1956: Chris Owens becomes a French Quarter sensation
Before, she was Christine Shaw, a Texas kid who moved to New Orleans at age 20 and became a medical receptionist. Then, she met local impresario and larger-than-life character Sol Owens. Not only did he make her his wife, but in 1956, he made the then-23-year-old Chris Owens the featured performer at the couple’s then-new French Quarter dance joint, Club 809, at the corner of Bourbon and St. Louis streets. She was an instant star, earning write-ups in the Saturday Evening Post, McCall’s Magazine, Town and Country, and New York gossip columnist Walter Winchell’s column, “each one emphasizing that mine was the only legitimate act that didn’t include taking all my clothes off,” Owens proudly said in a 1974 interview with The Times-Picayune.
Sol Owens died in 1979, but Chris Owens is — remarkably — still shaking her maracas at the club they founded together, and she shows no signs of quitting any time soon. Earlier this year, she performed at the 2017 New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival.
- Chris Owens was raised on her father’s cattle ranch in west Texas. After high school, she attended nursing school but at the age of 20 packed her bags for New Orleans, where he sister was already living.
- During their courtship, Chris and Sol Owens frequented the Blue Room at the Roosevelt Hotel, where they enjoyed dancing to Latin music. Soon, according to 1974 profile published in The Times-Picayune, they were attracting more attention than the featured performers. That’s when they decided to open their own place.
- Among those smitten with the young Owens was Times-Picayune entertainment columnist Howard Jacobs, who in September 1956 wrote, “We hereby nominate as the girl most likely to succeed one Chris Owens. … She is a regal, vivid and sensuous-looking brunette of undeniable beauty and grace. But the prime factor that has brought her to the attention of New York and Hollywood is a dynamic quality which, translated into the torrid Latin rhythms, suggests the throbbing power of a DC-6 warming up for the takeoff.”
- In the 1950s, Sol and Chris Owens took off every couple of months to visit pre-Castro Cuba, where they danced the night away at Havana’s famed Tropicana Club. “It was the most exciting place I’ve ever been in my life,” Chris Owens said in an interview in April 2017.
- The Owenses’ fondness for Latin music found its way to Club 809, which featured a blend of New Orleans jazz and Latin rhythms, with some rock and blues thrown in. They also at one point introduced a “Maraca Club,” whereby patrons could buy their own pair of maracas — with their names painted on them — that would be stored at the club for them between visits.
- Around 1968, the Owenses moved their club to 500 Bourbon Street. They initially kept calling it the 809 Club, but since that name was derived from its original St. Louis Street address, by the mid-1970s it was renamed the Chris Owens Club, after its star attraction.
- Owens rode out 2005’s Hurricane Katrina at the French Quarter building that houses her namesake club, her apartment and several rental units. “I wasn’t about to leave my club, leave my business,” she said.
- For 34 years, Chris Owens has hosted an annual Easter parade through the French Quarter. As is tradition, Owens herself leads the way as the procession’s grand duchess, decked out in full Easter finery, including a reliably elaborate bonnet.
- In 2006, a statue of Owens was added to the New Orleans Musical Legends Park in the French Quarter, standing alongside similar likenesses of Fats Domino, Pete Fountain, Al Hirt, Louis Prima, Allen Toussaint and others.
- Hollywood came calling early for Owens, but she turned down all offers with one notable exception, appearing as herself in 1962’s “The Wacky World of Dr. Morgus,” a locally shot film starring the local horror host Morgus the Magnificent.
The words “New Orleans institution” are frequently deployed when discussing local entertainers, but Chris Owens is one of those few people whom it truly fits. A French Quarter fixture for more than 60 years — fully one-fifth of the city’s history — she’s become as much a symbol of the city and its good-times ways as a Pat O’Brien’s hurricane glass. So has the club that bears her name, which Times-Picayune writer Doug MacCash earlier this year called “perhaps the most famous landmark on the most famous street in New Orleans’ most famous neighborhood.”