Like many kids who grew up without cable, PBS was my major television window into the weirdness abyss a milquetoast suburban life in St. Bernard sheltered me from. A lot of what I learned about the various subcultures of punks, painters, and poets as a kid started with hour-long documentaries on New Orleans’s local PBS affiliate WYES (in between daytime offerings of Old Hollywood standards), initial introductions I would later flesh out by hunting down something people used to call “books.” I have a lot less time for “books” now that I’m watching/reviewing so many goddamn movies every week (Seriously. I’ve been reading the same biography of pro wrestler Gorgeous George & the same Howard the Duck comics collection since early summer when I usually would have knocked them both out in a week), but I did recently bring home one of WYES’s made-for-TV documentaries about local New Orleans culture from a university library that brought me back to that Chalmette bedroom where I was forever rapt & eager to learn more. Maybe I’ll even pick up a “book” on the subject (though, more likely, I’ll click around on Wikipedia between theater showtimes like the increasingly uncultured heathen I’ve become).
The Nightlife that Was first aired on WYES in 2004, but it might as well have been 1994 given the fashions & sensibilities that drives its awe-struck history of local nightlife. The hour-long documentary is not only a glimpse into the legendary bars & clubs that made New Orleans one of the coolest cities on the planet in the 1950s & 60s; it’s also a glimpse at a much more recent time where pre-Katrina New Orleans was relaxed & content with falling behind on every current trend other major cities were chasing. It’s very difficult to believe this documentary was made as recently as the aughts, not because it’s corny or old fashioned, but because it reflects a very specific kind of untouched-by-time aspect the city’s lost in its modernization over the last decade. The Nightlife that Was is a really fun, informative look back at half a century old pop culture history in my favorite city, but it also made me miss The New Orleans that Was in much more recent memory in its own charming way.
As a history lesson, The Nightlife that Was plays like a slowed-down, actually-informative version of Mondo Topless set in New Orleans instead of San Francisco. In a wild, hedonistic time, before-they-were-famous musicians like Dr John & Clarence “Frogman” Henry played background tunes for barroom strippers & cops were very relaxed on enforcing age restrictions for patrons; New Orleans was the wildest party on the planet. As one interviewee puts it, “If you couldn’t find something to do, you were a hermit.” Names like Tennessee Williams, Truman Capote, and a babyfaced Bill Clinton traveled to the city in the search of “the naughty & the gawdy,” finding an endless wealth of jazz musicians, killer soul singers, drag queens, comedians, and larger than life personalities for their troubles. Local standards like “Bill Baley” & “Stacker Lee” blare through a barrage of rapidfire anecdotes about the city’s rich history of “colorful squalor”, eventually giving way to hippie dippy bullshit like The Grateful Dead & the more recent Fat City disco scene as the years roll on before your eyes. The film makes a couple larger statements about the importance of nightlife to the city’s culture like its (very much true) assertion that “The gay political scene came out of bars, much like how the black political movement came out of churches,” but mostly The Nightlife that Was plays like a best-of highlight reel of priceless vintage nightlife footage. It’s mostly a reminder that the music may have gotten shittier on Bourbon Street & the people may not dress up to go there like they used to, but the debauchery has remained largely unchanged.
As far as the objective quality & importance of The Nightlife that Was goes, it’s probably much more in line with the post-Katrina check-in of Max Cusimano’s recent New City doc than with the priceless documentation of works like Always for Pleasure or The Sons of Tennessee Williams. That is to say that it’s interesting & worthy of discussion, but maybe not a home run in terms of thoroughly covering every topic it unearths. For instance, I found myself wanting to know more, much more about the history of the infamous black nightlclub The Dew Drop Inn than what the film had time for, to the point where I’d sacrifice the rest of its runtime to just focus on that one club. Nostalgia-wise, though, there was something special about this WYES production that struck a very particular chord in my heart. Everything from host/narrator Peggy Scott Laborde’s shoulder padded blazer to local legend Irma Thomas’s mid-00s visage to the fact that the film’s official for-purchase print appears to be a DVD-R brought me back to a childhood place of warmth & fascinated curiosity. Even the fact that I wanted to learn more than what little the film provided on many of its subjects reminded me of the role WYES has filled for a long time in my life. It made me want to read “books.”