Remembering when New Orleans’ Blue Room was red hot
The luxe Blue Room, tucked in just off the Roosevelt New Orleans’ block-long lobby, opened on New Year’s Eve 1936, offering well-heeled revelers a classy spot to ring in the new year. Admission wasn’t cheap — $10 per person (the equivalent of $177.31 today) — but, after all, this 300-seat club was, according to its advertising, “New Orleans’ smartest supper-dance room.” No headline artist appeared that night, but Phil Harris’ Hollywood Orchestra, featuring singer Leah Ray, performed on Jan. 3, and show-business luminaries appeared for the next five decades, including Louis Armstrong, Frank Sinatra, Ella Fitzgerald, Lena Horne, Ethel Merman, Carol Channing, Ray Charles, Marlene Dietrich, Lily Tomlin, Bette Midler and Joel Grey.
The Blue Room closed as a nightly venue on July 2, 1989, the victim of changing times and changing tastes in entertainment. Younger music fans were heading to music clubs with no dress codes, and high-caliber entertainers could get much more in concerts than the hotel could pay. The room, which was spiffed up as part of the hotel’s $135 million post-Katrina renovation, is available for events such as parties and receptions.
- In 1939, the room went Hawaiian, with island décor, Polynesian entertainment and even a mock thunderstorm. That concept lasted a year.
- Until the late 1950s, the Blue Room offered a vaudeville-style bill instead of a star performer. An evening’s entertainment then might have included trained dogs, several types of dancers and singers, tightrope walkers and bodybuilders.
- In one of her many Blue Room engagements over the years, Carol Channing — who shot to stardom singing “Diamonds Are a Girl’s Best Friend” — threw ersatz bling to delighted audience members, who acted as if they were children at a Mardi Gras parade. In 1977, Lena Horne marked her 60th birthday in the Blue Room in a slinky gown the color of a fire engine. That was a year after Lily Tomlin clomped around the stage in a plaid flannel shirt and lumberjack boots.
- When Tina Turner was steaming along on the comeback trail in 1980 after splitting from Ike Turner, she packed the room. At one point in her set, while Turner and her backup singers were powering through “Proud Mary,” she grabbed the microphone to proclaim, “There’s a whole lotta woman in this dress!”
- The legendary Marlene Dietrich played the Blue Room in 1975. As far as entranced audiences could tell, she looked and sounded terrific, but she was so frail that she had to be taken to the kitchen — the room from which she went onstage — in a wheelchair, and she went behind a screen several times in her act to take hits from an oxygen tank.
- Some performers brought elaborate sound equipment into the Blue Room, but when Ethel Merman strode onstage for a two-week stand in 1964, she took one look at the microphone, moved it to one side and demonstrated for the next hour that her clarion tones needed no amplification.
- There was no formal announcement of the club’s closing; it simply didn’t reopen in September 1989 after a two-month “vacation.” The last group to play the room was a local dance band called Pilot, which had its last performance on July 2.
- The Roosevelt was originally named the Grunewald Hotel, the name it carried from its 1893 opening until its sale in 1923, when it was rebranded the Roosevelt Hotel in honor of Teddy Roosevelt. After being sold again in the mid-1960s, it became the Fairmont-Roosevelt, and then just the Fairmont. It was closed indefinitely after Hurricane Katrina, then sold once more, given a stem-to-stern overhaul and reopened in 2009 as the Roosevelt New Orleans, a Waldorf Astoria Hotel.
- During the Grunewald era, the Blue Room was one flight up from The Cave, a subterranean pleasure palace inspired by Mammoth Cave in Kentucky that was an entertainment destination from 1907 to 1930. Pipes, conduits and beams were disguised as stalactites and stalagmites through the application of 700,000 pounds of cement and plaster. There were waterfalls, too. The room was the site of lavish revues; it was later used as a laundry and pastry kitchen.
In its heyday, the Blue Rom was a venue that commanded respect. Men showed up in suits, and, when hats were still fashionable, women wore their best millinery and often sported corsages. Children in their Sunday best were often in the audience because the Blue Room was a site for special family celebrations where people knew they would eat well and be royally entertained. Irma Thomas was well aware of the presiding vibe when she played the room in 1985: “When you step into the Blue Room, you feel like you have to act so dignified! It’s hard to get loose in the Blue Room, but we’re going to turn all that around because we must remember that the Blue Room belongs to the people of New Orleans.”