to Statues and Feeling the Blues: The Quarter’s Rich
Street Performance Traditions
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Quarter Street Performers & Artists
Ask Maria Stankus what she does for a living
and she’ll tell you she does nothing. In a sense that’s
true, but she does nothing so well that people want to pose with
her for photos and fill her tip jar with cash all day long.
Maria is a street performer in the French
Quarter and, as a human statue, part of her job is to stand completely
still. She can usually be found on the edge of Jackson Square
with her skin covered in metallic gold paint, dressed in a matching
antique wedding gown with an eight-foot train spread over the
paving stones. Some visitors have dubbed her the Jilted Bride,
and set against the backdrop of Spanish colonial architecture
and the spires of St. Louis Cathedral she presents a visage that
is ghostly and atmospheric.
She may be motionless, but she’s hardly
doing nothing. Rather, Maria and those who ply similar trades
in New Orleans are vital components of what makes the French
Quarter such an intriguing and colorful place.
The French Quarter is the outdoor workplace
for artists and musicians, tarot-card readers and fortune tellers,
clowns and tap dancers and many others. Next door to the Café du
Monde coffee stand, a high-energy troupe of tumblers works through
a sidewalk floor show to a thumping hip hop soundtrack, while
across the street a lone young man wanders the Square offering
on-the-spot jokes for donations. Wander down Royal Street and
you may find an escape artist wrapped in chains, a puppeteer,
magicians in top hats and a lady of a certain age – known
as Big Mama – who wears a church dress and veil and bangs
out honky tonk numbers on an electric keyboard.
Lose Your Blues
“People come up and say ‘we moved down here because of y’all’,” says
the Royal Street blues musician known almost universally as Grandpa.
Repeat visitors certainly have no trouble
recognizing the 60-year-old harmonica slinger, with his bushy,
snow-white beard, trademark overalls and tenaciously defended
spot at the intersection of Royal and Toulouse streets. Blind
in one eye, he wears silver-framed glasses with no lenses on
which he has secured a small round mirror in front of his good
eye. “It helps you see who’s talking about you behind
your back,” Grandpa says.
People come to New Orleans for music and culture,
he says, and street performers are right there to provide it
amid the shops, restaurants and other attractions of the Quarter.
“A lot of people have the blues, even
if they don’t know it,” Grandpa explains. “People
go on vacation because they have the blues. They’re tired
of their boss, they’re tired of the same four walls. When
you need to get away from something, that means you have the
blues. People come by and hear us and they can relate.”
of New Orleans Culture
The street performance scene is perhaps most highly concentrated
at Jackson Square, which is home to its own vibrant and newly
resurgent artist colony. Art in the Square has been a part of
the French Quarter since Civil War days when war widows are said
to have sold paintings here to support their families. Today,
it is the outdoor marketplace for an array of artists with a
wide range of styles and backgrounds.
There’s William Warren, for instance,
who taught both high school and college art courses in Providence,
R.I., before moving to New Orleans. He now displays his vividly
colored, almost fluid contemporary artwork on the wrought iron
fence surrounding Jackson Square in the shade of oak boughs.
While many performers follow the seasons and travel to other
tourist destinations during the very hot New Orleans summers,
William says most of his fellow artists in the Square work and
live in the city year-round. William himself runs his own gallery,
called the Waiting Room, along with his partner Pati D’Amico
in the nearby Bywater neighborhood.
Every Day You Wake
Up Is a Vacation
Many visitors are drawn to Jackson Square by the sounds of traditional
jazz provided daily by a “house band,” alternately
called the Jackson Square Band or the Jackson Square All-Stars.
This varying amalgamation of anywhere from nine to 14 musicians
may appear ad hoc, but there is a structure and professionalism
among the players that ensures entertainment for visitors in
the square nearly everyday.
“I play every day, all year-round. Vacations?
Every day you wake up is a vacation,” says Andy Kauffman,
who has played the stand-up bass for the band since 1997. A native
of Pennsylvania, Andy wears a distinctive turban fashioned from
a T-shirt to shelter himself from the sun. His instrument, too,
is wrapped in fabric to protect it from long hours of exposure
in the square.
“I don’t ever expect to retire,” he
says. “I don’t ever expect to not be playing the
bass. Even if I win the lottery, I’ll be living better,
but I’ll still get up the next day and play here because
that’s what I do.”
Unlike the wandering entertainers provided
at resorts and theme parks, the musicians and performers in the
French Quarter are a spontaneous manifestation of New Orleans
culture, and they rely on the generosity of their sidewalk audiences
to make a living.
The bluesy-country duo David Leonard and Roselyn
Lionhart – a husband-and-wife team better known as just
David and Roselyn – have been at it in the streets of the
Quarter since 1975, through a career that has spawned six albums
and frequent tours to the West Coast and overseas. The couple
has four grown children who they have put through school by performing
in the French Quarter, including the singer Arlee Leonard, who
is also a teacher and writer in New York. She says her parents’ Royal
Street workplace has provided her with a unique way to keep in
touch between visits home.
“I always tell my friends, when you
go to New Orleans walk down Royal and say hi to my mom and dad
for me,” says Arlee.
Ian McNulty is a freelance food writer
and columnist, a frequent commentator on the New Orleans entertainment
talk show “Steppin’ Out” and editor of the
guidebook “Hungry? Thirsty? New Orleans.”