The historic Central City music venue and hotel sat empty for years until receiving a multi-million-dollar makeover

Dew Drop Inn reopens with Irma Thomas, Deacon John: ‘I never thought I’d live to see this’

Sixty-three years ago, Irma Thomas borrowed the saucy song “Hip Shakin’ Mama” from Patsy Vidalia, the drag emcee at the Dew Drop Inn.

On Friday, Thomas brought it back.

The Soul Queen of New Orleans headlined the grand reopening of the Dew Drop on LaSalle Street in Central City.

Founded by Frank Painia in 1939, the Dew Drop was a multi-purpose nightclub, restaurant, barbershop and hotel that played an outsized role in rhythm & blues.

During segregation, Black entertainers and patrons could eat, drink, spend the night and see a show that might include a ventriloquist, magician, exotic dancer, Ray Charles, James Brown, Aretha Franklin, Little Richard, Etta James, Marvin Gaye, Tina Turner or a local luminary.

Guests make their way into the Dew Drop Inn in New Orleans, Friday, March 1, 2024. (Photo by Brett Duke, | The Times-Picayune)

By the early 1970s, the music had stopped, after desegregation opened other venues to Black performers and patrons. The Dew Drop’s hotel hung on until Hurricane Katrina.

Following the storm, the building sat empty and decrepit until Curtis Doucette Jr., founder of the New Orleans/New York real estate firm Iris Development, bought it.

Three years and $11 million dollars later, Doucette and his team revealed the Dew Drop Inn version 2.0.

It encompasses a 385-capacity music venue and bar, 17 hotel rooms named for musicians, a pool, a small museum and two second-floor suites overlooking the stage.

At lunchtime Friday, invited guests toasted the ceremonial ribbon-cutting. Doucette thanked a long list of partners as his two-year-old grandson, Max, provided unscripted exhortations.

Raising sufficient funds was a “monumental task” aided by historic renovation tax credits, Doucette said.

“At times it seemed like not a lot of people believed in our ability to get this project done.”

Going forward, he believes musicians “will be inspired by the history of this place. When musicians step on this stage, we will get the best of them every time.

“When you walk into this building, you feel yesterday, but somehow still feel today.”

‘It doesn’t look like the old place’
Following the speeches, “Deacon” John Moore led a horn-heavy band through a set of New Orleans rhythm & blues as guests mingled.

“I’m one of the few cats alive that played here” in the 1950s, he noted.

Deacon John performs as music returns to the Dew Drop Inn in New Orleans, Friday, March 1, 2024. (Photo by Brett Duke, | The Times-Picayune)

“The Dew Drop was the catalyst for the promotion and preservation of the indigenous culture of New Orleans. Everybody hung out here because we couldn’t go to the White clubs. We couldn’t go on Bourbon Street.”

The new stage, Moore said, is bigger than the original – though still low to the ground – and in a different spot.

“It doesn’t look like the old place. It’s bigger and better,” Moore said. “I never thought I’d live to see this happen.”

Trumpeter, bandleader and future Rock ‘n’ Roll Hall of Fame inductee Dave Bartholomew, who produced and co-wrote most of Fats Domino hits, was a Dew Drop regular. As his health declined prior to his 2019 death at age 100, he’d ask his son Don Bartholomew to drive him past old haunts. They’d sometimes sit in the car outside the darkened Dew Drop.

“He’d tell stories about when he and Fats would come here,” Don Bartholomew said at Friday’s ribbon-cutting. “They felt free here. They were able to be themselves. They could live life to the fullest in the Dew Drop.”

If his father were still alive, Don said, “he would have come today. He loved this place.”

Photographer “Polo Silk” Terrell grew up in the 2800 block of Magnolia Street, not far from the Dew Drop. His photos and Polaroids from the formative years of New Orleans hip-hop were featured in a 2017 book “Pop That Thang!!!!” and a 2022 New Orleans Museum of Art exhibit.

He’d hang his photo backdrops outside the shuttered Dew Drop to photograph second-line marchers. Some of his photos, including one of rapper Juvenile, are included in the reborn Dew Drop’s décor.

The crowd shows their enthusiasm as Irma Thomas performs at the Dew Drop Inn in New Orleans, Friday, March 1, 2024. (Photo by Brett Duke, | The Times-Picayune)

“That means the world to me,” Terrell said. “I’m just a snotty nosed kid from the projects. I didn’t know my work would mean something.”

Jessie Hill, who wrote and sang the New Orleans R&B classic “Ooh Poo Pah Doo,” played the Dew Drop in its heyday. His photo now hangs upstairs, a source of pride for his grandson, trumpeter James Andrews.

“All my life, I’ve been passing by this place,” Andrews said. “I dreamed that the music would be playing again in here.”

As of Friday, it is.

Irma sings the hits
Opening night included DJ Raj Smoove, whose father, pianist Roger Dickerson Sr., gigged at the original Dew Drop. The Dew Drop Legacy Revue Band backed Deacon John and singers Charmaine Neville and Quiana Lynell.

At 9:36 p.m., Thomas emerged in a sparkling ensemble.

“They’ve done a beautiful job renovating it,” she declared.

She did have one complaint: an air-conditioning duct blowing across the stage. But she didn’t let it bother her. For 60 minutes, she showcased one classic after another in a voice as rich as ever.

Irma Thomas performs at the Dew Drop Inn in New Orleans, Friday, March 1, 2024. (Photo by Brett Duke, | The Times-Picayune)

One difference compared to her last time at the Dew Drop: she now glances at an iPad loaded with her lyrics.

Fans at the back of the packed room craned their necks as she lofted “Hip Shakin’ Mama,” “It’s Raining,” “Ruler of My Heart” and an audience-participation “I Done Got Over” that veered into “Iko, Iko” and “Hey Pocky Way.”

Before an encore of “Simply the Best,” she honored a request for “Time Is On My Side.”

Time, she said, “has definitely been on my side.”

And once again, it is on the Dew Drop’s.

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