In 1939, Frank Painia, a Black barber from Plaquemines Parish opened a barbershop in Central City. The barbershop at 2836 LaSalle Street was across from the Magnolia Projects, which were then under construction.
Painia began selling refreshments to the construction workers, then his brother Paul opened a 24-hour restaurant next to the shop. As the years went by, Painia purchased adjacent properties. He built a hotel, restaurant, and music lounge. The barbershop became just one part of what would become the Dew Drop Inn.
Called “one of the swankiest places in town” by The Louisiana Weekly, the Dew Drop Inn hosted music icons such as Ray Charles, Little Richard, Allen Toussaint, and Irma Thomas. Jazz, blues, R&B, and the beginnings of rock and roll all could be heard at the venue.
In addition to music, the Dew Drop Inn featured comedy shows, shake dancing, and female impersonators, including the famed Patsy Vidalia. Vidalia had a reputation for being a captivating emcee, singer, and dancer, and his Halloween Gay Ball was one of the biggest parties in the city.
For Black Americans living in segregation, venues like the Dew Drop Inn catered to them in a way larger society did not. Under Jim Crow, they were treated as second-class citizens in every aspect of life, from unequal education and career opportunities to not being served at lunch counters.
But within the walls of the Dew Drop, Black people found refuge from racism. Here they were able to watch entertainment by Black performers and enjoy refreshments served by neatly uniformed waitstaff.
The inn was listed in the “Negro Motorist Green Book,” which was a traveler’s guide for Black people that provided a list of hotels, restaurants, bars, service stations and other establishments throughout the country that served Black patrons.
Dew Drop was also considered part of the Chitlin’ Circuit, a collection of Black-owned juke joints, clubs and venues that were known to be safe for Black performers during the Jim Crow era. The circuit stretched across the Deep South, East Coast and Midwestern regions of the United States.
The Dew Drop was a venue where audiences and entertainers of diverse races and genders mixed freely. Police frequently raided the establishment to arrest patrons for “racial mixing.” Painia never let his patrons get charged without him, and often would demand to be arrested in solidarity. In early 1964, Painia and his attorney A.P. Tureaud, sued the city in response to the segregation laws he believed to be unconstitutional.
In a sour twist of irony, the Civil Rights Act of 1964 was the beginning of the end for the inn. The integration of public spaces opened a new world of nightclubs and jazz lounges where Black entertainers could perform, and many of them took their talents and audiences to more popular, formerly white-only establishments.
As the Dew Drop grew quieter and emptier, the restaurant within it closed and the all-night vaudeville performances became a distant memory. Painia’s health also took a downturn and he died in 1972.
After decades of operating with only the hotel and barbershop open, the Dew Drop Inn closed its doors for good in 2005 after Hurricane Katrina. For years it sat dilapidated, the seafoam green paint flaking onto the street with every additional rain storm it weathered.
In 2010, the Dew Drop was given Historic Landmark status and listed as an endangered New Orleans site by the Louisiana Landmarks society.
Property developer Curtis Doucette Jr. is changing that. Doucette purchased the inn and has plans to “revive” it to its former glory by bringing the Dew Drop’s rich history into a new boutique hotel.
The revived inn will be reminiscent of how it existed in the 1950s. The project is partially funded by historic tax credits, and is held to the Department of the Interiors’ standard for historical preservation, said Lauren Usher, the director of communications for the Dew Drop Inn.
The new Dew Drop will include a 400-person music venue, bar, swimming pool, and 17 hotel rooms, each themed after a Dew Drop Inn legend. Developers are currently working to source archival items, images, videos, and audio recordings to make visiting the Dew Drop a “multi-sensory” experience.
Despite the historic reverence, the Dew Drop is looking toward the future. The venue aims to host renowned musicians but, in the same style as Painia, showcasing up-and-coming local talent will be of utmost importance.
“We would love for [the revival] to be a catalyst for a lot of interest and growth,” Usher said about the LaSalle Street Corridor.
The renovated Dew Drop Inn is under construction and is scheduled to open in the fall of 2023.
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