This week I’ll be back down in New Orleans for work, and I’m fortunate enough to be staying at the historic Roosevelt Hotel in the heart of the Central Business District, on Baronne Street just off world-famous Canal Street. During the twenty-one years I lived in the city, the hotel was known as the Fairmont. Built in 1893 as the Grunewald Hotel, the building received a 400-room annex in 1908, then was renamed the Roosevelt Hotel in 1923 to honor President Teddy Roosevelt, who had stayed at the hotel on a number of occasions. In 1965, its name was changed yet again, this time to the Fairmont Hotel. In August, 2005, the hotel’s basement and a number of its guest rooms were flooded with ten feet of water from Lake Pontchartrain following Hurricane Katrina’s rupture of the flood protection levees. The building sat vacant for four years, until it was restored and reopened as part of Hilton’s Waldorf Astoria group in June, 2009.
Dara and I used to have late-night dinners at the Fairmont’s casual restaurant, Bailey’s, which had a great Manhattan vibe (and which served up terrific lox and onion omelettes, one of the only places in New Orleans that offered them). I used to take peeks in the Sazerac Bar and the Blue Room after a meal at Bailey’s or while walking through the hotel’s annual Christmas Wonderland display. The Blue Room, opened in 1935, played host to Louis Armstrong, Frank Sinatra, Tony Bennett, Marlene Dietrich, and Sonny and Cher, among many famous names. Here’s an entertaining story on the many entertainers who played the Blue Room (which is now open again). Here are some other wonderful images of the Blue Room over the decades.
One fact about the Grunewald/Roosevelt Hotel which I hadn’t been aware of prior to putting together this post was that the hotel hosted America’s first nightclub, The Cave. The Cave was opened in 1908 as part of the hotel’s expansion and was located in the basement, one level below where the Blue Room would open in 1935. Meant to make visitors feel like they were dining in Kentucky’s Mammoth Cave, The Cave featured full-size stalactites, stalacmites, and grotto fountains populated by naked nymphs. This reportedly took 700,000 pounds of plaster to accomplish. Many early jazz bands played The Cave until it was closed in 1930 and the space was turned into the hotel’s laundry. Postcards of The Cave show an unearthly dining room, akin to a set from Georges Melies’ pioneering science fiction film A Voyage to the Moon. For your viewing pleasure, ladies and gentlemen, may I present The Cave…
Here are some other Roosevelt Hotel links you may enjoy:
Evocative images from the Grunewald/Roosevelt Hotel’s early days, including a stay by Elvis during the making of King Creole
Another article on the reopening of the Roosevelt Hotel, this one from USA Today
An article on The Roosevelt Review, the hotel’s house organ, published from 1937 to 1968, filled with articles on New Orleans written by local historians
One last thing–I stumbled upon a photograph of Sharkey Bonano (in the hat, playing the trumpet) and His Kings of Dixieland playing the Blue Room in 1955. Back when I was living on Tchoupitoulas Street and then Constance Street in Uptown New Orleans, I used to do all my writing at the CC’s Coffeehouse at Jefferson Avenue and Magazine Street. That’s where I wrote Fat White Vampire Blues. One of the regulars at CC’s was an elderly gentleman who used to sing for his coffee. He’d serennade patrons who expressed interest in hearing an old standard, and they’d pay him by buying him a cup of coffee or a muffin. Really nice old fellow. He used to talk all the time about his friend Sharkey, the bandleader, who he used to sing with back in the 1960s. He talked about him like he was a father or an older brother, often with tears in his eyes as he remembered.