The year in culture: New Orleans 2016 in review (a curated roundup of news)

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(NOTE: This round-up will be updated as comments are added, and any notable news is reported, after the end of the year.)

As New Orleans continued to shift into what could be called a “post-post-Katrina” period — that is, moving past the 10-year commemoration of the devastation, or recovery mode — evidence of a new New Orleans culture continued to reverberate all over. Sometimes we see that reflected in trends identified in other cities, like a more diverse (and ever-shifting) restaurant scene, or (more dramatically) the legalization and hopeful regulation of short-term rentals. Then there was, for a variety of reasons, a shrinking of the Hollywood South imprint and its seeming rejection of a film industry in the state. Yet there continued the boundless proliferation of festivals as New Orleans continued to almost manically celebrate itself.

To be sure, the changing face of the city’s culture remained ever changing.

There are those who believe that, with so many of these changes, New Orleans’ unique and often quirky culture might be threatened — that the reasons that make the city so special and so inviting to the rest of the world are shrinking like the Louisiana coastline.

But 2016 also represented a year of amazing and exciting moments that reconfirmed a city’s passion for its cultural life — even when commemorating the lives of famous cultural figures not from New Orleans. Here’s an overview of many of these moments, a (hopefully) carefully curated round-up of stories pulled from several local media outlets (including PopSmart NOLA), as well as national outlets where appropriate.

The year is broken down into categories, with a subjectively chosen lead story followed by links to lots of others. I hope to continue the discussion on “PopSmart NOLA” on WHIV (102.3 FM) on Saturday (3 p.m.-4 p.m.).

What was the biggest cultural moment in New Orleans in 2016 for you? Please add any of your important moments in the comments section.

Irvin Mayfield resigns from the New Orleans Jazz Orchestra (WWL-TV)
“Calling the last months ‘trying and difficult,’ Irvin Mayfield responded for the first time to the 14-month scandal surrounding his use of public library donations by resigning as artistic director and board member at the New Orleans Jazz Orchestra, a nonprofit he founded in 2002.”

ALSO: Beyonce’s “Formation” video, with New Orleans references, is released (Curbed) … New Orleans Airlift’s Music Box finds a permanent home in Bywater (My Spilt Milk) … Trombone Shorty performs at the White House for 50th anniversary of the National Endowment for the Arts (WGNO) … Bayou Country Superfest to relocate to New Orleans in 2017 ( | The Times-Picayune) … Skywriting turns heads at Jazz Fest ( | The Times-Picayune) … Bayou Boogaloo policy has neighbors feeling fenced in ( | The Times-Picayune) … Musicians rally for Lil Queenie (My Spilt Milk) … Michael Cerveris releases “Piety” (PopSmart NOLA) … Lil Wayne makes news (not all of it good) … Fats Domino documentary airs on PBS (New Orleans Advocate) … Boyfriend breaks out (My Spilt Milk) … French Quarter Festivals, Inc.’s Marci Schramm steps down (New Orleans Advocate) … David Kunian takes over as director of New Orleans Jazz Museum (New Orleans Advocate) … Local acts warm up for national acts at Jazz Fest (My Spilt Milk) … Delish Da Goddess breaks out with video (Gambit) … Solange’s “A Seat at the Table” album debuts at No. 1; album’s videos have “stunning power”; Solange pens letter after Orpheum incident; and Solange plays New Orleans tour guide for Vogue … Big Freedia crowned queen of Krewe du Vieux (PopSmart NOLA) … Big Feedia experiences legal trouble (New Orleans Advocate) … and Big Freedia saves the holiday with “A Very Big Freedia Christmass” ( | The Times-Picayune) … Tank and the Bangas break out (My Spilt Milk)

Shaya wins James Beard Award for Best New Restaurant ( | The Times-Picayune)

“Shaya opened in Uptown New Orleans in February 2015. The restaurant, which is co-owned by John Besh, has been a sensation from the get-go. The food pays tribute to chef Shaya’s native Israel. Reservations to taste that food have been unusually hard to come by. Several national food outlets named Shaya among the country’s best new restaurant openings of the year. I gasped over the restaurant in a four-bean review in July. ‘Who woulda thought hummus in New Orleans?’ Shaya said when he accepted his medal. ‘What was everyone thinking?’”

ALSO: Nellie Murray Feast honors Leah Chase, remembers culinary legend ( | The Times-Picayune) … Fried Chicken Fest debuts, to move to bigger venue (New Orleans Advocate) … Isaac Toups expands to SoFAB with Toups South ( | The Times-Picayune) … Dryades Public Market opens in Central City (Biz New Orleans) … Restaurant Closings: Booty’s ( | The Times-Picayune) … Dinner Lab ( | The Times-Picayune) … Kyoto (New Orleans Advocate) … O’Henry’s Food & Spirits ( | The Times-Picayune) … Tony Angello’s (New Orleans Advocate) … Horinoya (New Orleans Advocate) … and Restaurant Openings: Caribbean Room ( | The Times-Picayune) … Dook’s Place (PopSmart NOLA) … Rosedale ( | The Times-Picayune) … Wolf ’n’ Swallow (Gambit) … Dunbar’s Creole Cooking (New Orleans Advocate) … Brett Anderson’s top five new restaurants ( | The Times-Picayune).

Author Michael Tisserand releases “Krazy: George Herriman, A Life in Black and White” to universal praise (PopSmart NOLA)
“The subtitle is more than a clever pun, for Tisserand reveals the racial subtext of Herriman’s life, which often seeped into his comic-strip hero of the same name; Herriman, an African American, “passed” as a white man. The praise for Tisserand’s book — years in the making — already is overwhelmingly positive on this, its release date (Dec. 6). … “Seamlessly integrating the story of Herriman’s life, he executes an impressive history of early-20th-century race relations, the rise of Hearst and the newspaper boom, and the burgeoning cross-continental society life of New York and Los Angeles,” writes Kirkus Reviews.”

ALSO: Michael Allen Zell releases “Law & Desire” (New Orleans Advocate) … Illustrated edition of Danny Barker memoir “A Life in Jazz” is released, with forward by Gwen Thompkins (NPR) … New Orleans Poetry Festival debuts (WWNO) … Mary Badham appears at Tennessee Williams/New Orleans Literary Festival (Deep South magazine) … Tulane hosts traveling “First Folio! The Book that Gave Us Shakespeare” exhibit; holds second line ( | The Times-Picayune) … New Orleans Public Library adds new hours ( | The Times-Picayune) … New Orleans Public Library’s new Mid-City location opens on Canal Street (New Orleans Advocate) … Michael Murphy releases “Hear Dat New Orleans: A Guide to the Rich Musical Heritage and Lively Current Scene” (WWNO).

Louisiana stripper age-limit law challenged (New Orleans Advocate)
“Three dancers from New Orleans and Baton Rouge filed the suit claiming the state law robs them of their right to express themselves, a violation of the state and federal constitutions. They also said the ban is too broad and discriminates against dancers based on gender and age. Further, the dancers said there’s no evidence the new restrictions will have any impact on human trafficking, even though the state lawmaker who introduced it, Sen. Ronnie Johns, R-Lake Charles, said it was ‘strictly an anti-human trafficking bill.’ All three dancers said the ban would hurt them financially. Two dancers said their income already had been sliced by at least half.”
ALSO: Polly Watts takes Avenue Pub staff to Belgium (PopSmart NOLA) … Bar Openings: Three Keys, Ace Hotel ( | The Times-Picayune) … Bar Closings: Bellocq ( | The Times-Picayune) … Fox & Hound ( | The Times-Picayune).

Tyler Perry presents nationally televised “The Passion” live in New Orleans (Deadline)

“Equal parts sermon and Super Bowl halftime show, Fox’s ‘The Passion’ live event from New Orleans tonight was an Easter basket overstuffed with sincerity, good intentions and hammy musical performances, all melting into a big batch of goo faster than a chocolate bunny in the sun.”

ALSO: Faux/Real Fest drastically reduces footprint ( | The Times-Picayune) … New Orleans Opera presents “Dead Man Walking” (Louisiana Life) … Richard Mayer closes Old Marquer Theatre (| The Times-Picayune); opens Valiant Theater & Lounge in Arabi (New Orleans Advocate) … InFringe Fest debuts, sort of ( | The Times-Picayune) … Theater gets wet: “Waterworld: The Musical” ( | The Times-Picayune) and “Exterior. Pool – Night” … Trixie Minx presents “Cupid’s Cabaret” at the Orpheum (PopSmart NOLA) … Transgender artists reclaim their identity (PopSmart NOLA) … Bella Blue voted No. 8 burlesque performer in 21st Century Burlesque poll (PopSmart NOLA) … Le Petit Théâtre celebrates 100 years (Biz New Orleans) … Snake Oil Festival draws huge crowds for burlesque, circus and sideshow performances (PopSmart NOLA).

Hollywood South turns South with tax-credit limitations (New Orleans Advocate)
“Louisiana’s film and television industry — popularly known as Hollywood South because of the large number of movies and shows filmed here over the past decade — has suffered a sharp downturn since mid-2015. Industry officials are blaming a law passed a year ago by the state Legislature and signed into law by Gov. Bobby Jindal — a law that aimed to control ballooning costs for a generous incentive program that independent analysts say has not provided much bang for the buck.”

ALSO: New Orleans Film Society’s Jolene Pinder steps down ( | The Times-Picayune) … Deepwater Horizon movie debuts ( | The Times-Picayune); so does memorial “ELEVEN” ( | The Times-Picayune) … Broad Theater opens in Mid-City (Gambit) … New Orleans’ own Bianca Del Rio stars in “Hurricane Bianca” (PopSmart NOLA) … Architecture and Design Film Festival debuts, sponsored by the Louisiana Architectural Foundation, at Carver and Broad theaters ( | The Times-Picayune) … Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie sell French Quarter house as marriage ends (ET).

Artist Brandan Odums opens StudioBE with new exhibit in Bywater ( | The Times-Picayune)
“The powerful installation features mural-scale graffiti-style portraits of Martin Luther King Jr., Coretta Scott King, and Muhammad Ali, plus paintings of victims of police violence, New Orleans’ past political activists, and world peace advocates. The theme of the exhibit bridges the mid-20th-century Civil Rights era and the recent Black Lives Matter movement. The title, Odums said, is meant to imply both change and continuity.”

ALSO: Bob Dylan exhibition opens at New Orleans Museum of Art ( | The Times-Picayune) … “La Femme” at New Orleans Arts Center captures diversity of women (New Orleans Advocate) … “Avian Aviators” sculptures dominate Poydras Street (New Orleans Advocate).

City Council approves short-term rental rules (New Orleans Advocate)
“Council members who supported the rules — along with officials from the Landrieu administration and Airbnb — cast the package of regulations as a model for regulating the roughly 5,000 properties in New Orleans now listed on short-term rental sites, despite a longstanding citywide ban on the practice. And, pointing to data the city would require from Airbnb and similar platforms, they argued the new rules would provide a foundation that can be made more or less restrictive if problems develop.”

ALSO: Confederate memorials spur “Take ’Em Down” movement (Curbed) … National World War II Museum commemorates 75th anniversary of Pearl Harbor  (WDSU) … Ellen DeGeneres earns Presidential Medal of Freedom (PopSmart NOLA) … National Museum of African American History and Culture, with New Orleans references, opens in Washington, D.C. (NPR) … Musee Conti wax museum closes ( | The Times-Picayune) … One kiss goes viral at Southern Decadence (PopSmart NOLA) … Sinkhole de Mayo becomes a thing ( | The Times-Picayune)

NBA moves 2017 All-Star game from Charlotte to New Orleans over HB2 controversy ( | The Times-Picayune)
“The NBA … gets a chance to make a powerful political statement by placing its midseason classic in one of America’s most socially progressive cities. New Orleans ranked fourth among American cities with the highest rates of LGBT population, according to a 2015 New York Times study. It ranked as 12th most ‘LGBT-friendly’ city in the U.S, in a study by, which based its rankings on statistics from the FBI, Gallup and Human Rights Campaign.”

ALSO: New Orleans Zephyrs renamed as Baby Cakes (Washington Post).

Musician Pete Fountain remembered (New Orleans Advocate); second line ( | The Times-Picayune)

Keith Spera: “In their glory years, he and partner-in-crime Al Hirt lived large, laughed loud and drank a whole lot. But when it came time to toot — at his club, during a Super Bowl halftime show, at the White House, wherever — Fountain inevitably delivered. He could make a clarinet sing with a deep, rich, bluesy tone all his own. Styles may change — in a publicity photo from the 1970s, he rocks a toupee, collars the size of eagle wings, and a scarf — but his sound was timeless.”

ALSO: Musician and restaurateur Edgar “Dooky” Chase Jr. remembered ( | The Times-Picayune) … Herb Hardesty, longtime Fats Domino saxophonist ( | The Times-Picayune) … Buckwheat Zydeco, music pioneer and Jazz Fest favorite (OffBeat) … Sharon Litwin, arts journalist, promoter, activist ( | The Times-Picayune) … Prince remembered through the years, at Jazz Fest, at Essence Fest, and with second line … David Bowie remembered with tributes, second line (Alison Fensterstock/NPR) … Mercedes “Miss Mercy” Stevenson, Big Queen, Wild Tchoupitoulas Mardi Gras Indians, remembered (WWOZ) … Helen Koenig, Carnival costume supplier ( | The Times-Picayune).

UPDATE: | The Times-Picayune weighed in with a list of 10 highlights, which included noting that Mardi Gras and Jazz Fest happened again.

What were some of your most memorable cultural moments in 2016? Tell us what is missing in the comments section, and we will add them at the beginning of the year.

Do dive bars in New Orleans still matter?

The Black Penny on Rampart Street — formerly The Ninth Circle. (Photo by David Lee Simmons)

The Black Penny on Rampart Street — formerly The Ninth Circle. (Photo by David Lee Simmons)

There’s a pretty funny, sharply observed and snarky post from Munchies making its way around the Internet thanks to a re-posting from its original 2014 publishing titled “The Slow and Painful Death of the Dive Bar.” Basically it’s a barfly’s screed against the gentrification that’s occurred all over the land in which former dive bars are taken over by a kind of hipster management awash in cleverly disguised bourgeois trappings such as IPAs and craft cocktails and digital jukeboxes. Here’s but one witty shot across the bow:

Does your daytime bartender have full arm-sleeves? That’s cool. Do ALL your new bartenders, barbacks, door men, regulars, and social-media coordinators have full arm-sleeves? That’s bad. See, tattoos are meant to indicate individuality. If everyone is uniform in their individualism, then this place is no better than Hot Topic. You can’t mass-produce an identity. In fact, you shouldn’t even have a social media coordinator. That dumb new mustache logo isn’t helping, either. The only logo a proper dive bar should have is that cold look a regular laser-beams at you when you open the door at 11 AM and it lets in too much light.

Indeed, New Orleans, having in its post-Katrina population boom embraced many national trends including a certain strain of hipsterism in its nightlife (often for the better), has experienced an almost tectonic shift in its seemingly myriad dive bars. You can see it most evident in the French Quarter, especially with several divey gay bars being converted into such spiffy and shabby-chic joints as the Black Penny (pictured) with its impressive canned-beer selection as it sits perched on an ever-transforming Rampart Street. And if the French Quarter is the canary in the coal mine for New Orleans bars, what do these conversions mean for the rest of the city?

For the article’s author Josh Androsky, it’s the end of an era: “Remember the good times? Back when it was that other place, the good place? Before you bought it. Before you ruined it. Before you renamed it something along the lines of an ‘eco friendly neighborhood pub SERVING IPAs ONLY, Bring Your Kids!'”

This reminded me of the days managing the bar guide at the previous publication, and painful — I mean PAINFUL — 2014 debate we had in deciding on the top five dive bars in New Orleans. It was painful not just because of the slow death of the dive bar, but also the crazy criteria for what constituted a dive bar in the first place. There were the obvious ones, like a locally owned spot primarily embedded in a neighborhood, and maybe with its fair share of “characters” along with cheap drinks and beer and an organically well-worn feel to it and a jukebox that didn’t try too hard to be cool but was anyway. Stuff like that.

But also, as I believe some commenters may have pointed out, it just felt unseemly to “promote” or “rank” dive bars to begin with, to celebrate something that very much seemed to want to operate exclusively under the radar and didn’t need your help, thankyouverymuch. (Certainly not from a corporate-owned publication, but that’s another discussion for another day.)

So what do you think? Do you believe New Orleans’ dive bars are going the way of other bars nationally, as Josh Androsky has suggested (twice now, LOL)? Do you also agree that they have an intrinsic value, or should we even care anymore? For me, the beauty of New Orleans bars do lie in their ability to become a treasured part of a neighborhood, and identify with it. I’d wager some newer New Orleanians, for example, might be surprised at how just you Finn McCool’s is. While a true neighborhood bar, it’s barely more than a decade old, yet feels very much a part of Mid-City while not being a dive bar at all. And there are other bars that, while renamed and under more recent ownership, that still have that divey feel — like JJ’s Sports Lounge in Bywater (Bywater!).

And so, as we approach New Year’s Eve, I’ll repeat the question: Do dive bars in New Orleans still matter?


The Avenue Pub brings the Chinese food alternative for Christmas day on Friday

Avenue Pub 1

For years, Avenue Pub owner Polly Watts figured the coolest way to have fun Christmas day was doing what lots of other Jewish folks do: eat Chinese. (And she’s got the Atlantic article to prove it.) So she little gatherings and had Chinese food and a movie for friends who either also were Jewish, weren’t into celebrating the holiday in general, or were just looking for something fun to do besides the usual family gathering.

But when it started to get a little hectic to put on — “once it gets over 15, it gets to be too many for me!” she laughed — Watts decided this year would be different. She’s moving the party over to the Avenue Pub, where on Christmas day Chinese food will be prepared by the food truck Brothers Ball. The viewing: BBC America’s airing of the “Dr. Who” Christmas special. (Check out the Facebook event page for more details.) Dinner starts at 7 p.m. (The Avenue Pub kitchen will be open from 2 p.m. to 4 a.m.)

“It really is a fun thing, and we’re just doing it for fun,” said Watts. “It gives people who want to go out on Christmas night some unusual to do and people who don’t do something on Christmas something fun to do. It all comes from the fact I’m Jewish and my family eats Chinese (food) on Christmas.” (Note: For some of my coverage of Polly Watts and Avenue Pub, watch this video.)

It’s important to remember that The Avenue Pub is a bar and not a restaurant and is 21-plus only.

Check out the menu below:

Brothers Ball Christmas Dinner
5 course tasting menu
Jumbo lump won ton soup.
Fried catfish,tong cho sauce, Thai basil, mint, cilantro, red onions, hot peppers.
“Reu Bun” (steam bun)
Smoked beef cheek pastrami, house fermented Napa cabbage sauerkraut, kewpie mayo Russian dressing, Swiss cheese.
“Mapo tofu”
Tofu, ground pork, black bean garlic sauce, crispy rice cake, hot peppers.
“General Tso”
Chicken served over crispy egg noodles with carrots, onions, celery and enoki mushrooms.
Dessert surprise!

Lana O’Day’s top 5 drag inspirations, heading into Friday’s “Little Miss Sunshine of the Bywater”

12207618_514992518665418_1697913512_nLittle Miss Sunshine of the Bywater operates on the principle that, well, Bywater’s got talent. This we already know thanks to the Marigny/Bywater scene that plays hosts to drag, burlesque, comedy and music shows from Elysian Fields to Poland and St. Claude avenues.

It’s with that belief that I signed on as a judge for Friday’s (Nov. 6) drag-themed talent contest being held at Bar Redux, which I helped tout as one of New Orleans’ five best new bars for | The Times-Picayune:

You can’t walk inside Bar Redux and not fall in love with co-owners Janya and Russ Mercado and son Damian (at the bar), rock ‘n’ rollers from New York who work feverishly to bring a slide of the Lower East Side to the back of Bywater. On any given night of the month you can check rockabilly, goth and burlesque theme nights, with Russ working out of the kitchen to produce pub grub and his own ‘Yankee gumbo.’

It’s also with this belief that I asked co-host Lana O’Day, a talented drag queen whom I interviewed for a story about the sale of the French Quarter gay nightclub Oz, to serve up her five favorite drag inspirations. (For more on the show, which starts at 8 p.m. and is $10 at the door, visit the Facebook page. Sponsored by Research Association for Missing People, it’s all part of the Faux/Real Festival running through Nov. 22. Learn more here. If you’d like to participate in the contest, contact Lana at

Given some of the answers, Lana turned out to be a great pick; her alter-ego pens the very cool Blame Mame: A Classic Film Blog. Here’s what Lana had to say:

“Some Like It Hot” —  “If you haven’t seen this film, you need to have your head checked! You’ve got Tony Curtis and Jack Lemmon cross dressing in an all girls band to hide out from the mob and you’ve got Marilyn Monroe! What else could you want or need?! The scene that has always stuck out in my head is the train scene where we are first introduced to Daphne and Josephine (Tony and Jack). They are trying to walk in heels and look feminine, but they just can’t get it. And than it cuts to the voluptuous blonde bombshells herself … Marilyn Monroe, who struts passed the fellas and shows them how it’s done. Daphne’s quote puts it all into perspective: ‘Will you look at that! Look how she moves! It’s like Jell-O on springs. Must have some sort of built-in motor or something. I tell you, it’s a whole different sex!’ How’s that sound? Now this is what I’m talkin’ bout. It sounds perfect.”

“To Wong Fu, Thanks for Everything, Julie Newmar” — “This one is pretty obvious. A film about drag queens in the 1990s was taboo. Throw in top film stars Patrick Swayze and Wesley Snipes and you’ve got a recipe for fun. The opening scene to this film is one of my favorites of all the films I’ve ever seen. It starts with Salt-N-Peppa asking, ‘Where is the body?’ Than the beats drops and It cuts to Vita and Noxema getting ready for a night on the town. There’s eyelashes, huge powder puffs, girdles, stockings, wigs, gowns … oh my! I was hooked from the first time I saw this … in elementary school! And of course Noxema schooled us on what exactly a drag queen is: ‘When a straight man puts on a dress and gets his sexual kicks, he is a transvestite. When a man is a woman trapped in a man’s body and has a little operation he is a transsexual. When a gay man has way too much fashion sense for one gender, he is a drag queen. And when a tired little Latin boy puts on a dress, he is simply a boy in a dress!”

The Little Mermaid” — Yes, even Disney has its fair share of connections with the cross dressing community. After all, the best villain and my favorite sea witch Ursula was modeled after the one and only Divine! From her high, arched eyebrows to her large red lips, Ursula just screams QUEEN! She is vicious and knows what she wants! She will step on anyone who gets in the way … even the skinny pretty girl. Sounds like a queen to me! ‘And don’t forget the importance of body language!’”

“Victor/Victoria” —  Words can not express how much I love this film! You’ve Mary Poppins … yes, Mary Poppins (Julie Andrews) playing a woman who can’t get a job as an entertainer dressing as a man who entertains as a cross dresser. Mind blown, right? It’s like cross-dressing inception! The story line deals with men questioning their sexuality, equal rights for women, and a whole lot of amazing music numbers. Everyone has seen the ‘Le Jazz Hot’ scene right? No? Than why are you reading this? It’s so good even ‘Glee’ had to remake it … that means you’ve made it!”

Jayne Mansfield — Ok, so technically, Jayne Mansfield isn’t a movie, but she is the definition of camp, glamor and drag. To put it simply, Jayne Mansfield was Vera Jayne Palmer’s drag persona. Jayne learned early on what she needed to do to be successful and get attention. Jayne Mansfield was over the top, gaudy, and a caricature of a glamorous woman. She wore revealing gown, big hair, big lashes, and even had a pink house. Like the entire house was pink and furry. If that isn’t a drag queen’s doing I don’t know what is. Jayne talents shine best in her two most popular films: ‘The Girl Can’t Help It’ and ‘Will Success Spoil Rock Hunter?’ Many stars in Old Hollywood created personas that they would play on screen and in public. Jayne Mansfield’s persona just happened to be that of a drag queen.