Tuesday, December 18, 2018

Celebration in the Oaks

            New Orleans City Park is known for its collection of live oak trees, Botanical Garden, and the New Orleans Museum of Art. The live oaks are perhaps the most famous part of the park. Some are over six hundred years old and predate the European settlement of Louisiana. The park grounds themselves have a rich and diverse history. The area started out as a dueling ground where male residents of New Orleans could settle their disputes outside of the watchful eyes of city authorities. In the 1850s, a district court created the park out of land left to the city by a deceased plantation owner. By the end of the 19thcentury, the City Park Improvement Association was founded to begin transforming the land into the park that we know today. It was not until the 1980s, however, that one of the park’s most popular and beloved traditions came into existence: Celebration in the Oaks

            In 1984, the Botanical Garden was in need of a new fundraising campaign to fuel the organization’s growth. Mary Rodgers, the chair of the Park’s PR Committee, wanted to drape lights in the Park’s oak trees. However, the idea was too expensive for the time and instead the director of the Botanical Garden, Paul Soniat created a program called “A Tribute to a Christmas Tree” where local artists decorated Christmas Trees. They were displayed in a tent at the Garden. 

            The idea of decorating the oak trees in lights never went away. For a few years, there were small light displays around the Garden. Those in charge of the park believed that a larger light display would be popular, but it took several years for a plan to come into place. In 1987, the oaks at the front of the Park finally were covered in lights. A local energy company designed a way of powering the lights and underwrote the cost of the electricity. By installing the lights at the entrance to the Park, park management had created a whole other way for visitors to experience the lights—in their cars. Before visitors had to walk around the Botanical Garden to view the displays. Now with the lights spread out through the park, guests never had to leave their cars. This meant that many more people could see the lights at any given time. More lights and more people naturally meant growing the size and scope of the event. So Charles Foti, a local sheriff, organized the construction and installation of holiday exhibits including a “Cajun Christmas Village.”       

            By 1991, the Celebration in the Oaks received over 350,000 visitors. The popularity of the event led to the creation of additional garden areas and child’s play areas. Over the years, the Park has added a charity walk/run, guided tours, a miniature train, floats, and a host of other attractions. Like the rest of the city, City Park was damaged by Hurricane Katrina, but the organizers of Celebration in the Oaks managed to pull off an abbreviated version in 2005 and as the city recovered from the storm, the celebration grew once again in scope. 

            Currently, the Celebration features nearly 600,000 lights, attracting over 165,000 people per year. The fundraiser provides 13% of City Park’s yearly operating budget. It opens on the Friday after Thanksgiving and closes on January 3. And it’s a New Orleans holiday tradition that is not to be missed. 

Tuesday, December 11, 2018

Bonfires on the River

           The French, Spanish, German, Haitian, West African, Caribbean, Vietnamese, and other ethnic groups that have settled Louisiana in the past three hundred plus years have fused together to create a culture unique to Louisiana. In honor of the Christmas season, let's talk about a Louisiana tradition: Christmas Eve bonfires. 

             On Christmas Eve, and more generally in the month of December, residents of Louisiana who live along the Mississippi river, especially between New Orleans and Baton Rouge, construct bonfires on the earthen levees that surround the river. Most of the time, the levees protect the surrounding homes from flood waters. These areas of high ground also make them prime locations for the construction of bonfires. Tradition holds that the bonfires are intended to help Santa Claus—or as the Cajuns call him Papa Noel, because of course the Cajuns have their own name—find his way to the homes of residents of Southern Louisiana. Louisianans construct wooden pyramid like structures, with smaller support logs that give them the appearance of fences. This is the typical appearance for one of these structures, but over the years people have become more artistic in their creations. Many pay homage to Louisiana’s culture, taking the shape of famous plantation homes, paddleboats, or even the ubiquitous crawfish. St. James Parish, located about 30-40 miles upriver from New Orleans, has the heaviest concentration of bonfires, especially in the towns of Gramercy, Lutcher, and Paulina. Lutcher even hosts the annual Festival of the Bonfires at Lutcher Recreational Park where they feature live entertainment, food, local crafts, and of course, bonfires. 

            The origins of the Christmas Eve bonfires are not entirely clear. French and German immigrants settled in St. James Parish in the early 18th century. One theory holds that these settlers continued European traditions of holding bonfires on or around the winter and summer solstices after they established themselves in Louisiana. These original pagan practices were incorporated into Christian beliefs as a way of smoothing the way for conversion. The historical record, however, does not support the claim of a widespread practice of bonfires until the 1920s and 1930s. Groups of young men formed bonfire clubs, where they cut down trees, stripped them of their branches, and dragged them to the levees. After constructing the pyramid-like structures, people filled with rubber tires and other flammable materials. After World War 2, the bonfires grew in popularity due to the development of St. James and the surrounding river parishes. And in a rare victory for environmentalism in Louisiana, local governments banned the burning of rubber tires and other toxins—recognizing that they were bad for people’s health. Now these events serve as important cultural and communal events. As with many of Louisiana’s great traditions, they provide an opportunity to listen to music, eat delicious food, and for people to come together as a community and celebrate the holiday season.  

            The tradition of Christmas Eve bonfires reflects the unique cultural forces that have shaped Louisiana’s colorful history.

Tuesday, December 4, 2018

Movies Set In New Orleans and Louisiana

Photograph from the first film, Dupont, shot in New Orleans 

           From the earliest beginnings of the movie industry, filmmakers have long flocked to New Orleans and Louisiana. The first film shot in the city was in 1898 and it was called Dupont. The film was about a torpedo boat. By the 1950s, New Orleans became a popular location for movie shoots, due to the number of stories set in the Crescent City and Louisiana’s unique blend of geography, architecture, and accessibility. Where else can you film in a swamp one day, a 19thcentury plantation house, and an above ground cemetery all just miles apart? 

            Presently, the state of Louisiana offers tax incentives to productions to film in New Orleans. As a result, movies ranging from White House Down to 12 Years a Slave to Easy Rider have all been shot in Louisiana. There's also a steady stream of TV shows like NCIS: New Orleans and American Horror Story. With all this in mind, let’s turn to some famous movies set in New Orleans or Louisiana that are worth your time. 

Jezebel (1938): Let’s start with an old Hollywood classic. This is a movie very much of its time—Lost Cause nostalgia in the depictions of slavery for instance—and it was a Hollywood effort to tell a Jane Austen type story. Set in 1852, a New Orleans belle named Julie Marsden (Bette Davis) is engaged to a banker named Preston Dillard (Henry Fonda). She’s strong-willed and vain and he’s a noble doctor. She humiliates him, he humiliates her, there’s a duel where some poor sap gets killed and then they all end up quarantined on an island with yellow fever. The film is gorgeous to look at, but it's best not to think about the plot too much. 

A Streetcar Named Desire (1951): With an all-star cast featuring Marlon Brando and Vivian Leigh and an all-time great director, Elia Kazan, A Streetcar Named Desire is set in New Orleans and revolves around the delusions of faded southern dame, Blanche DuBois, and her brutish brother-in-law Stanley. This version of the Tennessee Williams play is worth a watch, even if you’ve seen the play. The Simpsons famously satirized the play and city in a classic early season episode, drawing the ire of some residents. 

Easy Rider (1969): A film about an LSD trip that’s also structured like an LSD trip. Dennis Hopper and Peter Fonda are a pair of bikers on a road trip where they sell drugs, make money, and get high. Along the way, they head to New Orleans for Mardi Gras. The film is a great look at the city in the late 1960s. 

The Big Easy (1986): A classic New Orleans story about the city’s legendary corruption. Ellen Barkin plays a district attorney investigating a murder involving a bunch of crooked cops. Only the problem is police counterpart in the film, played by Dennis Quaid, is also crooked as hell. The NOPD does a couple things really well: crowd control and corruption. 

12 Years a Slave (2013): Based on the true account of Solomon Northup, a free African-American who was kidnapped and sold into slavery in Louisiana, the film is unsparing in its depictions of American slavery. It is a useful corrective to films like Jezebel and Gone with the Wind. Northup eventually regains his freedom, but not before witnessing a wide range of the horrors. It also has Brad Pitt!  

Ella Brennan: Commanding the Table (2016): A wonderful documentary about the matriarch of the famous Brennan restaurant family in New Orleans. Ella Brennan passed away earlier this year, but if you’ve ever been to Commander’s Palace or any of the other Brennan family restaurants (there’s a whole bunch of them) and enjoyed the hospitality, that’s because of Ella Brennan. A powerful figure who led her family’s restaurant group after the death of her older brother, she’s also the creator of the dessert classic Bananas Foster. Under her guidance, chefs Paul Prudhomme and Emeril Lagasse became culinary superstars. Even today, her influence continues to reverberate in the New Orleans culinary landscape.