana, the Montmartre, Sans Souci. There, we could buy all the Latin instruments. We came back to New Orleans and Sol bought a little club at 809 St. Louis. That was our first club.
We’d pass out Latin instruments to all the patrons—drums, maracas. It was very impromptu. My husband and I used to go dancing every night in the Blue Room and the Fountain Lounge at the old Roosevelt Hotel. Then when we got our first club, people would ask, “Where’s that couple that used to dance here?” We were bringing people in to see us dance there. We would pack it every night with friends and people that we knew. Then the Saturday Evening Post came by and did a two-page “Face of America” feature on me. Then when I was in New York, Walter Winchell saw me dancing at El Morocco and he wrote me up in his syndicated column. Jackie Gleason was there that night and Steve Allen and Jayne Meadows. Jackie was so drunk! When that happened, I had producers and directors coming over to El Morocco wanting me to stay in New York and do Broadway shows and sign me up for movies. But we’d just bought our club at 809 St. Louis and Sol, of course, handled my career and we opted to stay here.
I put on Latin shows and then we bought this building right here on the corner of Bourbon and St. Louis. I started taking singing lessons and it took off. Doing records, I got to perform in Vegas at the Aladdin and in Acapulco at the Fantasy. I did cruise shows and casino shows.
So in the beginning you just danced.
Yes, Latin dancing. And playing maracas. We had the Latin records from Havana and I hired a little conga drummer and then I hired some girls, taught them the choreography and we did a whole Latin show. Then when we moved over here to the corner of Bourbon and St. Louis, I decided to hire a band and I took singing lessons.
Who was your singing teacher?
Mike Presti. We’d do a lot of vocalizations and things like that. He showed me how to do warm-up exercises before you perform. I always do stretch exercises before dancing because you can get injured, just like a sports star. I have a weight room, I do the treadmill and the rowing machine. I do a lot of calisthenics exercises.
Do you have a special diet?
Well, I started in 1990 omitting chicken and beef from my diet. I’m not a total vegetarian because I do eat seafood. I try to take care of myself. I make my fresh juices every morning—fresh vegetable juice. I burn off what I do eat—doing two one-hour shows a night.
How has Bourbon Street changed since you started?
Oh, good Lord, has it changed a lot! When we first had our club at 809 St. Louis Street, it was strictly strip clubs and they had a few jazz clubs. Where Razoo’s is right now, that used to be a garage. Where BBC’s is, right across the street, that was a strip club. What I see now is more variety of entertainment than ever before—more bands. As far as shows, I’m the show because it’s mostly just bands playing on Bourbon Street. I’ll bet more musicians are working now than ever before because of that. They’ve opened more restaurants and hotels. I think it’s improved. And now it’s expanded to the river with House of Blues and Hard Rock Café. I’ve seen some come and go—like Planet Hollywood and Fashion Café. Some make it and some don’t. But you always see new people come in, opening clubs. I’ve seen huge change.
A lot of people start talking about all the t-shirt shops but if you travel around the world, which I’ve had the opportunity to do, every city has them. I incorporate into my show what I’ve seen from around the world—like I do a number a lot of people request, ‘Don’t Cry For Me Argentina.’ Before anyone did it in America, I heard it first in Singapore and then in London. I think I was the first one to sing it in America.
What is so popular now is doing the videos. People come in and we video the whole show and they love that! Because I do a lot of audience participation—they really enjoy that. I get them up on stage on certain numbers to participate—the men and women. And then they can purchase a videotape of the show. Everybody wants to see themselves on stage. We’ve been doing the videotaping for seven years.
I guess you’ve learned that you always have to market yourself.
Absolutely! You always need a home base. Like when Al [Hirt] closed his club across the way, they contacted me and wanted to know if Al could come in. I thought, ‘Gee—that would be great.’ Because I do a variety show—I do blues, jazz, country, rock. When Al came in, it was like a great marriage—I would do an early show and then he would follow me. And then we would switch off and I would do the late show. He worked for me the four years before he passed away.
And you’re a real estate magnate, too.
I own the building my club’s in and I rent out about 30 apartments and four shops. That really keeps me busy doing all the paperwork.
Then Figueroa Brothers contacted me about two years ago and they wanted to name a hot sauce after me. They had about 12 bottles of hot sauce they’d made up for me to try and I was the tester. I hit on one that’s absolutely fantastic and I named it Chris Owens’ Bourbon Street Heat, even though it’s really not that hot. It’s low in sodium, it’s all natural and it goes with everything. I sound like a commercial but it’s true. Before I put my name on it, it has to be something that’s really good.
I sell it in my club and then [Sheriff] Harry Lee’s sister, Lorraine Lee, has a restaurant near Hilton Head. I sent her some and she liked it so much, she ordered cases. She said people prefer it over Tabasco.
Are you always adding new material to your shows?
I keep trying to improve my shows through travel. There’s no music director—I figure it out myself and I teach myself. If I hear a good song and I think it fits my style, then I’ll do it. My basic music is Latin—I love Latin. And I love R&B—those two.
Do you have some Latin idols?
My first was Xavier Cugat—I used to go see Cugat all the time. Remember Abbe Lane? We became very good friends later on and she came to visit me here. And Tito Puente—he was one the greatest timbale-ists in the whole world. He played House of Blues right before he died. And Olga Guillot—remember her? She used to perform in Havana, Cuba. She was one of my favorites, too.
You were visiting Havana during the really wild days.
Absolutely. I caught it on the very end, when Castro’s troops were actually moving in. One night, we were going to the Tropicana, which is on 12 acres of land. It was the most fabulous club in the world! They had a glass dome and they performed shows under the dome and out in the open air. They had platforms set up in palm trees and everything. There was a huge cast: if they did a show about Africa, they would bring the Africans in to do it. The shows were absolutely incredible! And they had a casino and restaurants. It’s now used as a military drilling base for Castro, since he took over.
My friends left, the Fox brothers [the Tropicana’s owners]—Pedro and Martin Fox and his wife Ofelia moved to Miami and they opened a club there. We went to meet them in Miami and they thought they were going to get the Tropicana back. A deal was made with Kruschev and it fell through: the Bay of Pigs invasion. Ofelia moved to Los Angeles and Pedro and Martin have since died. She contacted me about a month ago. She’s doing a book about the Havana days so she wanted me to send her some pictures and include me in the book.
One time, in Havana, Sol had to come back early and we were with another couple. So the two guys came back together and left us. We would fly on the prop planes. When we flew back to New Orleans, the pilot said come up here and we went into the cockpit. Seeing the mouth of the Missisippi River as you’re flying over it is something to see!
Who are some of the memorable musicians you’ve had in your club?
A lot of musicians would sit in. Lou Sino would come by. Al Hirt, of course, worked for me for four years. He was the biggest of all of them. Frankie Ford played for me for two months and Allen Toussaint would come in. And Fats Domino.
You took over the French Quarter Easter parade after the death of Germaine Welles.
I was contacted right after she had passed away. Her parade just had a few carriages. Sammy Steele, who was then the parade captain, contacted me and asked if I would be the Grand Duchess. This was in 1982. It was really neat but it was quiet. There was no one on the streets Easter morning—literally no one. We went to the Cathedral and there were a few people over there. So when Sammy called me the next year, I said, “Sammy, we should do something more grandiose on such a special occasion as Easter. Why don’t we start advertising it and maybe have floats and throw flowers and candy.” I throw stuffed bunnies and try to make it a family thing.
Well, the first year, we advertised and had marching bands. Honey, that whole block was packed with people. The next year, it grew and grew. After six or seven years, you’d look and as far as the eye could see, all the way to Esplanade, was packed! The whole Quarter was packed. Sammy retired two years ago and he’s now the Captain Emeritus. Now Dottie Belletto and Kitsy Adams have taken over and it’s become even bigger. You have people calling from all around the world, wanting to know about the Easter parade. Last year was our 20th year so we had a Roaring ’20s theme that was very clever.
How long have you been performing at Jazz Fest?
It’s been a good 17 years. I love it because you get crowds from all over the world. I do a different show there from what I do at the club. One year, they honored Louis Armstrong so I brought a big Louis Armstrong doll on stage and did “Hello Dolly.” Right after Desert Storm, I had a color guard from Belle Chasse Naval Station and I sang “God Bless America.”
How do you celebrate Mardi Gras?
As wild as I can celebrate it! I do a Mardi Gras theme in the club. I do a king cake number, then I do “Come to the Mardi Gras” and throw beads to the people who wear masks. On Mardi Gras itself, I have strictly the disco going on in the club. I have friends and celebrities come and go. Governor Edwards used to be a regular on the balcony. We’ve had stars from all over. Jacqueline Stallone, Steven Seagal, Nicholas Cage, John Goodman. Pete Fountain and the Half-Fast Marching Club stop every Mardi Gras morning—it’s a tradition. One morning I didn’t get out there in time and they were screaming, “Chris! Chris! We’re out here!” The next Mardi Gras, they passed and John Goodman serenaded me. We always have the Mardi Gras toast with a bottle of Dom. It’s a tradition.
What do you think is sexy? In a way, what Britney Spears and Christina Aguilera do is what you’ve always done.
Yeah, in a way. As time goes on, styles and dances change. Of course, I’ve always been a fan of Cher. When she performed in Vegas at Caesar’s, I was there every two months. I loved her show.
They used to tell me I worked too much on the show: ‘You move too much!’ But that was always my style. And now, with the girls today, look how much they move! Their dancing is more frenetic than ever. I think it’s great. I really love watching both of them. Britney is more a dancer than singer but Christina Aguilera is both. She has an incredible voice. I wouldn’t dress as risque as them—I never have.
What if you were 22-years-old?
The same. As you know, I started when I was 19. Look at this picture [a 1960s photograph of Sol and Chris dancing; Chris’ skirt is breathtakingly short and tight]. I started the miniskirt—I did. This star from England came in with Mary Quant. He said, “‘You know, you started the miniskirt.” That was how I dressed. One time I started wearing the bikinis but as styles change, I change.
I had a lady from Russia who did my clothes and I had one for a long time from Japan. I do all the designing, buy all the fabric and all the beads. I’m right with ’em—I’m right there showing them how to fit me. Now I have a lovely lady from Honduras who sews my costumes. It’s funny—there’s nobody from America.
I’m very particular. I know exactly how I wanted to be fitted. They say, “You’re the first one. Most women in America ask how the clothes should fit.” Not me—I’m very particular: “No, you’ve got to tighten it here, do this, do this…”
I have my own ideas, from traveling all over the world, going to the Lido and Folies Bèrgere in Paris. I see ideas and think, “Well, that would look good on me.” You know whose clothes I really loved, when she worked the Moulin Rouge—La Toya Jackson. To me, if you want to know what’s sexy, it was her: little minskirts, bolero jackets, high boots. Class. But when you see these g-strings, like Christina Aguilera wears—no, I would not do that. That’s just first-class stripping. Which I’ve avoided.
Yes, I remember you’ve always objected to being labeled an exotic dancer.
Oh absolutely. I’ve shied away from that because my background wouldn’t allow it—number one. It wasn’t my thing to do that. But singers are doing it now. I have worn the bare midriff and the hip-huggers. I feel like, they’re going back to that? I’ve already done that! I wish it would go back to shoulder pads—I really liked the’80s look. I think that was hot.