The rise and fall of New Orleans’ legendary Dew Drop Inn
In 1939, Frank Painia expanded his barbershop on LaSalle Street in Central City. The new buildings housed a bar and a hotel, filling a glaring need in New Orleans by providing black musicians and entertainers a place to stay in the still-segregated Southern city. It was also the first step in a series of expansions — eventually including the addition of a dance hall — that would see the Dew Drop Inn become one of the most celebrated and successful venues for New Orleans’ black community, as well as the city’s musical community in general. Over the next 30 years, the Dew Drop would go on to become one of the most iconic venues on the New Orleans music scene.
The Dew Drop closed its doors in 1970, but Painia’s grandson, Kenneth Jackson, is leading efforts to restore and revitalize both the legendary establishment and its surrounding neighborhood. Along with Harmony Neighborhood Development and the Milne Inspiration Center, and through the help of private donations, Jackson hopes to return the Dew Drop to its former glory as a hotel and music venue, as well as serve the local community as training center for young people.
- The list of musicians who have performed at the Dew Drop Inn reads like a “who’s who” of New Orleans and Southern black musicians. Performers from Allen Toussaint to Irma Thomas got their start performing at the Dew Drop Inn. In fact, it was there that Toussaint met Dave Bartholomew, forming a notable New Orleans music partnership. Deacon John Moore first began playing there in the ’50s.
- National acts including Otis Redding, Little Richard, Ike and Tina Turner, James Brown, and Ray Charles all also performed on the Dew Drop stage.
- Over the years, the Dew Drop bred its own unique status and allure. Louisiana Weekly named the club “New Orleans Swankiest Nightclub.” Little Richard even wrote a song about it; “Dew Drop Inn” is all about the raucous good times had there.
- The Dew Drop Inn also hosted more eclectic performances for the time, like drag shows with drag queens Patsy Vidalia and Sir Lady Java. Patsy was known in particular for hosting the annual gay Halloween Ball. She emceed the event that began at midnight and ran through the morning for 20 years. With costume contests and ornate drag performances, the ball was a legend of its time.
- Even though the Dew Drop Inn was predominantly for black performers and audiences, white people found their way in as well, despite city laws that prohibited mixed-race mingling during the Jim Crow era. Frank Painia didn’t care, but the police sometimes did. They raided and arrested workers and patrons more than once, and Painia got fed up. He filed a lawsuit against the city in 1964, saying the law was unconstitutional. However, the Civil Rights Act of 1964 was passed that year and ended legal segregation.
- Some attribute the club’s decline to desegregation, as black patrons begin to visit other clubs around the city once they could legally do so. Others attribute it to Frank Painia’s decline in health. When Frank Painia died in 1972, the dance hall had already been closed and the rest of the business shut down for good, with the exception of housing a few long-term tenants. After 2005’s Hurricane Katrina, the building fell into disrepair, and it wasn’t until recent years that Jackson began the efforts toward restoration.
- In 2010, the Dew Drop Inn was included on a list of endangered New Orleans landmarks by the Louisiana Landmarks Society. That year, the Historic District Landmarks Commission also named it a historic landmark.
- Musician Earl King frequented the Dew Drop Inn in its heyday. He was said to have self-published a tabloid, the LaSalle Street Eye, in which he would update readers on gossip and goings-on at the Dew Drop.
In its prime, the Dew Drop Inn served a part of the population that wasn’t afforded access to all that the city had to offer. Black musicians could perform on Bourbon Street, but they couldn’t have a drink after the show. The Dew Drop Inn carved out its place amid this injustice and made a space where anyone — from amateurs to touring legends — could perform, have a drink, and lay their head. In the process, it cultivated some of the most iconic music that New Orleans has to offer.