Headaches of Running a Nightclub in New Orleans

Katrina: One Year Later

Molly Peterson profiles the owner of Chickie Wah Wah, a New Orleans nightclub, who talks about the difficulties of running an entertainment venue in a city still struggling to get back on its feet.

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ALEX CHADWICK, host:

This is DAY TO DAY from NPR News. I'm Alex Chadwick.

MADELEINE BRAND, host:

And I'm Madeleine Brand. In post Katrina New Orleans, surviving music clubs relied on reconstruction workers and some diehard tourist to stay alive. It was hard though, because musicians fled after the storm. Their houses were destroyed. And in many of those houses that did survive, they are now empty.

Well, that didn't stop a club called Chickie Wah Wah from opening its doors this summer. NPR's Molly Peterson checked it out and has this report.

MOLLY PETERSON reporting:

Before Katrina, New Orleans might have led the nation in bars per capita, but there's nobody much in the 2800 block of Canal crying out for action now. To the right, there's an abandoned restaurant. To the left, burned out buildings. And the side streets are crowded with piles of lumber that aren't yet homes again. But there's a little progress. The streetcar rattles by once in a while.

Mr. DALE TRIGUERO (Owner, Chickie Wah Wah): You know, basically I wanted a neighborhood bar that had music. And subsequently, I discovered after finishing it that there was no neighborhood.

PETERSON: Club owner Dale Triguero stands out in front of Chickie Wah Wah. It's storm shutters are peacock blue. Its brick is blinding white under floodlights. Last summer, it was a just a closed up building with potential when Triguero began planning for his dream club.

Then Katrina hit, and his dreamed filled with six and half feet of water. You didn't need a door to get inside.

Mr. TRIGUERO: Literally, the walls were blown out of the building. They were vinyl siding and sheet rock, if you can imagine that. That's what the outside walls were. And so, as a result of that, the interior and the exterior had been destroyed. I completely had to rebuild the outside of the building.

PETERSON: Triguero has sunk $60,000 of his own into the project. Exiled in Baton Rouge, Triguero had high hopes for recovery money flowing into the Gulf last winter as he made his own plans to rebuild.

(Soundbite of music)

Mr. TRIGUERO: I just kept hearing billions of dollars, and I thought oh, good. I thought this is great. Someone's really going finally come and take care of New Orleans. I mean, I found it incredibly comforting and then I would come back to New Orleans to see absolutely nothing being done.

PETERSON: Triguero used to run the Old Point Bar in the Algiers neighborhood. His connections have brought distributors and bartenders fast. The Old Point drew national notice as the destination for lovers of funk and brass, and Triguero plans to draw in similar talent. He's offering sousaphonist Kirk Joseph practice space some afternoons as part payment for Joseph's gig.

Mr. KIRK JOSEPH (Musician): Roll back the top on the end.

(Soundbite of music)

PETERSON: Triguero acknowledges that even musicians he's friendly with can't work cheap forever. Wednesday night's headliner, Louisiana roots favorite Bruce Sunpie Barnes, says he wants to support neighborhood joints like Chickie Wah Wah. He also wants them to start paying him more.

Mr. BRUCE SUNPIE BARNES (Musician): If you're going to live in this city - absolutely, for a musician, sure. The rent didn't go down. Everything just tripled in price.

Unidentified Man #1: See you guys on the next (unintelligible).

Unidentified Man #2: All right. See you over there.

PETERSON: Sunpie didn't play for a gangbuster crowd Wednesday. He packed up after playing one set for under a dozen people. Among them was James, a patron from uptown.

JAMES: It's hard to convenience people that on a Wednesday night - yeah, we're going to go to this little grungy, dive bar on Canal street and we're going to see Sunpie again. It's a crapshoot, isn't it?

PETERSON: Even weekend nights are a gamble. Triguero held off scheduling music at first until he saw what foot traffic would do. Turns out, not much. So he's brought in more events to promote a neighborhood atmosphere, including - for the last few weeks - an improve troop. Ian Hoke(ph) is one of the actors.

Mr. IAN HOKE (Actor): People have gone out. I think by the time we finish the show, there's maybe 60 people that were watching us. And then afterwards, everyone really wanted to stick around because they liked this really cool bar.

(Soudbite of crashing sound)

PETERSON: Katrina washed out potential patrons. It also bumped up business costs. Cable television costs more. The local utility, Entergy, has jacked up electricity rates - a serious blow when you're fighting summer with air conditioning.

Triguero looks pooped. But he says he hasn't thought twice about opening. He's committed to New Orleans performers.

Mr. TRIGUERO: This is a young drummer named Eddie Christmas that is New Orleans born and no one in this town - well, probably musicians - but no one knows who he is because he's been on his road since he was 18 years old. And he's played remarkably.

(Soundbite of music)

(Soundbite of crowd cheering)

PETERSON: On this Friday night, 30 or more people nod or shake or bounce along to the music. They're even - after some encouragement - dancing.

(Soundbite of crowd cheering)

MR. EDDIE CHRISTMAS (Musician): Chickie Wah Wah - how ya'll feeling tonight?

(Soundbite of crowd cheering)

Mr. CHRISTMAS: There's too many people sitting down.

PETERSON: Triguero has to pay Eddie Christmas and his band mostly out of his own pocket tonight. But even so, he's pleased.

Mr. TRIGUERO: I literally just have to keep the lights on, you know, keep some of the wolves away from the door. But basically, the investment's there. So at this point I'm very resolved in the fact that I have to play the waiting game, and it only makes me know that I have to work harder.

(Soundbite of music)

PETERSON: He's waiting for students and for tourists and for the end of summer concert season in September. Triguero says more musicians will return home in the fall, and he hopes music lovers will follow them into his club.

Molly Peterson, NPR News, New Orleans.

(Soundbite of music)

Mr. Christmas: Now everybody, we didn't know about that crackdown with y'all.

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