Staring out his window onto the reconstructed Magnolia housing development, Roosevelt Randolph can’t help but wonder why he’s the only one left at 2836 LaSalle Street. “Everybody played here. Irma Thomas, Ray Charles, James Brown. This is a historic place […] We can’t let it go to waste,” says Randolph, who’s been living at the Dew Drop Inn since 1996, and is the only soul keeping it from complete vacancy.
Kenneth Jackson, owner of the famous nightclub/hotel, hasn’t been able to bring the building to code since Katrina. “Katrina kicked the rug out from under my feet and I haven’t been able to put it all back together yet,” says Jackson.
”I watched them rebuild the whole [Magnolia] project from scratch in just two years. I’m thinking to myself, ‘Why can’t they do the same thing here?’” says Randolph. Underneath his bedroom is a musical legacy unfathomable to those who might walk by it today.
In 2010, the Louisiana Landmarks Society named the Dew Drop Inn an endangered New Orleans historical site. That same year the building was declared a historic landmark by the Historic District Landmarks Commission.
Jackson, an employee of New Orleans Public Schools, doesn’t have the funding needed to bring the building back. He hasn’t given up hope and says it’s a matter of finding the right connection to jumpstart the renovation. “My ultimate goal is to get this place to the point where it can do the city some good,” he says.
The building has been in Jackson’s family since his grandfather, Frank Painia, bought it and, with the help of Painia’s brothers, converted it from a grocery store into a nightclub, barber shop, hotel and restaurant in April 1939.
One brother was a cook, one a barber and one served as a handy man to help out around the building. By 1945 the Dew Drop Inn became the ultimate center for leisure in New Orleans. “If you got hungry you could eat, if you got too drunk you could get a room and sleep it off. When you woke up you could get your hair cut and there was also a beautician side of the barber shop, too, where ladies could get their hair done, and not to mention the night club […] It was just the place to be back in the day,” says Jackson.
MUCH MORE THAN MUSIC
Session guitar player, singer and local icon Deacon John Moore remembers much more than just music at the Dew Drop. “They had a floor show, they had an exotic dancer, or they had a magician doing magic tricks, a ventriloquist named Calhoun and Society Red,” he recalls.
“A lot of these cats don’t remember, but I was there when all this stuff was going on. I was there when Esquerita [a pompadoured, heavily made-up pianist whose antic behavior is said to have inspired Little Richard] played in there,” says Deacon John.
It was at the Dew Drop that Allen Toussaint discovered Deacon John and hired him to play for all the early Minit Record classics, including “Mother-In-Law,” “It’s Raining” and “Working in the Coal Mine.” He calls himself a “ghost guitar player,” meaning he was never credited with being on any of the recordings he made with Toussaint.
The Dew Drop saw its glory days through the 1950s, showcasing the nation’s best black performers. “When you performed at the Dew Drop then, you had some status attached to you,” says Irma Thomas, who played the venue early in her career.
Since there weren’t many black hotels during segregation, Painia put a lot of musicians up at his inn. “The white people thought that we were just something created from hell or something I don’t know. They were just scared to death of black people—why, I don’t know, ‘cause we all bleed red blood and I could never understand that,” says Thomas.
Painia did everything he could to keep that type of racial tension away from LaSalle Street. “As a kid I never knew about segregation until you went somewhere other than around here, ‘cause it didn’t happen around here at all,” says Jackson.
Painia wasn’t afraid to fight the law. “They actually would come in sometimes with a few paddy wagons and say, ‘Come on, everybody, get in, you’re all going to jail,’ including my grandfather […] ‘Racial mixing’ was the actual charge that they faced,” explains Jackson.
The Dew Drop environment provided many touring musicians a chance to get to know each other outside of just the gig. “It was such a hub, like a home base-type situation,” says Jackson. Musicians would return to the Dew Drop after their other gigs and jam together as late as they wanted.
“They had so many cats hanging out there ‘cause they knew if you hung out by the Drop you might luck out on a gig,” says Deacon John. With so much talent circulating between the nightclub, the hotel and the restaurant, it was a prime learning environment.
“We had a character who really helped me a lot in terms of performance and dressing and it was a female impersonator, which was Patsy Valdez,” Thomas says. Long before Big Freedia, there was Patsy Vidalia. Also known as Valdez or Valdelar, Patsy was the “Toast of New Orleans” and the emcee at the Dew Drop for two decades, hosting the annual gay ball every Halloween. “He gave me a lot of information in terms of the persona on stage—just be yourself and project to your audience, talk to your audience,” says Thomas.
The Dew Drop was important for more than just local artists. Robert “Bumps” Blackwell brought Little Richard to the Dew Drop during a session break at Cosimo Matassa’s J&M Recording Studio, where Richard thumped out his raunchy “Tutti Frutti, good booty” for Blackwell. Blackwell called local songwriter Dorothy LaBostrie to listen to the tune and clean up the lyrics for the recording session. They went back to Matassa’s and Little Richard cut his first major hit.
According to Jackson, “Little Richard to this day is a supporter because he knows that we are over here trying to get something going and he wants to back us up.”
Jackson was too young to attend any of the shows but spent a large portion of his childhood at the Dew Drop helping his family. “I got a chance to know a bulk of the local entertainers: K-Doe, Earl King, Toussaint would pass through here, Fats Domino, Raymond Lewis, Chick Carbo, Chuck Carbo, Smiley Lewis, Guitar Slim […] You name it, the list just goes on and on,” he says.
THE DROP IN DECLINE
As Painia’s health declined in the late ‘60s, so did the Dew Drop. “As he got sick, the shows stopped,” says Jackson. Frank Painia passed away in 1972 when Jackson was 17 years old.
“He was my grandfather and my dad all rolled into one […] It’s just the respect that I had for him that keeps me here as well as the significance of the history and the legacy of the business,” he says.
Before Katrina, the hotel was the only thing keeping the Dew Drop functional. After the storm, Jackson realized much of the building had substantial termite damage, forcing him to tear down walls and take out rooms being used before the storm.
The summer before Katrina, Jackson lost the insurance on the building. “We either had to change the entire roof to one type, which was a problem the insurance company had, or pay this exorbitant premium that we couldn’t reach with our income,” says Jackson.
Like most issues, money has been the biggest obstacle. The city hasn’t provided any type of funding, and Jackson doesn’t want to sell the family building off to outside investors interested in restoring it. Glenn Gaines began a restoration project on it, gutting out most of the interior and getting the building structurally sound, but has done little since then.
Harmony Neighborhood Development is working with Jackson on resurrecting the Dew Drop but hasn’t made any moves yet. According to Executive Director Una Anderson, they are early in the process.
Before anything can happen, Anderson says they first need a concrete plan. “While it is a historical place, people aren’t just going to donate to the history. We need some type of physical representation of what would become of the place and what they would be donating to,” she says.
Local gospel singer Jo “Cool” Davis is a huge proponent for bringing back the Dew Drop. Davis wants to see the return of the smaller club scene. “Central City is getting ready to boom,” he says. “I would love to see a club like the Dew Drop come back where the musicians can play and then it can bring back your natural raw talent […] You don’t need no big old club. All you need is a nice bathroom, a bandstand and somewhere somebody can hook up.”
Davis grew up in Central City near the Dew Drop. Though he was too young to go into the club, he remembers the scene in the ‘60s, bouncing from club to club around the neighborhood and seeing stars like Ernie K-Doe, Bobby “Blue” Bland and Bobby Marchan.
“I do believe that the Dew Drop will be back, and Kenny, he’s getting ready to pass the baton to his daughters,” says Davis.
Jackson’s ideal recreation of the Dew Drop would be a multipurpose facility. He wants to provide an after-school section where kids can take music lessons, a theater, a place for local musicians to perform, and even a boxing ring in the back. “It really could do so much for the city. If it came back this whole area would be different,” says Jackson.
For now, Roosevelt Randolph still stares out his window wondering if anything will happen with his home and Jackson still waits for somebody to give him the boost he needs to get the ball rolling.
Says Jackson, “I’m just down here battling, man, trying to get something going, but I think once it kicks off, it’ll take off like wildfire.”