Earl Bernhardt is the co-owner of the Tropical Isles, the Bayou Club and the Funky Pirate. He spoke with OffBeat publisher Jan Ramsey about what needs to be done to improve Bourbon Street.
What kind of music do you have at your bars?
At the Tropical Isles, we have what’s become known as “trop-rock,” music that combines Jimmy Buffett-style music, rock, island music and a little reggae. At 610 Bourbon, we have the Bayou Club which has Cajun-zydeco music, and at 727 Bourbon, we have blues. The trop-rock seems to be the most popular, but the Cajun-zydeco is really becoming popular, and people come from all over the world to see Big Al Carson do blues.
Has Bourbon Street changed since you opened your bars?
Sure has. You have a lot of new money, new club owners. I worry that what happened to Fat City might happen to us. We’re also in competition now with Fulton Street, Oak Street uptown, Frenchmen Street, Champions Square. All those places are pulling business from the French Quarter.
What also worries me is that we’re seeing a lot of gangster-type individuals that are coming down to Bourbon in the wee hours of the morning, especially on Friday and Saturday. Some of these people are really thugs and have convictions for felonies. In the case of that bartender at Pat O’Brien’s who was shot a few weeks ago, some of these people who were arrested had been convicted and were supposed to be in curfew violation, but they’re hanging out on Bourbon anyway.
Unfortunately, some of the clubs that probably care more about the dollar than the integrity of the street pump really loud music out on the street and cause them to congregate, and as they get more intoxicated, they pick on the tourists, hustle them for money and I’m afraid it’s going to start scaring the tourists away.
What would you do to remedy this situation?
Well, I don’t think it’s a situation of more cops. During Bayou Classic, there were police every few feet, and still a guy pulled out a gun and started shooting on Bourbon Street. We started the Bourbon Street Merchants Association many years ago as a way to control what happens on the street, but I got really disillusioned with it because no one wanted to cooperate. I tried to get the clubs to turn their music down and they told me to go take a hike. The man who owns Rick’s is the president of it now, but the problems we have today are the problems we had 25 years ago.
Does really loud music bring people in?
Well, that’s what they say, but I’ve found that really loud music actually irritates customers. Our rule is that if you go up to order a drink from the bar, the bartender has to be able to hear you over the band. That’s the main thing that we fuss at our bands about.
How does one “Quality of Life” officer handle the noise problem on Bourbon Street?
I’ve had some club owners say, “Go ahead and write me a ticket and I’ll pay it,” and they go right on doing what they’re doing because the ticket is only $50 or $100. Also, I think a decibel meter is almost useless because it’s hard to measure with all the ambient noise in the street. When we first went in business, we had police details. When the music was too loud, the cop would go in and make a motion or tell the band to turn it down because if they didn’t, they would get into serious trouble. And they did. The police didn’t put up with it. Nowadays, there’s no enforcement at all.
There’s a law that a municipal fine can’t be more than $500. Is that enough?
Well, if you get a ticket every night, it is! Some of these clubs, you can hear the bands four or five blocks away. It’s not right to pump all that much sound into the residential areas. In our clubs in the 700 blocks, we’ve insulated all the back walls of the buildings so the sounds wouldn’t go behind to the residents. There are ways to do it if you really want to stop the noise problem. Problem is that the business operators don’t want to do it. I tested it recently—we have a place at 435 Bourbon and I went outside onto Bourbon, and it was so loud I couldn’t hear anything on my cell phone on the street!
What should happen to improve the conditions on Bourbon Street?
Walk down Bourbon Street at two or three o’clock in the morning. It’s scary. The first block between Canal and Iberville is no-man’s land, but walk a little further and you’ll hear blasting music. The street is filled with a lot of underage kids sending their buddies into the club to get a drink for them, and the drunker they get, the more belligerent they become. Stop this activity and Bourbon will be a lot better place.
Why can’t the city do this?
They don’t want to do it [laughs]. I don’t see it changing.