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How’s Bayou? I Can’t Sleep!

If you think noise in the French Quarter is bad these days, try on the 1940s for size.

John McCrady, I Can't Sleep, 1933/48

John McCrady, I Can’t Sleep, 1933/48

Meetings to block a restaurant, or to cap noise levels around Bourbon Street, would have been met with a yawn from frequently-sleep-deprived Vieux-Carre-resident and celebrated 1930/40s Southern Regionalist painter John McCrady, perhaps best known for his dramatic Dick-Tracy-style masterpiece, “The Shooting of Huey Long,” which was commissioned by Life magazine in 1939.

When Millie and I lived on Chartres Street, across from the side of the Royal Orleans hotel, we marveled at how it seemed de rigueur for visitors passing our house to shout at the top of their lungs. If you didn’t, it seemed, you just weren’t having a good time, especially around 2 a.m.

Then came the Wednesday night convocations of bikers at a bar at the corner of St. Peter and Bourbon streets, most easily accessed via a route that took participants roaring past our house. We shrugged, firmly shut the third-floor board-and-batten shutters and bounced off to sleep.

John McCrady, Carnival in New Orleans, 1947

John McCrady, Carnival in New Orleans, 1947

Artist Peterson Moon Yokum, son of original Hove Parfumers Jules and Rita, still occupies the family manse on Toulouse street, between Royal and Bourbon, where music from Pat O’Brien’s seems to be making his life a living hell. Peter is of a more sensitive nature than his mother, Rita, who while propelling her classic woodie at high speed over dirt roads in Mississippi on her way to visit her rich aunt in Birmingham in the early 1930s, with my terrified mother in the passenger seat, flipped the car over in a double roll and calmly resumed driving as soon as it was firmly uprighted.

Opponents of the proposed Habana Outpost venue at the corner of Esplanade Avenue and North Rampart Street, enamored of the decaying, abandoned filling station on the site, an eyesore for decades, fear the entertainment, pedestrian traffic and noise they envision, preferring not to be able to walk in the area late at night because it’s often deserted.

But John McCrady couldn’t sleep, at least between 1933 and 1950, if art works spanning those years are any indication. In 1933, living in an apartment on St. Ann Street, across from the side of the Presbytere, McCrady commenced sketches for a major painting, “I Can’t Sleep,” which he only completed in 1948. His inspiration, he wrote an artist friend, Clyde Singer, in 1936, was the carousing in the apartments around him:

“I am cutting the building in two, showing the life inside as well as out. It’s an interesting old place with patios and balconies. I’m showing myself on the ground floor, sitting up in bed with my hands over my ears trying to shut out the noise coming from a big party on the second floor. One of those parties given by Med. students. On the top attic floor a woman walks a brawling brat while her husband snores. Outside, the moon, stars, chimneys, smoke etc. Sounds like too much stuff for one picture, but I think I have it fixed so I can handle it all.”

By 1947, he was reveling in the pleasures of Mardi Gras in the Quarter, producing incisive renditions of revelers in the book “Mardi Gras Day” and a general view of street and balcony-level pandemonium in the lithograph “Carnival in New Orleans.

John McCrady, The Parade, 1950

John McCrady, The Parade, 1950

In 1950, McCrady artistically sliced open another French Quarter building, in which he had a studio, this time at the corner of Orleans and Dumaine streets. The more garish colors of “The Parade” reflect the revelry in the streets and the elaborate float passing by. This time, the relentless artist seems too busy to notice the confusion outside as he concentrates on capturing the model for his dramatic painting “Heaven Bound,” which he based on a religious “opera,” performed in Southern Baptist churches at the time, about temptation and redemption.

Several years later, McCrady found sensory redemption in a building he occupied in the relative quiet of the 900 block of Bourbon Street, where he established the John McCrady Art School, alma mater of such artists as Henry Caselli, Roland Golden, Alan Flattmann and graphic designer Jeanne Delahoussaye. Later, the ground floor became Mary’s True Value Hardware, known to connoisseurs as the only hardware store where you could buy a pink feather boa.

But whoever wins the new auditory battles in the Vieux Carre, the age-old question remains: If a drunk falls down on Bourbon Street, and there’s no one around, does he make a noise when he hits the ground?


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