American Routes Shortcuts: The Dew Drop Inn
On Lasalle St, just across from the former CJ Peete housing project, you can see the dilapidated sign of a New Orleans landmark: the Dew Drop Inn. From the 40s to 70s, in a time of segregation, the Dew Drop played the role of rooming house, barber shop, post office restaurant and above all the top night club in the African American community.
It was a place where touring artists like T-bone walker and Ray Charles would stop and local talent such as the Nevilles and Dr. John played, usually with winding down with a last set at 4am. The Dew Drop was home to many fabulous people, perhaps the most spirited was patsy Vidalia. Born Irving Ale, Patsy was a singing, dancing female impersonator who spent many years as the mistress of ceremonies at the Dew Drop Inn. Although Patsy passed away in 1981 her performances remain legendary. Here, host Nick Spitzer asked those who remember Patsy’s days on stage to reflect. This piece was produced by David Kunian. For more from American Routes, tune in to WWNO Saturdays at 7 or Sundays at 6, or listen at americanroutes.org
EP: he was quite a character.
NS: New Orleans session drummer and rock and roll Hall of Fame member Earl Palmer recalls Patsy.
EP: Patsy Vidalia would open the show, you know, come out and tell you who’s performing. You found a lot of gay entertainers being master of ceremonies in those kind of shows because they were more outgoing, and add a little bit of humor the minute they walk out on the stage so right away the audience is in a good mood.
NS: New Orleans R&B singer, Deacon John.
DJ: Patsy would come in in an evening gown with a big cigarette holder, about a foot long, and say, “Good evening darlings, welcome to the Dew Drop, drink hearty and stick with your party-- the show is coming your way!” Then Patsy would open up and sing a number. That was the classic introduction. She would come out and sing, “Why not take all of big, sexy me!” She said, “Can’t you see, I’m no good without you!” She’d do that Vaudeville type stuff. She said, “You took the best, so come on and get the rest!” And with the microphone out, she’d lift up the Can-Cap slips and say, “Come on and get the rest!”
NS : One of the highlights of the year at the Dew Drop was Patsy’s gay ball on Halloween. Local musician and poet Eluard Burt says it was the place to be.
EB: It would start at midnight. It was the biggest event of the year at the Dew Drop, bigger than New Years Eve. And it was hosted by Patsy Valdez , who at the time had a kind of representation of all the black gay community. All over the city, and they were pretty well organized; half of them were seamstresses themselves. They would make their own clothes; they would make clothes for one another. And their stuff was really fabulous. Plus, they were good entertainers. They were the best entertainers you could think of because they just put so much into what they were doing. So they gave you a show.
NS Again, Deacon John.
DJ: Every Halloween, the annual gay ball. And there was a contest, to see who had the best costumes or the best show, or they had different categories for their awards, you know. And that was like the big event of the year you know-- the most talked about show of the year: Patsy’s annual gay ball. People from all walks of life. And everybody would be piling in there, because every year Patsy would try to outdo herself from the previous year and everybody couldn’t wait to see what she was gonna wear.
NS: Gerri Hall was a bartender at the Dew Drop for Patsy’s Halloween balls.
GH: It was really fun, because all the gays were dressed in drag and they’d have beautiful clothes on. And all of us who worked the bar, we all dressed in men’s clothes. Little tie and a shirt. Haha, we had a ball. Patsy says, “Look ya’ll, I want all of you to work. And I’m gonna get Frank to pay all of you good,” he says. “But I want you to all be dressed like guys. And you too, Miss Jerry!”
NS: However different Patsy was, she was loved and accepted by the regulars at the Dew Drop. Drummer Earl Palmer:
EP: All the musicians really loved Patsy and they respected what he was. I would say it was a little more accepted then than it is now. My experiences, where coming up on Vaudeville shows with my mother, I don’t ever remember being on a show where there wasn’t some gays, you know on Vaudeville shows. Because entertainment was much more broader than it is now. But Patsy was -- we used to call him the queen mother of the dew drop -- a ragin’ gay. But now growing up, I’ve come to understand he was really a big hearted, nice guy. Well his own persuasions, that’s his business, you know.
NS: Eluard Burt.
EB: And it was just automatically acceptable in the black community. There was no “they’re this, or they’re that,” the community that supported this because it was the community that was in the audience. And there was never- what later we get a gay-bashing thing, that never happened in the black communities. Because in the entertainment world you never know who is who, or who is what.
NS: Memories of the mistress of ceremonies in the heyday of the Dew Drop Inn, here in New Orleans. You heard the voices of Earl Palmer, Deacon John, Eluard Burt and Gerri Hall.