1952: Falstaff gets into the forecasting business with its ‘weather ball’
Officially, the Falstaff Brewery at 2601 Gravier St. in Mid-City was there to brew beer. But at exactly 8 p.m. on Aug. 1, 1952, it got into the weather business. That was the night the brewery first flipped the switch on its lighted weather ball, mounted 21 stories in the air for all the city to see. Each night, the color of the ball’s lights would indicate the next day’s weather forecast, as provided by the National Weather Service. In addition to being both novel and useful, the Falstaff weather ball would become a local landmark, visible, as the brewery promised, for miles. It would remain so even after the brewery closed its doors, and the ball fell dark, in December 1978.
After sitting vacant for nearly three decades, the derelict old brewery — all 210,000 square feet of it — was purchased in 2006 by developer David Miller, who set about converting it into residential apartments. As part of the redevelopment plan, the tower was refurbished to once again light up the New Orleans night.
- The key to the weather ball’s usefulness was entirely dependent on whether one knew, or remembered, the color code used. Here’s how it worked: A green globe meant fair weather. Red meant someone else’s computery, and flashing red meant rain. A white globe indicated showers, and if it was flashing red and white, that meant storms were a-coming.
- If the vertical letters spelling out “Falstaff” on the tower that supported the globe flashed, that meant the temperature was expected to remain constant. If they were lighted from bottom to top, it meant temperatures were increasing, while a top-to-bottom sequence meant it was dropping.
- To help locals remember the color code, a Falstaff ad taken out in local newspapers included a pre-printed key for readers to clip out and keep in their wallets.
- The man selected to flip the switch that first day was 91-year-old Isaac Monroe Cline, a former chief of the local bureau of the National Weather Service.
- The globe measures 10 feet in diameter. The rooftop tower on which it is situated measures 126 feet from top to bottom. According to an ad in The Times-Picayune, it was built to withstand 120 mph winds.
- The St. Louis-based Falstaff brewing company dates to the 1880s, when it was known as Lemp. In 1903, it was renamed after Sir John Falstaff, a comic character who appears in Shakespeare’s “Henry IV, Part 1” and “Henry IV, Part 2.”
- In addition to being fat, vain and cowardly, Shakespeare’s Falstaff — a crowd favorite — had a taste for drink, often quenching his thirst at the Boar’s Head Inn, usually on borrowed money.
- A statue at Falstaff’s New Orleans brewery is often mistaken for the character after whom the brew was named. It’s not. It is of Gambrinus, a longtime icon in Europe of beer and partying.
- The Falstaff building was originally built as the National Brewing Co. of New Orleans in the early 1900s. A major expansion broadened its footprint in the 1930s, and Falstaff bought it in 1936. Another major renovation and expansion was completed in 1952, which the company celebrated with a parade. At the time of that expansion, the brewery was producing a reported 1.1 million barrels of beer every year.
- Falstaff’s local heyday was in the 1950s and 1960s, when it and the local Dixie, Regal and Jax breweries together held 80 percent of the local beer market.
- Falstaff beer went out of production in 2005. The rights to the brand are currently held by the Pabst Brewing Co., which, incidentally, also holds the brewing rights to New Orleans’ defunct but beloved Jax beer.
When lit, the Falstaff weather ball is certainly practical, informing New Orleanians of the next day’s forecast with a mere glance. Even when it isn’t, though, it is a towering touchstone to the city’s past as the onetime beer capital of the South — and perhaps at the same time offering a bit of inspiration to the city’s multitude of newer brewers who hope to one day restore that title to the city.