A dance party on a riverboat casino highlights tensions about the city’s self-image, and its future.
"My Secret City" is a collaboration between CityLab and Narratively, a digital publication featuring extraordinary stories of ordinary people, told through video, text, photo essays, comics journalism and more.
I try to follow the steps of a line dance forming to a song I’ve never heard before when a middle-aged woman in hot pants whispers that I’d better get off the dance floor with my cocktail glass, because there is no telling how dangerous the dancing might get. A few minutes later, sensing my confusion and observing my missteps, a man approaches me on legs shaky from age but firm from cha-chas and says, “Dancing is just fancy walking. If you remember that, you’ll never go wrong.” As he walks away, “Shama Lama Ding Dong” starts to play. To no one in particular, the man shouts “Shama Lama Ding Dong!” with joy, then goes to find his dance partner.
I’m at the Treasure Chest Casino in Kenner, Louisiana, and this is Oldies Night, founded by WTIX 94.3 FM, a radio station so old that it played oldies when they were just called rock ‘n’ roll. Every Sunday, the station invites listeners to a four-hour live broadcast from the Caribbean Room, set inside a casino on a docked riverboat about fifteen minutes from New Orleans, and decked out with so many twinkle lights the whole thing looks like a multi-layered birthday cake. From the interstate, Williams Boulevard offers the fast food joints and motels typical of most American city-fringes, but there are breadcrumbs that lead to what’s to come: the place is rife with seafood joints and New Orleans-branded cuisine like the NOLA Desi Kitchen, and even a Kenner version of the famous French Quarter shop Café Du Monde (this one is much newer). There’s a requisite drive-through daiquiri shop, but drinks are cheaper at the casino. Keep following Williams to the water and you’ll hit the Treasure Chest.
I heard about Oldies Night from a friend who asked me if I wanted to go dance with old people on a riverboat in Kenner. And how could I say no?
For the past 20 years, people from all over southern Louisiana have made their way to the Caribbean Room to dance to Fats Domino and enjoy one-dollar Bud Lights. Regulars know that the clichéd instruction to “dance like no one is watching” is irrelevant here; you are most certainly being watched, and you will most certainly be corrected and instructed. “You’re turning like this,” a woman in a flowy periwinkle dress tells me, before exaggerating—I hope—a move I’d made, crossing one foot over the other and nearly falling over. “You should be turning like this,” she says, then gracefully twirls toward the DJ booth.
That woman is D, short for Dreda, a name no one calls her because “they can’t pronounce it.” She met her husband, Steve, at dancing school when she was 14 and he was 18. She was the only girl who would go into the circle while the boys did “the alligator,” an infamous Louisiana dance move meant to impersonate the swamp creature, as well as illicit bedroom activities. Steve says the nuns at dancing school used to grab him by the ear and kick him out when he was caught doing the alligator. And though D met Steve when she was 14, and has four grown children with him, the oldest of whom is 45, the two have only been married five years. “He’s been married six times,” D tells me, hawking a thumb at Steve. We’re sitting on the edge of the dance floor, at one of a half-dozen bar tables that Steve keeps saying didn’t used to be there, not in the good old days. “To six different people?” my friend asks. “No, I married one of them twice!” Steve laughs. “I was young and stupid then.” D and Steve started coming to Oldies Night twenty years ago, and after more than a decade, Steve proposed while the two of them were babysitting their grandkids.
The Caribbean Room is windowless and blue-lit. Regulars come back to hear the same songs again and again, without variation, since the very purpose of the night is to replay what’s already been played, to revisit the songs we’ve visited time and time again. In this sense, Oldies Night is the event truest to New Orleans, a place impermeable to change. At the Treasure Chest, you don’t have to succumb to quaint stereotypes of what it means to be from New Orleans. No one is eating gumbo or wearing strings of beads, or pretending to like jazz music more than the song “Twist and Shout.” Oldies Night is a place where you can dance and drink really cheap drinks with the people you love every Sunday.
This sentiment is echoed by the night’s host, Your Pal Al, a New Orleans native who started spinning records on a Louisiana AM channel when he was 18 years old. He’s 62 now, and the crowd loves him. “You gotta talk to Al,” the woman in the hot pants tells me. “Al’s been here since ’52!” Steve says, which is, of course, impossible.
I catch up with Al after the show. He has wavy brown hair and a matching mustache, and a voice that feels like it’s coming from a radio even though he’s sitting right in front of you. “New Orleans is a music town,” he says. “We dominated the music charts from ’54 to about ’64. And then the Beatles came along and knocked everyone off the charts.” But in New Orleans, he tells me, people wanted to keep listening to Lloyd Price and Little Richard. “The Beatles didn’t even sell out when they came here,” he says.
Later, Al tells me that he feels tension between what he knows the people at Oldies Night want to hear and the less local, perhaps more modern oldies his station manager would prefer him to play. It’s a live broadcast, after all, and you can’t just appeal to the people in the room. But this conversation is one that everyone is having, in some capacity, around town. How do we build a modern city that honors its traditions, its unwieldy streets, its gridless plan? How do we make ourselves inviting to newcomers and protect those who have always called this home?
A friend from college visited me in New Orleans one summer. She came to love the things that I loved showing her; the sweet olive and jasmine wrapped up around traffic signs, the porches and public drinking laws and muddy bayou. But when she left she confessed to me what she’d known all along. “I could never live here,” she said. “Even the popsicle stands are from 1910.”
Point taken. Sure, in some ways, New Orleans needs to look forward. But the Treasure Chest gives us a few hours each Sunday to stick our heads deep in the past, and not come out until last call.